The two young golfers are walking, side by side, down the first fairway after their tee shots.
Because they’re friends, because they’re boys ages 12 and 13, because this is sport, it seems only natural to ask: Do you two talk smack to each other?
“No,” says Dakota, the 13-year-old, seemingly taken aback by the suggestion. “We’re on the same team.”
Before they reach the first green, though, it has begun — the good-natured bantering, the gentle joshing that says you’re in the company of good friends, completely at ease with each other.
Dakota is the more extroverted of the two. He can talk to the wall, his mom says. His tee shot traveled farther, so he announces, for the benefit of the reporter and photographer who are tagging along, “We’re playing a scramble, so we’ll play my ball, because it’s the best ball.”
Says Reid, 12, who is soft-spoken but playful, with a dry humor, “You really didn’t have to shout that out.”
Over the course of just a couple of holes, Reid’s prankster side comes out — he plays like he’s going to throw Dakota’s rangefinder, a handheld gadget that measures the distance to the pin, into a pond. Dakota takes his revenge on the next hole, when Reid’s tee shot doesn’t quite take flight.
“OK, Reid, you’re not good under pressure,” says Dakota, drolly.
“That’s good, Dakota. Really a team player,” says Reid.
Back and forth they go, until they find themselves sitting beside each other in the photographer’s cart, taking a break, two golf buddies relaxing on a hot, summer day.
“This is the part,” Reid says, “where we drive away together.”
It’s a nice moment in a morning of them for two boys who are bonded by more than golf, two boys whose friendship was born, out of life-threatening disease, at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Cancer tends to creep. Symptoms appear gradually, sometimes met more with curiosity than alarm. Alarm comes later, as symptoms mount and the mystery deepens, until finally — sometimes excruciatingly — there is a diagnosis. This drama can take weeks to play out.
Not so with Reid, who was 7 at the time.
“Our life changed with one question,” his mom, Michelle says. “It was on a Wednesday. He’d come home from school and was sitting at the kitchen table. I was standing and I asked him a question. I don’t even remember what the question was.
“But his right eye looked up at me and his left eye stayed straight.”
There had been no symptoms. There was no pain. Reid didn’t even realize what was happening — didn’t immediately realize anything was happening.
Michelle says, “I said, ‘What are you doing with your eyes? That’s crazy. Stop doing that.’ He was like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’”
Reid asked if he could go play. Michelle said yes, and began making phone calls.
Their pediatrician, when he saw Reid, said there were some 20 things it could be, and 12 of them were “very serious,” Michelle remembers. He sent them to the local children’s hospital.
There, they sent Michelle with Reid for an MRI. They sent Barry, Reid’s dad, with the chaplain.
“They said they had found a tumor on the muscle that holds your eyeball up in place,” Michelle says, “and they felt it was rhabdomyosarcoma,” a soft tissue cancer.
That led them to St. Jude for a 16-month saga that included proton beam radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery that carried the risk of Reid losing his eye.
The eye was spared. But Michelle says the surgeon emerged from the operation with a dire message: We have a bigger problem than losing his eye. I’ve just taken a cancer out of him that was not what I biopsied six months ago. And I don’t know what it is.
It turned out to be another tumor — ectomesenchymoma. As Michelle explains it, doctors at St. Jude felt the initial cell of the tumor split into two different types of cancer.
She tells this story from the happy remove of three years — three years since Reid’s cancer was declared to be in remission. Now he returns to St. Jude every six months for checks.
There’s still the matter of Reid’s eye. He’s on his fifth eye surgery, aimed at recreating his eye muscle, with more surgeries to come. He sees double in that eye, with no depth perception. But the prognosis is good — doctors say he’ll be able to drive a car.
For now, though, feel free to marvel at Reid’s resolve, as his parents do:
“Tremendous that he can know which golf ball to hit!” Michelle says.
Maybe it’s because he’s been a golfer for about half of his young life.
Or, as Reid answers when asked how long he’s been playing: “Five to seven. Then cancer. Then nine to now.”
Some of the best moments of his life have come to him through golf, by way of St. Jude. He was among the patients participating at the 2016 FedEx St. Jude Classic, paired with PGA Tour professional Daniel Berger. The two hit it off, and Berger won the tournament.
The next year they reunited, and Berger repeated as champion.
For this year’s World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, Reid will be honored as the Purple Eagle patient, a program in which a plane features the name of a child or grandchild of a FedEx team member. Barry, Reid’s dad, is a FedEx pilot.
Golf also gives him something to bond over with his buddy Dakota.
Golf and cancer and second chances and St. Jude.
The two were in the same school, a year apart, when all this began. They knew of each other, but that was it. Then Dakota and his family suddenly found themselves at St. Jude, trying to adjust on the fly. That’s when Michelle and Reid surprised them with a visit.
Dakota’s mom, Tricia, tells the story:
“We were downstairs eating in the cafeteria, during the middle of the day, and Michelle called and said, ‘We’re here. Where are you?’
“We sat and talked, and the boys sat and talked. And that was probably the beginning of the friendship that they’ve developed now.”
The boys don’t remember much of that conversation. School and kid stuff, mostly. But Tricia recalls Dakota afterward telling her that Reid said something to the effect of, It’s going to be hard and you’re going to hate it, but you’re going to get through it. Because look at me. I have.
“He just put it out there,” Michelle says. “I remember Dakota walking away saying, ‘I’m so glad that we talked, but dang.’”
Soccer was his game. He loved it. He was good. Maybe that’s why he was able to play six games over the course of a weekend, with a mass on his chest, with his airways so blocked that he was breathing, his parents were told a day later, through the equivalent of a coffee stirrer.
Dakota was 11, and sicker than anyone knew. His face was swollen. It looked, his mom says, like he had no neck. His doctor ordered a CT scan, and then the working theory of what ailed him — something to do with the tonsils — gave way to diagnosis: T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
From the soccer pitch to St. Jude, in a matter of days — everything was happening so quickly.
“The first thing Dakota asked, laying in a hospital bed,” Tricia remembers, “is ‘Do I get to play soccer?’ And the second thing he asked is, ‘Is it treatable?’ Those were his two questions. And then, ‘Will it hurt?’”
The answers: No, for now. Yes. And yes.
“It was hard,” Dakota says, remembering that moment when his illness suddenly had a name, and a treatment plan that could last two-and-a-half years.
He pauses, then says, “I mean, you’ve just gotta do what you’ve gotta do.”
And so he has. “Every side effect Dakota could get, he got it,” Tricia says, but he’s persevered through them all, from pancreatitis to mucositis to foot drop. He’s relearned his motor skills, after losing his muscles; he was in a wheelchair, then a walker, and now walks the golf course under his own power. And he copes, still, with chemotherapy and the cruel consistency of its effects — a migraine that strikes, like clockwork, three days after each of his weekly treatments.
“He’s tougher than me and dad, I’ll tell you that,” Tricia says. “I think the Lord gives them some type of strength that they need to get through it. We’ve met a lot of people here, and a lot of other families who have gone through stuff, and the kids are just — they have a grace that I can’t even understand.”
Dakota has even coped with the loss of soccer, by finding a sport he’s come to love even more.
But then, the whole family might have seen this golf thing coming. Dakota’s dad, Steve, was a pro golfer who competed on developmental tours, with Tricia as his caddie, before they had children.
“We played a lot up north. That was where Dakota’s name came from,” Tricia says. “We played the Dakotas Tour, which was a mini-tour that played North and South Dakota and Minnesota.
“We used to laugh when we would play other tournaments and stuff, my husband and I, or just other things in life. We would laugh and go, ‘We got through the Dakotas. We can get through anything.’
“So when we found out we were having Dakota, we were like, ‘Hey, that’s a good name.’”
The little boy grew up around the game, watching his dad. “We’ve got pictures of him when he was a little baby,” Tricia says. “We had a practice room upstairs, and his dad would hit balls into a net and stuff. And he would just sit there and laugh — just giggle and laugh, because he thought the sound was neat.”
As Dakota got older, he’d go to the course with his dad. But when it came to playing a sport, Dakota gravitated to another game known for low scores — soccer.
Two years ago, he tried out for the state’s No. 2 ranked team in his age group. He made the team despite already showing the symptoms that would ultimately be diagnosed as leukemia.
“Soccer is Dakota’s life,” Tricia said in an interview during Dakota’s first months as a St. Jude patient. “He’s a goalie and he loves it. He commands the field. He’s not afraid to be boisterous out there and take over.
“That was the biggest hit of the whole thing, wasn’t it? Now he doesn’t get to play.”
Two years later, golf’s his game. He loves it. He’s good.
“I want to take it all the way,” Dakota says when asked about his ambitions. “That’s my goal.”
Another golf pro in the family?
“It’s going to be a lot of work,” Tricia says to her son. “It’s a lot of work for any of them. I can say that because I’ve seen your daddy do it. It takes a lot of work.
“But, he’s got the skill, and he’s 13. If he continues to work from now on, he’ll be there.”
Bonded by sport, and St. Jude
Today’s session is practice for tomorrow’s match. Reid and Dakota play in the PGA Jr. League, for a team called the Foot Soldiers.
They practice putting, then hit the driving range. Then they play a couple of holes, scramble-style. They banter and josh. Afterward, they pose for a picture, arms around each other and smiling.
Two boys who look like they haven’t a care in the world.
Two boys bonded by cancer, and the place that’s saving them from it.