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Exit 243: A Journey Home

Exit 243: A Journey Home

Editor’s Note: Today, March 30th, 2015, is Chance Tetrick’s 12th birthday. This amazing little boy passed away August 4, 2014 from an incredibly rare form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The Rebel Walk is honored to present this article written by Chance’s parents, Jeff and Jenn Tetrick. 

In his short lifetime, Chance touched many with his unwavering faith, super-human strength and heartwarming love for his family and his Ole Miss Rebels. Because no one can tell Chance’s story as meanginfully as his parents, we are humbled to present their article. It is a tribute not only to their wonderful little boy, but also to those in the Ole Miss community who loved and embraced him and helped make Oxford his home.

By Jeff and Jennifer Tetrick

It was August 4, 2014 and the time was 6:37 PM EST in New York City, nearly an hour into our new pilgrimage. Even now, I recall the stillness of the East River and the bustling traffic below our hospital room. I wondered to myself if those travelers were aware of my child lying in his hospital bed, peering at the still waters between the Ole Miss and “Hotty Toddy” pictures his father had crafted and hung on his hospital window.

My child had returned home to our Savior, and I wondered if those travelers would ever know the journey he had taken to reach his final resting place. Chance, our son, possessed a champion-like spirit. He was ahead of his time, and through the fast-paced moments of life he managed to grasp the subtle, but important, messages. One of these was the importance of home and family.

The journey home

Exit 243 means "home."

Exit 243 means “home.”

Several months after Chance passed away, we were traveling home to Oxford following a trip to Memphis. We had driven that road so many times, but we noticed we felt revitalized and relieved to see the ‘University of Mississippi Exit 243’ sign.

At that moment, it dawned on us the symbolic nature this very sign has held for many years for our family–and probably many others. Somehow, this sign–this single piece of metal–solidified the closeness of home.

On August 6, 2014, forty-eight hours after he championed his final battle, Chance returned to Memphis on a flight from New York. He then left for one final trip home to Oxford. Like so many times before, he traveled south on I-55 headed toward the ‘University of Mississippi Exit 243’ sign post.

This time, however, his battered body lay in a perfect resting state for his final voyage home.

Chance enjoying "Meet The Rebels Day" in 2011. (Photo courtesy of The Tetrick Family.)

Chance enjoying “Meet The Rebels Day” in 2011. (Photo courtesy of The Tetrick Family.)

There would no longer be any commutes to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital or to our former home in Indianapolis. No longer would we hear him say, “Good. We’re almost home. Finally!” as we approached the sign.

We wonder if others know how special this road is as they travel to Rebel games or to see loved ones in Oxford. Do others sigh in relief when approaching the Exit 243 sign?

We so often took for granted the privilege of returning safely to our home planted firmly in faith.

After losing Chance and during our transition back to Oxford from New York City and Memphis, we were blessed with close friends who gathered to comfort us. Knowing the difficulty we faced in choosing to remove our precious child from life support, our friends often focused on Chance’s wonderful relationships with so many Rebels who were important parts of his life.

Chance and the Ole Miss Rebels

Chance frequently enjoyed time with Rebel players Evan Engram (L) and Ryan Buchanan (R). The two would later be pall bearers at Chance's funeral. (Photo courtesy of the Tetrick Family.)

Chance often spent time with Rebel players Evan Engram (L) and Ryan Buchanan (R). The two were later pall bearers at Chance’s funeral. (Photo courtesy of the Tetrick Family.)

Chance created lasting memories here in Oxford. His love for Ole Miss developed long before the leukemia. Fond memories of him dressed in Rebel gear at “Meet the Rebels Day” and the enjoyment he felt as he attended games with his father and sister fill our souls with hope.

This hope illuminates the truth of Coach Hugh Freeze’s message about our Ole Miss team traversing out of the wilderness. In many ways, this same hope is pulling us out of the wilderness of grief and suffering.

Like our Rebels, Chance led a purposeful journey on this earth. The night of his cardiac arrest he asked his nurse to pray with him. While praying, he prayed for her, our soldiers, Rebel tight end Evan Engram; quarterback Ryan Buchanan; Coach Tom (Tom Allen), beloved friend Morgan Beagle, other Rebel players and coaches, his sister, his classmates and teachers at Della Davidson Elementary, my teaching abilities, and the hope that his suffering would help create a cure for other children.

Never once did Chance pray for his own suffering to end, nor did he ever ask to be cured. He understood his purpose would lead others to a more fulfilling life of their own. His only wish was to return home to Oxford.

Chance’s Ole Miss family lifted his spirits and gave him strength

Rebel Def. tackle Herbert Moore (left) and NEMCC LB Marcus Robinson (right) visit Chance in the hospital. (Photo courtesy of The Tetrick Family.)

Rebel Def. tackle Herbert Moore (left) and NEMCC LB Marcus Robinson (right) visit Chance in the hospital. (Photo courtesy of The Tetrick Family.)

Our journey as a family to Exit 243 has brought immeasurable blessings. Outside of sharing Chance’s cancer journey to raise awareness, little do people know the pivotal role Ole Miss played in Chance’s healing.

Long before his ability to run freely was taken away by cancer, Chance managed to chase down Rebel baseball players who were visiting his hospital in Memphis. He thought Brett Huber was the coolest guy because Brett took the time to pose for photos with him. At this time, few people knew about Chance. But those few made him feel loved and special.

In a time of unimaginable uncertainty and depression, current and former players on different athletic teams within the University of Mississippi reached out to Chance. Through text and social media they lifted his spirits in ways they may never understand.

Ole Miss coaches and their wives prayed with us. Athletics Director Ross Bjork and his family kept in close contact with our family. The Ole Miss women’s basketball team hosted him at a game. Ole Miss defensive tackle Herbert Moore and Northeast Mississippi Community College linebacker Marcus Robinson visited him during his final treatment days at SJCRH.

Realizing and valuing the authenticity of these relationships that were established, we chose to guard them close to our heart. These wonderful Rebels loved Chance for Chance–they cared nothing about publicity.

Evan Engram’s special bond with Chance

Ole Miss TE Evan Engram and Ole Miss student Morgan Beagle traveled to NYC to visit Chance. (Photo courtesy of The Tetrick Family.)

Ole Miss TE Evan Engram and Ole Miss student Morgan Beagle traveled to NYC to visit Chance. (Photo courtesy of The Tetrick Family.)

Few people are aware of the special bond Chance shared with Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram, or that Evan went to New York to visit Chance just one night after Chance’s heart attack last July.

Evan and close friend Morgan Beagle, also an Ole Miss student who was incredibly close to Chance, made the trip to New York to see Chance and had an outing planned with him upon their arrival. The day before the two traveled to NYC, they spent hours on the telephone with Chance discussing what activities they would enjoy together.

For the first time since he arrived in New York for treatment, Chance was able to focus on something encouraging. Having been separated from family, his nights were often lonely–and his heart truly rested in Oxford.

Knowing his close friends were coming to visit him in New York filled Chance with joy.

After Evan and Morgan arrived with their mothers, they went to Chance’s hospital. We woke to a note from the ICU nurse telling us a young man had arrived at Chance’s room at 3 o’clock AM to see us. When we opened the note, we saw it was signed by Evan. We cherished that moment and wanted to share with Chance when he woke. We wanted him to know that his friends rushed to his bedside and prayed with him.

However, Chance never woke.

A shared journey

There, in that room, those Rebels shared our somber journey. Despite our being at a crossroad in Chance’s care, they spent hours at his bedside praying, speaking with him and comforting us. The significance of their visit cannot be summed in words, nor can we express our gratitude to them and the other Oxford family members who visited Chance in NYC.

We cannot erase the image or experience of our child lying lifeless in that bed, but we can remind each of those Rebels to cherish the love he had for them all. To Chance, these were his friends. They were not just Ole Miss Rebels; they were his buddies, and they deserved our utmost respect and care.

Saying goodbye

Ole Miss football players and coaches lined up to offer condolences after Chance's funeral at the Tad Pad. (Photo courtesy of Evelyn Van Pelt.)

Ole Miss football players and coaches lined up to offer condolences after Chance’s funeral. (Photo courtesy of Evelyn Van Pelt.)

The time following Chance’s passing remains a blur.  We faced the navigation of both medical regulations and distance in our attempts to take him home to Mississippi. We wanted to return him to Oxford so he could be nearer to those who loved him. And in the end, he was surrounded by an abundance of love.

Few may realize Ross Bjork spoke alongside our church leaders at Chance’s service, or that it was held in the Tad Smith Coliseum, or that Evan Engram and quarterback Ryan Buchanan served as pall bearers for our son.

On that day, as we made our final parting with Chance in the Tad Pad, we were greeted, one-by-one, and given hugs by Ole Miss football players and coaches who simply wanted to express their condolences. They may not know it, but these folks kept our hearts beating. Their zest and appreciation for Chance’s role in their lives continues to serve as a pulse that keeps us going.

Chance’s Landing

Perhaps it is this love and kindess that still causes us to sigh in relief when we reach Exit 243. It never symbolized the conclusion of a tiring expedition; rather, it was a corridor to the place our family calls home. Oxford is Chance’s true landing. Its richness of humility and family paved our road. Throughout our journey, we had the support of a lifetime.

Chance and his sister Collins enjoying a beautiful day in Oxford. (Photo courtest of The Tetrick Family.)

Chance and his sister Collins enjoying a beautiful day at home in Oxford. (Photo courtest of The Tetrick Family.)

Chance will always be one in a million. Memories of him grinning as he entered Mississippi for the first time often flood our mind. Where Exit 243 may have initially symbolized uncertainty and change, it grew to represent love and community.

At some point, many Ole Miss alumni or Mississippi natives will find themselves on a road trip to Oxford with their families. Maybe they will be there to re-establish roots, to attend an event on campus, or simply to visit old stomping grounds. But whatever the reason, our hope is that their journey to Exit 243 will mean as much to them as it did to our precious Chance. That Exit 243 sign represents what Oxford and the University of Mississippi mean to us all–we are home.

The Rebel Walk thanks Jenn and Jeff Tetrick for the privilege of allowing us to share the story of Chance’s journey home. Please visit FinsUpForChance.com for more info on Chance Tetrick and his remarkable life.

About The Author

Evelyn Van Pelt

Evelyn has covered sports for over two decades, beginning her journalism career as a sports writer for a newspaper in Austin, Texas. She attended Texas A&M and majored in English. Evelyn's love for Ole Miss began when her daughter Katie attended the university on a volleyball scholarship--and continued as she watched Katie receive three degrees from Ole Miss, culminating with her Pharm D. in 2012. Evelyn, a member of the FWAA, USBWA and the NCBWA, has covered Rebel sports for numerous outlets. In addition to working for The Rebel Walk, Evelyn is a sports writer for a newspaper in Texas.

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