Amanda Sparrin vividly remembers how excited her son, Bryson, was when she signed him up to play Challenger Little League Baseball in Webster in the spring of 2010. The charismatic five-year-old, known to everyone he met simply as “B,’’ couldn’t wait to put on a uniform, but he had one stipulation for the program’s commissioner, Ron Kampff. And this requirement would be non-negotiable.
“B loved the color red,’’ Sparrin recalled, chuckling. “So he told Ron that he would only play on teams with red caps and jerseys.”
Not a problem, a smiling Kampff told them. And, so, during the several seasons that Bryson played in the league for children with physical and mental challenges he wore his favorite color with pride and boundless joy. “He really loved game days,’’ Sparrin said. “It was one of those times when he got to feel like every other kid.”
Bryson endured much during his short, influential life that ended on April 4, 2013, just four months shy of his eighth birthday. His cerebral palsy and epilepsy resulted in roughly 30 surgeries and more than a year of hospitalization. But his challenges didn’t prevent him from living life with gusto. He and his determined mom saw to that.
Along the way, Bryson experienced the thrill of riding a horse, zipping down a zip line and smacking base hits. His journey was a reminder that it’s not the number of years in your life, but the amount of life in your years.
“Like my sister told us in her wonderful eulogy: ‘Who is to say you need to live 70 or 80 years to leave an impact on this world?’’’ Sparrin said. “My son needed only seven years. And, I know I’m biased being his mom, but what an impact he made. It’s still being felt.”
That it is. By her and numerous others. And Saturday morning, at the Ridge Park Athletic Complex in Webster, Bryson’s impact will be felt again when a ribbon cutting ceremony is held to officially open the Challenger Miracle Field of Greater Rochester. The multi-use facility is designed for people with physical and/or cognitive challenges, and features a cushioned rubberized surface to prevent injuries, wheelchair accessible dugouts and flat surfaces.
The project was the brainchild of Kampff and Don Barone, who were inspired by Bryson and scores of other ballplayers like him. There were times when Kampff and Barone wondered what they had gotten themselves into, but thanks to their Herculean efforts and the generosity of hundreds of donors, they managed to raise the $1.2 million needed to build the field.
“This really is a dream come true,’’ said Sparrin, who continues to coach Bryson’s old Challenger team. “I can’t wait to see the kids out there playing ball on a field that was built especially for them. B definitely will be there in spirit, cheering on his friends.”
Sparrin’s devotion as a volunteer coach and the manager of two group homes clearly is inspired by her son. “The way I look at it, I’m continuing his journey,’’ she said. “Just because he died doesn’t mean I stopped being his mom. And part of being his mom is being an advocate for those that need a voice. By coaching his teammates and the new kids coming into the program, and by working with adults in my group homes, I’m staying connected to B. It gives me a great sense of joy.”
Bryson’s continuing influence also is evident in Sparrin’s fiancé, Blake Dufault. Five months ago, he opened Hue Salons in Henrietta with the goal of making it accessible to everyone’s needs. He also is donating a dollar from every hair product sold to Miracle Field.
The plan is to build a fully adaptive playground next to the multiple-sports field that will be used by nearly 2,000 people throughout the Rochester area. Sparrin views it as another sign that barriers against people with disabilities—or “different abilities,” as she calls them—are being toppled. “To be able to have our own field and be accepted into the community is a beautiful thing,’’ she said. “We’ve come a long, long way to include people with different abilities, celebrating them and giving them opportunities like everyone else. We still have a long ways to go, but this is a huge step, and it speaks to Rochester’s commitment to inclusion.”
It also speaks to the decency and kindness of people. That’s something easy to forget during these fractured, occasionally hateful times. Kids like Bryson remind us of what’s truly important. They teach us so much. They live in the moment. They feel joy deeply. They express love unconditionally. They are grateful for simple things, like putting a bat to a ball or being a part of a team.
“I learned so much from my son and his teammates,’’ Sparrin said. “And I’m still learning from them. I’m flattered that people remember my son, but I want to emphasize that there are thousands of stories like his out there. There are so many kids and families dealing with things. Hopefully, fields like this one will provide them with some happy times.”
Saturday will be a bittersweet day for her. But the joy will outweigh the sadness. She will remember all the good times she shared with Bryson on ballfields. She’ll think about the extraordinary kindness Kampff and so many others have shown her. She’ll cheer on her players—her extended family, if you will.
“B would have been so excited, so amped up to be out on that field with them,’’ Sparrin said, wiping away tears. “He’d be laughing that contagious laugh of his, having a grand, old time, playing ball with his friends.”
On a Miracle Field he helped inspire, a place that truly is a field of dreams come true.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.