Emerson DePaz, a local 9-year-old, is officially a Lion after joining the Texas A&M University-Commerce men's basketball team through a partnership with Team IMPACT, a national nonprofit organization.
Team IMPACT, a Massachusetts-based organization, connects children with serious or chronic illnesses with local college athletics teams. Through Team IMPACT, a child battling illness becomes an official (non-playing) member of a college athletic team, attending practices, games, team dinners, and more. After two years with the team, the child graduates from the program with demonstrated improvements in their optimism, confidence, and sense of belonging.
A&M-Commerce Lion Athletics first partnered with Team IMPACT in 2018 and last year partnered with Team IMPACT again to give another child the chance to experience the camaraderie of joining the Lion family. In October 2019, the A&M-Commerce men's basketball team welcomed Emerson onto the team.
Emerson was diagnosed with Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis, a rare form of cancer, in January 2019. According to Ted Rawlings, assistant men's basketball coach and director of community service for the team, Emerson was a very active kid who had to stop doing the things he loved because of his diagnosis. He had to miss school frequently and was isolated from his peers throughout treatment. “Very small injuries could cause him lots of problems,” Rawlings said.
Rawlings said a testament to Emerson's character was when the child experienced bullying at school.
“I was told that he came home and told his mom that he thought the bully might be going through some problems to make him act that way,” Rawlings said. “Now Emerson has actually befriended his former bully.”
Through Team IMPACT, the men's basketball team was able to bring Emerson onto the squad. Their first meeting was on December 12. Deonta Terrell, a senior on the team, said a lot has changed about Emerson since that first meeting.
“When we first met him, he was in a shell,” Terrell said. “But now he has really opened up. He's much happier and he gets excited to be around us.”
Terrell and other members of the team have bonded strongly with Emerson over the past few months.
Emerson has had the opportunity to attend several practices and games for the Lions. This culminated in an official Draft Day for him on February 6, where he went through all the makings of a traditional athlete experience: getting his jersey, holding a press conference, and getting an official team picture.
Since joining the Lion basketball team, Emerson's family members have noticed a more joyful, optimistic, and positive boy who feels like he can conquer any challenge. “As long as my bros are there, I can do anything,” Emerson exclaimed.
Senior A&M-Commerce basketball player Wayne Stewart said he was glad to be a part of this experience.
“It's been rewarding to hear how much he has improved,” Stewart said. “His presence around here changes us for the better. He is very inspiring.” The men's basketball team will continue to participate in the program and work with Emerson for the next few years.