By Dustin Luca
---- — Two years ago, Little League boys at the town’s three middle schools rallied behind a fellow teammate fighting a sudden diagnosis of leukemia.
On Tuesday, Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks personally came to thank them after Team Andover capped off three years of fundraising for the Jimmy Fund at $21,660.
Through the Jimmy Fund’s Rally Against Cancer, schools and businesses throughout Massachusetts competed for visits from either Middlebrooks or Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Team Andover won the contest’s “wildcard” prize, which was drawn randomly from all the teams that raised $5,000 or more this year. The local team netted $5,539 to earn the visit from a rising Sox star.
It was a cancer diagnosis for youngster Jackson Quinn — affectionately called Number 8 — that led Team Andover to form in 2011.
“We were all kind of stricken by grief,” Ben Andreson, 14, said. “One night, I was watching TV and my mom said, ‘Hey, look at this — Rally Against Cancer.’ We started it, and we thought of every idea we could and it was fun.”
What happened next? “It just went viral,” he said.
Three fundraising cycles later, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s coffers are now $21,660 richer in honor of Number 8.
Many of the students behind the effort are now going on to high school.
Quinn, meanwhile, finished his leukemia treatment in March and, so far, has a clean bill of health, his mother, Julie Quinn, said.
Middlebrooks’ visit was the “icing on the cake,” student and Team Andover member Ben Andreson said.
“It brought it to an end,” he said.
Team Andover formed on the baseball diamond, as the boys all played Little League together and felt personally affected once Number 8 walked off the field to battle cancer. When the fundraising team started, it did so not as three middle schools, but instead as one community united by a single student.
“We sold various knickknacks — T-shirts, we did some lollipops, bracelets, we sold socks this year, baseballs you could put your name on and hang it on the wall,” 13-year-old Nate Wiley, a student at West Middle and Team Andover member, said
“My little brother and a group of his friends did a walk at West Elementary,” 14-year-old Michael O’Connor said. “They raised over $1,500 in two days.”
On Tuesday, Team Andover had much to celebrate as it converged on West Middle School to meet Middlebrooks, who signed baseballs, gloves and shirts, and fielded questions from the students.
One student asked Middlebrooks who his favorite teammate was. He laughed.
“Oh man, I’ll hear about this one,” he said. “I’ve got a couple. We’re really a close-knit team. We all get along. (First baseman) Mike Napoli is probably my closest friend on the team, but we’re all very close.”
Another student asked why he chose to play third base. His response — he didn’t.
“I was always a pitcher and shortstop my whole life,” he said. “When I signed with the Red Sox out of high school in 2007, I decided to have a growth spurt and got too big for shortstop. So, they moved me over to third base.”
As he got ready to head back to Boston for the team’s second night against the Philadelphia Phillies at Fenway, Middlebrooks said, “It’s amazing to see a school and community come together to help out with such a great cause.”
The Red Sox are currently celebrating their 60th year partnered with the Jimmy Fund. Middlebrooks and Saltalamacchia are the team’s co-captains with the organization for this year, according to the third baseman.
“Salty and I are the co-captains, so we do a lot of stuff, get involved with the schools and help out in the communities,” he said. “We were up for it. We want to do what we can.”
He added the players “know how big of a deal it is, and that there’s more going on in life than just baseball. That’s why we’re happy to help.”
But by visiting Team Andover, Middlebrooks did a lot more than help.
“To know someone who made it all the way to where I want to be ... That’s a role model,” Wiley said. “It gives me hope to achieve my goals.”
“When he started playing third base for the Red Sox, he became my favorite player because I play third base,” Joe Rockwell, 14, said. “He seemed like a normal guy. He’s nice, and he’s funny. He doesn’t have an ego or anything.”
While the visit from Middlebrooks was great, “it has never really been about the prize,” O’Connor said. “It’s raising money so we can help these people get better.”
Calling Team Andover “a special team of boys,” Kathryn McGuirk, who serves as Jimmy Fund’s assistant director of corporate partnerships, said, “It’s incredible to see that kids at such a young age are really connected to philanthropy and giving back, and something beyond just going to school every day.”
Becky Franks, West Middle School assistant principal, said Quinn’s story “empowered” the students, allowing them to see how they could make a difference firsthand.
“It has become bigger than Number 8,” she said.