When the going gets tough for the Central York High School Panthers and the boys are up against it, the players find themselves looking for inspiration from Tucker Haas, a little kid in a No. 23 jersey on the sideline.
“He fills us up with motivation,” a player named Wayne told TODAY’s Hoda Kotb on Monday. “Whenever anything gets hard and we need to grind something out, we just look over there and we want to keep going.”
“We’re playing the game for him,” adds a teammate, Drew.
Tucker’s just 7 and barely clears the knees of some of the bigger players. As the players talked with Kotb on Rockefeller Plaza, Tucker held onto a football and looked as if he weren’t quite sure what all the fuss was about. The kids behind him, after all, have been his team for three seasons now. It was even written in bold orange letters on the black T-shirts the team wore — “Tucker’s Team.”
He was just 5 back then in 2005, and already in his third year battling a rare and dangerous cancer — soft-tissue carcinoma. His mother, Lisa Haas, had discovered a lump near his ear when he was just 2, starting multiple rounds of chemotherapy, crises and hospital stays.
He was a regular and happy kid who loves sports, especially football and basketball. And from when he was 2, he spent half his life in Pennsylvania hospitals as he fought through three relapses of the disease, refusing to yield to it.
His uncle, Matt Baker, is an assistant coach on the Central York team, and he was the one who suggested introducing Tucker to the team.
Brad Livingston, the head coach, invited the then 5-year-old to watch the second half of the team’s second game from the sideline.
He’s been there ever since.
Baker had thought being on the sideline would elevate his nephew’s spirits. Little did he know it would work the other way, too, that he would so inspire the team they would dedicate their games to him.
The Panthers won a divisional championship that year, and have gone 22-11 since they’ve become Tucker’s Team. Last year, when they weren’t sure if he’d make it through another relapse, they outfitted him in pads and helmet and, with the complicity of their opponents, lined up before the start of game and ran a play for him, clearing his way to the end zone.
Tucker won that round, and since February, he’s been free of the carcinoma. But Central York is still his team.
He sends them out of the locker room before every game, held up high by a player or coach, and gives them the only pep talk they need, a high-pitched and heartfelt exhortation to “Just win, baby!” He gets in the team huddle with them, exchanges high-fives when they come off the field, cheers their triumphs, shares their defeats.
“I think he’s put everything in perspective for our entire community and our football team,” Coach Livingston told Kotb. “A lot of the other schools surrounding the area have picked up the chant. They’ve raised money. People have embraced him. He’s taught us how to love the life we have and make the most of it.”
Kotb asked Tucker what’s the best part of being the leader of Tucker’s Team.
“Playing with them and running around and stuff like that,” he said.
And could he give the crowd on the plaza a demonstration of his battle cry?
“JUST WIN, BABY!” he bellowed into Kotb’s microphone.
Behind him, the Panthers — his team — erupted into cheers and applause.