Navy women’s lacrosse players took the field at Ridley Athletic Complex in Baltimore wearing t-shirts with the slogan “Smile Like Sully” for warm-ups.
Almost three hours later, everyone was smiling broadly after Navy upset top-seeded Loyola to capture its second straight Patriot League Tournament championship.
Right in the middle of a wild post-game celebration was a 9-year-old boy from Edgewater who has become an inspirational part of the program.
Navy women’s lacrosse has adopted Sullivan “Sully” Shields as its No. 1 fan. The Edgewater resident has been a fixture at Navy games for the past two seasons and usually roots from the sideline.
Last May, Sully traveled all the way to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and watched Navy knock off defending national champion North Carolina in one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history. He was heartbroken one week later when Navy lost to Boston College, 16-15, in the national semifinals.
“We went up to Foxborough for the Final Four and Sully was so upset when Navy lost to Boston College,” said Amy Shields, Sully’s mother.
Following Navy athletics has been extremely uplifting for Sully, who was diagnosed with Stage IV Neuroblastoma in 2014. The childhood cancer starts in very early forms of nerve cells. It often begins in the adrenal glands and spreads because certain cells in the body grow out of control and crowd out normal cells.
When Sully was diagnosed at age 5, doctors discovered that 95 percent of his bone marrow was cancerous. He underwent five rounds of chemotherapy and surgery to remove the primary tumor. He was then subjected to targeted radiation, another round of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. That was followed by proton radiation and immunotherapy.
For a while, it appeared the regimen worked. Doctors declared the youngster to be cancer-free in October 2015. Two months later, Sully relapsed and had to begin another round of exhaustive treatment.
There would be one more relapse in May 2017 and yet another battery of treatments before doctors at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., provided a more cautious diagnosis — telling the family that Sully was “considered to have no evidence of the disease.”
In the hope of preventing a third relapse, Dale and Amy Shields take Sully to Children’s National Medical Center once a month for a week’s worth of chemotherapy treatments.
“It’s such a sneaky form of cancer. Kids that have relapses tend to continue to have relapses,” Shields said. “We continue to do treatments because the two times we stopped it came back so aggressively.”
Uplifted by Navy
Throughout the ordeal, Navy athletics has provided a morale boost for Sully — an uplifting outlet and welcome distraction from the rigors of treatment.
Sully was initially connected with Navy sprint football through Team IMPACT, a Massachusetts-based charity that matches children who have life-threatening illnesses with college athletic programs.
Midshipman Patrick McMahan was a freshman member of the sprint team when Sully showed up in the fall of 2015. He took charge of integrating Sully into the sprint football family.
“It was kind of awkward at first. Sully was really shy and unsure of the whole situation,” said McMahan, now a senior who will graduate this month. “Once we broke down that barrier, the relationship really blossomed. Sully has such an infectious personality it is impossible for anyone to not love that kid.”
For the past four years, Sully attended every Navy sprint football game he could and routinely leads the team out of the tunnel at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Along the way, McMahan developed a friendship with Sully, watching the youngster play soccer on weekends and visiting him in the hospital. McMahan, who hails from Windermere, Florida, said he has benefited as much or more from the relationship.
“I don’t even know how my Naval Academy career would have gone had I not met this family. They have become a cornerstone of who I am as a person and the midshipman I have become,” said McMahan, adding that visiting Sully in the oncology ward has given him a different perspective on life.
McMahan went to Children’s National Medical Center around Christmas time one year and found his young friend making toys out of syringes and test tubs. “Sully just has the most upbeat, positive outlook on life,” he said.
Wesley Brown Field House is home base for both Navy sprint football and women’s lacrosse with the locker rooms almost side-by-side. That proximity and interaction have created a bond between the two teams and McMahan is close friends with women’s lacrosse player Haley Fessenden.
“I introduced Haley to Sully and she immediately fell in love with him as well,” McMahan said.
The Shields family, including 13-year-old Jack and 11-year-old Mac, loved the idea of Sully get involved with a women’s team. So the third-grader at St. Anne’s School in Annapolis began attending Navy women’s lacrosse games and practices.
Midshipman Fessenden quickly became involved with the youngster’s life, stopping by the Shields home in Edgewater for weekend visits and also showing up at the hospital to provide support.
“It didn’t take long for me and Sully to start growing that connection and we’ve become extremely close over the last year and a half,” said Fessenden, a senior whose lacrosse career was cut short by knee injuries.
Good luck charm
Now in his second season with Navy women’s lacrosse, Sully has emerged as somewhat of a good luck charm. Last year, Navy captured its first Patriot League championship since 2013 and made a magical run to the Final Four. The Midshipmen repeated as conference champs this season and are hoping to begin another playoff push Friday night.
Fessenden can remember fearing the worst when she went to Children’s National Medical Center and found Sully weakened by a week’s worth of chemotherapy. She cried when Sully was celebrating Navy’s championship game victory with zeal.
Sully will be on the sideline at Ridley Athletic Complex again when seventh-ranked Navy meets No. 20 Johns Hopkins in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He begins another week of chemotherapy Monday.
“Sully has been so inspirational to all of us because he is always pushing the limits and there is nothing he can’t do,” said Fessenden, who now serves as a student coach and looks after her friend during games. “Even though we may think we are tough as a team, we can look at Sully and know that we can be even tougher. There have been times when Sully went in the morning to get chemo then came to our lacrosse game in the afternoon.”
Fessenden said she has seen Sully at his worst when he was confined to a hospital bed and barely able to move. She discovered the same thing as McMahan – that a child they were supposed to be providing with support and encouragment has lifted them up even more.
“Sometimes when I’ve had a long, hard day at the academy I have thought about Sully and what he’s been through and realized things could be a lot worse,” she said. “I could be having the worst week of my life at this place then go see Sully and it brings back the simple things that make you happy.”
Fessenden will play video games with Sully or go outside and throw the lacrosse ball back-and-forth with the 9-year-old, who is learning how to handle a stick.
“I find it remarkable that a kid who has been battling cancer has such incredible joy. Just being around Sully makes you happy,” Fessenden said. “I feel so grateful that I even get moments with Sully. You are truly alive when you are hanging out with someone like that.”
Fessenden believes Sully is one of the wisest people she has met because she has heard him say such profound things. Recently, Sully told his mother he does not understand why he deserves to have McMahan and Fessenden visit all the time.
“It just baffles me that a kid that is going through chemo and so many other terrible things would think that way,” Fessenden said. “Sully does not even think about that stuff. He just wants to enjoy every day to the fullest.”
So important are Fessenden and McMahan to Sully that the Shields family had to plan his recent 9th birthday party around their availability. His two favorite stuffed animals are named Patrick and Haley.
“As a mother, it’s been amazing to watch these two midshipmen form such an unbreakable bond with my son. Sully so looks forward to whenever Patrick and Haley come to visit,” Amy Shields said. “These mids don’t have much free time and the fact they choose to spend so much of it with my son is truly unbelievable. It’s just such a beautiful thing. I tear up whenever I think of the kindness and love they have shown Sully.”
Shields jokes that her son is a “three-season athlete” at Navy because he is also involved with the men’s basketball program, where he has a special relationship with assistant coach Jon Perry. It began four years ago when Sully attended the Navy basketball camp shortly after undergoing chemotherapy.
Sully has enrolled in the camp along with his two older brothers but was unable to participate fully because he was still weak. Perry wanted to make sure the youngster had a good experience so he asked Sully to assist with drills and running the camp store.
Two years ago, Perry created a Mid of the Week award for the camper who went above and beyond in terms of displaying energy, enthusiasm and excitement. Sully was the inaugural recipient of the award, giving him an opportunity to serve as a coach for a day at a men’s basketball game.
When the season rolled around, Sully became a member of the staff for one game — in the locker room beforehand, helping out with warm-ups and sitting on the bench. Perry grew fond of Sully and stayed in touch.
“I try to call or text Sully at least once a week to see how he’s doing,” Perry said. “Sully loves Mission BBQ so we go there for lunch a lot.
Perry and Navy head coach Ed DeChellis also have been frequent visitors to Children’s National Medical Center to see Sully.
This past season, Perry asked Sully if he wanted to be down on the floor instead of sitting in the stands during games. The youngster lit up about that prospect so Navy added an extra court-side seat.
“It’s funny, at first Sully was sitting behind the bench and had trouble seeing over the players,” Shields said. “So Sully started scooting his chair up closer and closer. Next thing you know, he’s in the front row right beside Coach Perry.”
Perry did not mind one bit and thereafter the seat for Sully was placed at the end of the bench, next to Perry and near the scorer’s table, for the rest of the season.
“Sully’s situation helps our coaches and players keep things in perspective. We’re always thinking about Sully and he is a true inspiration for us all,” Perry said.
“I am thankful for the bond I have developed with Sully. He is one of the strongest individuals I have ever met in my life and lifts me up whenever I’m around him,” Perry continued. “I really care about the young man and everyone involved with our program wants to do whatever we can to make his day a little better.”
Sully is currently going through a new trial that combines chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Every day is a challenge and doctors can’t predict how this ongoing battle with neuroblastoma will turn out. Whatever happens, Sully’s benefited from his relationship with Navy sprint football, men’s basketball and women’s lacrosse
“Being involved with these teams makes Sully feel like he’s part of something bigger...” Amy Shields said. “It has been unbelievably heartwarming that so many people would be so kind to him. This connection to Navy athletics has been a life-changing for Sully.”