In the locker rooms at Stony Brook University, Joey Faminella would cover his face with his hands and feel sick to his stomach every time the university football team lost.
Though he has his own team jersey and rushes the field before every game, Faminella isn’t a football player, but a teenager adopted by his favorite collegiate team as an honorary captain and good luck charm, which his family ultimately credits with helping save his life.
In 2004, at age 5, Faminella was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, an aggressive form of pediatric brain cancer. Four years later, he started traveling with the team to away games, attending every home game and leading the team out of the locker rooms.
“After I was sick I didn’t want to go back to school,” said Faminella, now 14 and an incoming freshman at West Islip High School. “Just to see the team play makes me so happy. They helped me get back to my life and now I like school.”
Faminella has been good for the team, too. The team’s head coach Chuck Priore, in a video produced about Faminella, said the teen already has four championships under his belt.
“From the moment he’s joined us, we’ve won our league championship each year,” he said.
The relationship was made possible by the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, a nonprofit based in upstate Cortlandt Manor. The organization, formed in 2005, aims to improve the quality of life for children with pediatric brain tumors by pairing them up with college or high school athletic teams.
The foundation was formed by Denis and Lynda Murphy after their 9-year-old daughter Jaclyn, who like Faminella was also diagnosed with medulloblastoma, was adopted as an honorary member of Northwestern University’s women’s lacrosse team.
Faminella was diagnosed with the brain tumor on Aug. 13, 2004, at Cohen’s Children Medical in New Hyde Park, and developed posterior fossa syndrome, a side effect of the tumor, which decreased his motor functions and speech, said his mother, Ann Faminella.
A month later, he started daily radiation treatments for six weeks and chemotherapy for a year, she said. Now in remission, Faminella visits the doctor weekly and gets an MRI of his brain and spine yearly.
His oncologist, Dr. Mark Atlas, head of neuro-oncology at the hospital, said medulloblastoma is the most common malignant brain tumor in children and an aggressive tumor that responds to chemotherapy and surgery. The survival rate is high, he said, about 80 to 95 percent.
Being adopted by the football team, Atlas said, undoubtedly helped improve Faminella’s outlook, which is important for recovery.
“It helps with patients' self-esteem,” he said. “After surgery, these kids may have issues with self-confidence, so being accepted and part of a sports team is great for Joey’s confidence and I’m sure helped him to integrate more easily into normal social activities.”
Ann Faminella, 45, of West Islip, said the relationship her son formed with the football players over the years has had a positive effect on her son’s well-being.
“As a cancer patient, Joey missed a lot of his life,” she said. “This has meant everything to us and has helped him gain back a sense of normalcy. I just hope he leaves an impression on them as much as they have left on us.”
Priore feels fortunate to have the team’s biggest fan on the sidelines and said Faminella has given him and the team a deeper appreciation of life.
“Joey is emotionally involved in every one of our games,” Priore said. “He cheers when we win and feels the pain of losing right along with us. It gives him the opportunity to be a part of something he wouldn’t otherwise be able to be a part of. He’s a part of our team.”
The team’s punter, Luke Allen, who said he felt like Faminella’s big brother on the sidelines, said the teen is the glue that holds the team together and someone he admires.
“It wouldn’t be the same without Joey,” said Allen, 20, of Port Jefferson, who has been on the team since 2010. “He’s important to our team and his strength puts everything in perspective for us, whether we win or lose.”