Like many other five-year-old boys, Ray Fantel loves “everything baseball.”
Unlike others, the Kendall Park boy cannot run after a ball in the outfield or slide home. At just five months old he was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a terminal form of muscular dystrophy with a life expectancy of two years.
This year Ray, a big Yankees fan, got to be on a baseball team when he was adopted by the Princeton University Tigers. The connection was made through Team IMPACT, an organization that matches youngsters with life-threatening or chronic illnesses with college sports teams to improve their quality of life.
Since October, Ray and his seven-year-old brother, Ethan, have joined team members for practices and have come to know the players and coaches.
“They are a lovely group of young men,” said the boys’ mother, Marcy. “The players got in touch with the boys to talk about their favorite foods, teams, and nicknames. “We felt like we knew them even before we met them.”
At the first practice, the boys were given sports necessities — T-shirts, megaphones, foam fingers, banners, sunflower seeds, and bubble gum — that made them feel “like part of the team,” Marcy said.
Ray is now in kindergarten in South Brunswick, although because of his frailty, during the cold and flu season his teacher taught him at home, said Marcy. She and her husband, Matthew, are now making plans with their synagogue, Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, to enroll Ray in religious school.
Team practices were held twice weekly indoors during the winter, said Marcy, and now run five or six days a week. Ethan will often take some swings in the batting cage or chase some balls.
Ray will play tag with his “teammates” and “likes to lighten the mood during practice by driving his power wheelchair on the field and wreaking havoc,” said his mother.
“This has been such a positive aspect of both boys’ lives,” she said. “The players really made the boys feel like part of the team.”
Marcy said the coaches have even told her to bring Ethan for some much-needed respite during Ray’s all-too-frequent hospitalizations.
The Fantels were looking forward to the Tigers’ home opener on March 29, where Ray was to be part of some festivities, but the game was rained out.
The team spirit has been felt on both sides.
“Being part of Team IMPACT has been a tremendous experience for everyone associated with our team,” said head coach Scott Bradley. “We have all enjoyed getting to know the family, and our players look forward to the days Ray and Ethan come to practice.
“Watching how the Fantels live life is a great lesson for all of us. We look forward to sharing great memories.”