World Golf Championships: The Fall and Rise of Bailey

Successfully treated by St. Jude, 14-year-old Bailey is the artistic inspiration behind FootJoy's custom shoes for PGA Tour pro golfer Justin Thomas.

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  •  4 min

Dakota and Reid

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Bailey was running an off-road race with his dad, Stephen, when he fell that first time. It was winter, the terrain was rough, so they didn’t make too much of it. Bailey got back up, with his dad’s help, and started running again.

He fell a second time. And again, he got back up and kept running.

“I wasn’t worried at all,” says Bailey, who was about to turn 12. “I just thought I fell. It was like a pit. It was hard to walk through there. A lot of people were falling.”

Little did they know, but Bailey’s cancer — osteosarcoma, a bone tumor — was beginning to reveal itself.

And in the days that followed, Bailey’s mom, Kimberly, a pediatric physical therapist and two-time cancer survivor, was watching. “Hoping,” she says, “that I wasn’t seeing what I was seeing. He would kind of guard his leg when he went up the stairs. It was kind of subtle, but I could tell.

“Of course you hope not. You go through every scenario but the cancer one.”

A few days after that ill-fated race in January 2017, Kimberly had seen enough to call the orthopedist. An X-ray revealed the tumor on Bailey’s left femur. Suddenly, the family was bound for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, for treatment that would span most of the year and include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, limb-sparing surgery and multiple other surgeries and procedures, so many the family can’t give an exact count.

But this isn’t a story about falling down. It isn’t even a story about cancer, really.

It’s a story about getting up, a story about living.

The comeback kid

Life is good.

Bailey, now 14 and successfully treated by St. Jude, rides his bike over “every inch,” Stephen says, of the Memphis suburb where the family lives. Unable to play baseball, his favorite sport, he’s still found his way back to the diamond — as an umpire for coach-pitch games.

He’s also taken up golf, and has combined it with another interest — art — for a role in the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. His drawings (including fish and a yellow ribbon representing sarcoma awareness) have been incorporated into the design of a pair of FootJoy shoes that will be presented to PGA Tour golfer Justin Thomas during the WGC.

UPDATE: Justin received his custom shoes - and loved them!

He loves to fish and swim. He loves dogs ­— the family’s Boston Terriers, Oscar and Sophie, and the Bulldogs of Mississippi State University, where his parents met as students.

He’s something of a renaissance kid, actually. He has an interest in cameras, and loves to “mess with gadgets,” his mom says. He can solve a Rubik’s Cube in the time it takes to make a sandwich, and is a whiz with a yo-yo.

Bailey family photo

Credit: Tindall Farmer Photography

“Honestly, anything,” Kimberly says of her son’s interests and talents. “If he decides he’s going to do it, he will practice it and practice it.”

Just don’t ask him to talk about it.

Bailey is quiet, really quiet. Over the course of an hour-long visit to the family’s home, he betrays little of what he’s thinking, although his dry sense of humor shows itself when he explains why his return to baseball came as an umpire, rather working in the concession stand.

“You make $5 more umpiring,” he says.

The next day, Kimberly emails to say:

Bailey is a little like an onion, you have to kind of peel back the layers — which is kind of hard to capture in an interview for sure. He’s a wonderful wise old soul in a teenager body and while he doesn’t want any real recognition for how far he’s come, he inspires us all to do better and more. It’s an honor to be his mom.

There’s something apt about Bailey’s reserve. He tells his story through actions, not words. Show, don’t tell — the advice given to every storyteller is a perfect summation of Bailey’s style.

And then there’s the resolve behind the reserve. His mom still marvels at how he refused to sit in a wheelchair the entire time he was in treatment. “I guess the wheelchair to him meant he was letting cancer win,” she wrote in that email, “and he wasn’t about to be caught sitting down. One hard-headed kid.”

Bailey at the beach

The road ahead

She marvels, too, at how hard he worked to get back to his old self — and this from a mom who’s a physical therapist. She recalls the day last fall when he got back on his old bike. He couldn’t bend his knee enough to sit and pedal — so he rode standing up.

Don’t ask Bailey what he wants to be when he’s older. He doesn’t know — and if he did, he probably wouldn’t tell you anyway.

He’s 14, with his whole life ahead. Who knows what direction it might take? He seems to have a natural curiosity that leads to new interests — he’ll probably have another hobby before this sentence ends — and the mental tenacity to master them.

His mom thinks he’d make a good engineer, but Bailey says, simply, “No.”

A veterinarian?

“Uh-uh,” he says, in one of his longest answers of the day. “I don’t want to, like — you know, when a dog dies. I don’t want to do that. I don’t like that.”

Ah, so he’s sensitive, along with all those qualities that served him so well through chemo and complications and more surgeries than he could count.

He’s sensitive, along with being tough and brave with a spirit for life that would not, will not, quit.

They’re qualities that might make a fine — no, don’t speculate.

Let the story play out, this story of the fall and rise of Bailey, who prefers to show, not tell.

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