- February 20, 2019
Under a gloomy, cloudy sky, a small group of family and friends make their way down the backstretch to the finish line.
Out front and leading the way is 11-year-old Daniel “DJ” Roberts, a cancer survivor who — despite running on the Avengers-themed prosthetic attached to his right leg — is outpacing everyone.
And although he is cold and soaked to the bone thanks to an early morning thunderstorm, with each step he takes, he knows he’s that much closer to his goal of completing the 2019 runDisney Star Wars Rival Run 5K at Epcot.
After running 3.1 miles, he can hear those around him chanting — “Way to go DJ! Keep it up DJ, you’re awesome!” — as he passes through the threshold to thunderous applause and a floodgate of tears.
“As soon as I crossed the finish line, I felt so happy — my mom was crying, Trevor Hicks (his physical trainer) was about to cry, and everyone that ran with me was basically crying,” said Daniel, a sixth-grader at Bridgewater Middle School. “When I crossed it, I wasn’t crying at all — which I don’t understand why — but I felt like I accomplished a major goal to finish the race.”
The emotion of the moment was overwhelming for those who have been part of the journey with him — including his mother, Catherine, and younger sister, Jessica, who both ran alongside him Friday, April 5.
“I cried the entire race — I don’t think there was a moment where I wasn’t tearing up,” Catherine said.
Daniel’s story of perseverance started years before he took to the soggy pavements of Epcot on that most remarkable of mornings.
What doctors thought was a pulled muscle turned out to be more than that. It was February 2017 when an MRI showed that the knot in his leg was a tumor.
Immediately, Daniel was sent to UF Health Shands Hospital, where a flurry of tests showed that the then 9-year-old had osteosarcoma — a type of bone cancer. What happened next was a whirlwind of plans.
“For us, when looking back on it, there wasn’t a lot of time to process anything,” Catherine said. “I heard the words, and I said, ‘OK, let’s get started.’ We didn’t waste any time. We didn’t get a second opinion, and I didn’t wait to see if anything was going to go away. In retrospect, maybe — for my family — it worked out better that we didn’t waste any time.”
And every big decision that was made was made by Daniel himself, including the most difficult of all — whether to have his leg amputated. After taking his time, and having an opportunity to talk with a Crossfit athlete who had the same procedure done, he made the decision to go through with the surgery.
What followed were months of physical therapy as he got used to the new prosthetic leg — while at the same time continuing his chemo treatment. It was a time filled with difficult and demanding days, but when things got tough, he had Hicks to pick him up.
“He (Daniel) sets goals, and he would go in and get frustrated in therapy, and within the first five minutes Trevor would have him laughing,” Catherine said. “Or they would talk about Marvel and ‘Star Wars’ and comic books.”
That friendship that was developed between Daniel and Hicks was also the spark that led to Daniel deciding that he wanted to give running a shot.
In April 2018, Daniel helped Hicks prepare for his run in the Disney Star Wars Half Marathon. It was during that time that Daniel made his mind up — he was going to participate in this year’s Star Wars 5K.
The morning of the race, everything that could go wrong did.
After waking up at 2:30 a.m. that morning, Daniel, Catherine and Jessica made it out to Epcot to get ready for the race ahead. Then, the rains came.
Just as they lined up at 5:30 a.m. to take their spots at the starting line, a storm bringing heavy rain and lightning swept through — sending the race into a delay that lasted for nearly two hours.
During that time, Daniel and his group were herded from a medical tent to a conference room for safety. By the time they knew it, they already had walked about two-and-one-half miles.
The extra walking and waiting around for the storm to pass was devastating to Daniel’s motivation — to the point where he didn’t know if he even wanted to run.
“I was ready to run as soon as we got there, and then the storm happened,” Daniel said. “I told one of the people that was there that I didn’t feel like running anymore, because of the weather. It was raining really hard, so I lost my momentum to run.”
After a pep talk from his mom and Hicks, Daniel decided to make the run happen, and at 7:15 a.m. he took off.
Those around him watched in astonishment as Daniel skipped and ran his way through the wet, 3.1-mile run. The slippery asphalt, a cause for concern, didn’t slow him down. In fact he relished the moment and left everyone else in the dust.
“At points, he would turn around and say, ‘Oh come on, catch up — why are you walking? We are supposed to be running,’” Catherine said. “Or he would go down into the middle of us and start talking, and then he’d take off running and be like, ‘OK slow pokes, you need to catch up now,’ and he would laugh.”
That sense of humor, which Catherine said is a big part of their lives at home, followed all the way through the rest of the race and helped to make that moment all the more special.
And it’s a moment that Amber Hammer, a second-grade teacher at Keene’s Crossing Elementary, always will cherish. Hammer also ran alongside Daniel in the 5K.
“It was just amazing to see this boy — whose sister pushed him in the wheelchair and up the elevator to meet me for the first time — running through Epcot with ‘Star Wars’ music playing in the background,” said Hammer, who was Jessica’s second-grade teacher last year. “Seeing his face light up … it was something that you will never forget.”
Luckily for those loved ones around him, running races seems to be something that Daniel has a lot of interest in continuing.
He said he plans on doing another 5K next year and after that is hoping to work his way into runnings 10Ks and half-marathons, which means there will be plenty of other extraordinary moments ahead.