FULLERTON— When Jake Pavletich walked through the door of Coben Swanson’s house, he was peppered with darts from an automatic Nerf gun. But the foam projectiles weren’t the only things that struck him.
“Right then, it hit,” Pavletich said. “Like ‘Wow, we’re actually making this kid be happy.’”
Every time Cal State Fullerton baseball players walk in or out of their dugout, they get a reminder of Swanson, a 9-year-old boy with autism and a type of leukemia known as acute lymphoblastic lymphoma.
Sitting next to the Titans’ supply of pine tar is a gleaming, white clone trooper helmet to remind them of the 34th member of their roster, who players say has contributed as much to Cal State Fullerton baseball’s success as any active member of its roster.
“(Swanson) has become an inspiration. He’s helped us get to where we are. He’s helped us through our highs and lows,” said Titans pitcher John Gavin. “He’s someone that helps us get out of bed. He’s someone that helps us realize that we are so fortunate to play a game that we all love.”
Swanson joined the Titans in October after being introduced to the team by a nonprofit organization called Team IMPACT that says it seeks to “improve the quality of life for children facing life-threatening and chronic illnesses” by connecting them with local college athletic teams.
Swanson’s family has since relocated to Nashville, Tenn. in pursuit of better treatment, a move has meant he can’t be around the clubhouse that has adopted him as its collective little brother.
Instead, Swanson—a huge Star Wars fan—left the Titans a clone trooper helmet to keep in the dugout for him, and the players say his biggest impact was the way he changed the whole team’s mindset.
Gavin described recently being upset with himself over a poor bullpen practice before “almost slapping” himself when he thought of Swanson’s struggles.
“We sometimes complain about it,” Gavin said. “’Why do we have 6 a.m. weights? Why are we lifting? Why are we running?’ Then you turn your left shoulder and you see someone who, at the time, had half of his skull removed, was not able to use pretty much his whole entire left side, was going through chemo every day, was throwing up because of radiation poisoning.”
“You almost were crying in disgust with yourself like, ‘Why am I complaining? Why am I so self-centered? Why am I not like Coben, and just going through my life day to day and just enjoying every minute of it?'”
The Titans have rallied to a 6-3 record in the Big West with 17 games to go in a regular season slate that has come with highs and lows.
The team has tried to keep in biweekly contact with the Swanson family through Facetime and texts. The chats range from telling his mother Brittany Swanson that they haven’t had a good meal since she moved away, to catching up on Coben’s latest attempts to bug his sister. The discussions have also included motivational messages for the Titans.
In one video message, Coben giggled while giving the Titans tips such as “fart into your glove so no one smells it.”
As far as advice for the team, he kept it simple.
“Good luck tomorrow, guys, and remember: Don’t suck,” Coben said.
When those speeches can’t fuel them to victory, the Titans joke with Coben that his helmet is what powers them.
“We went on a five-game losing streak, and we called him and he said, ‘What’s going on?’” Gavin said. “We said, ‘Oh, the batteries (in the helmet) died, so we have to flip the batteries.’ So then we flipped the batteries out and now we’re on a five-game winning streak.'”
Gavin calls himself “a 7-year-old trapped in a 21-year-old’s body” and Pavletich said he’s “always been a fan of kids.” Both became close with Coben almost immediately, despite the latter initially being shy when meeting the team at BJ’s Restaurant for an introductory dinner.
Brittany said it only took about half an hour for her normally shy son to ask to be seated right in the middle of the group of Titans.
That dinner eventually gave way to visits to the Swanson home for lightsaber fights and Nerf ambushes. Coben would sit patiently atop the staircase at the entrance to their family home, loading dozens of foam bullets into his automatic Nerf gun one at a time with his right hand (the only one he could use due to treatment), excitedly waiting to launch a sneak attack on his new friends.
“It wasn’t like, ‘We’re here because you’re sick.’ It was like they came over, they saw him pick up a lightsaber, they picked up lightsabers. It was just this natural connection of, ‘We’re going to play and do what this kid wants to do,’ and ultimately you would see them having fun too,” Brittany said. “They would all just turn into a bunch of kids when they came over.”
The 9-year-old even destroyed several potential future professional baseball players in “Wii Sports,” including golf, tennis, fencing, bowling and even baseball.
“It wasn’t even close,” Pavletich said, laughing as he recalled Coben trash talking enough to flip his competitive switch. “That game, it’s not the same as baseball but it’s pretty close and he absolutely crushed us.”
Those visits to the Swanson home also featured the Titans building Legos—always Star Wars—with their new friend, which led to a quest to find a set for Coben that he didn’t already have.
Like their attempts to beat him in “Wii Sports,” this one was also unsuccessful.
“I have three of these. I don’t need it,” Gavin recalls Coben saying. “You guys can give it to somebody else.”
More than any Lego set, the best gift the Titans gave Coben was a new family; a new set of brothers to bond with. Coben officially signed with the Titans on Gavin’s 21st birthday.
“Lots of people don’t really remember their 21st birthday, but I can gladly tell my grandkids that I was inspired by an 8-year-old on my 21st birthday,” Gavin said.
The feeling is mutual.
“There’s guilt in encouraging your child to step into a new group of people when they’re in a fragile state, when they’ve been so weakened and gone through this crazy journey. But then when you realize that your child’s presence is making an impact on the people that you’re pushing them into, that guilt goes away,” Brittany said. “It actually makes me sad that I didn’t do it sooner.”
The symbiotic kinship between the Titans and the Swanson family has continued throughout the Titans’ season, leading to a new pregame routine for the notoriously meticulous Gavin.
Now, in addition to shaving his arms in an effort to build pitch speed and eating a plate of pasta the night before games, Gavin puts on a clone trooper helmet bearing a “Team Coben” sticker every time the Titans walk into the field.
And while the superstitious Gavin won’t even answer the phone for his girlfriend on days he’s pitching, there are three people he’d make an exception for: His mother, his father and Coben.
“We care about him more than we can describe, and he’s definitely someone that even though he’s (9 years old), we look up to him as an inspiration to keep fighting and keep pushing through the hard times,” Gavin said. “If he can push through cancer at the age of 8, then we can push through a five-game losing streak. It’s something that’s so minimal and minuscule in our lives that we can fight through it.”
Those interested in donating to help the Swansons cover their medical expenses can find their GoFundMe page here.