Brennan Simkins led the Aquinas football team the short distance from the gym to the football stadium, then helped the Irish tear down the banner as they raced onto the field Friday night.
Brennan Simkins (center) is flanked by his brothers Nat (left) and Christopher as he leads the Irish onto the field. The 8-year-old has leukemia and was Aquinas’ honorary captain Friday night.
If not for the green surgical mask worn by Brennan, most in the stadium wouldn’t know that the 8-year-old has leukemia.
The school’s soccer and baseball teams had already paid tribute to Brennan’s fight, so Aquinas football coach Matt LeZotte figured it was time his squad weighed in. Brennan was an honorary captain and led the team on the “Irish Walk” next to the head coach.
The Irish responded with a 40-14 homecoming victory over Hancock Central. With a 4-0 record, Aquinas is in position to threaten the best start in school history and is off to its best start since a 5-0 beginning in 2004.
The start of Friday night’s game, though, belonged to Brennan.
“He has absolutely been an inspiration to our team,” LeZotte said.
When rain pushed back kickoff some 20 minutes, Brennan didn’t let the delay keep him idle. He spent the time playing with other boys his age in the gym, but he had to avoid the locker room and environments where infectious diseases might attack his system.
Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, Brennan underwent a bone marrow transplant in June 2009. He had a relapse last fall, his father said, and has spent time at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
The family’s ties run deep at Aquinas – his uncle, Patrick Rice, played football for Aquinas, and his grandfather attended the school when it was known as Boys Catholic – and plans were made for Brennan to accompany the football team on a game night.
Turner Simkins, his father, said the outpouring of support from the Aquinas and St. Mary on the Hill schools has been an inspiration for Brennan.
“What they’ve done has inspired him,” Simkins said.
Brennan returned from another round of tests Friday but the family made a stop on the way back in Oxford, Miss. Brennan took the field at Ole Miss and got to toss the football around the Rebels’ field.
Brendan Douglas, who rushed for 105 yards in the win, showed off a wristband after the game that the team uses for inspiration.
“We write Brennan on our wristbands and when it gets hard we look down there,” he said. “We know he’s going through a lot tougher (ordeal) than us.”
Aquinas started off with a quick 13-0 lead but let Hancock Central claw back into the game. The Irish led 23-14 at halftime, and LeZotte gave his team a pep talk at the break.
“We went in at halftime and told the guys we’re going to do what we do – executing correctly – and you see what happened,” he said.
The Irish immediately drove down for a field goal, and then early in the fourth quarter they scored on two long plays to ice the game.
LeZotte said Brennan’s spirit was good for the team to see.
“It was nice to have him around our guys and see how happy he was,” he said. “He’s not letting cancer beat him. For us to go out and play the sport we love, we’re leading some pretty good lives.”