The walls of Scott Schaefer's bedroom are like that of most 12-year old boys. They stand as a shrine to the things he's most passionate about: Kentucky basketball, Jimmie Johnson and Jesus. There is no space for anything else, no room for compromise on the merits of that triumvirate.
Jon Hood and Scott Schaefer became fast friends and shared an unbreakable bond (Photo courtesy of Amy Polley)
This is how it goes with little boys. They pick their favorites early on and are fiercely loyal to them, standing firm through thick and thin as if the very concept of considering anything else is an affront to everything they believe in. Kentucky basketball, Jimmie Johnson and Jesus. That is what Scott Schaefer believes in, no matter what else the world throws at him.
And make no mistake, the world threw everything it could muster at Scott Schaefer. It just couldn't break him, not even in his final moments. Scott Schafer wasn't going to let anything steal his passion for life, not even death.
“He died on a Wednesday,” Kim Schaefer, Scott's mother, said. “He told me on Monday, just two days before, that he had seen Jesus and he knew he was going to die and he was not afraid. He wasn't sad. He didn't cry. He just started telling me who he wanted his NASCAR stuff and Kentucky basketball stuff to go to. He told me there were some boys at school he wanted to talk to about God. He wanted everyone to accept Jesus so he could see them again in heaven.”
While Scott was giving his mother his last wishes Jon Hood was 700 hundred miles away preparing for one of Kentucky's biggest games of the season. As he laid in a Gainesville, Fla. hotel room he was unaware Scott was recounting his conversations with Jesus to his mother and father, Larry, in a Madisonville, Ky. bedroom. At some point that night both drifted off to sleep, Scott for one of the final times and Hood for what felt like the last time in days.
Jon Hood would see Scott Schaefer one more time before the courageous little boy took his last breath, but the impact of their relationship won't soon be forgotten by Hood or anyone who had the good fortune of witnessing it.
You simply don't forget people like Scott Schaefer.
A FAST FRIEND
Hood doesn't remember the exact date he first met Scott, only that it came at one of Kentucky's satellite basketball camps during the summer of 2009. The two shared a hometown, went to the same schools, their parents were friendly with one another, all the normal six degrees of separation that come with being from a small town. So Hood didn't give it a second thought when his mother, Kelly, suggested he take the opportunity to meet a kid who idolized the local basketball star.
“He just kind of looked at me kind of star struck,” Hood recalled. “But he was really nice, didn't say a whole lot, real quiet. He was just...Scott. I really don't know to put it.”
Scott Schaefer always told everyone he was doing well, even when he wasn't (Photo courtesy of Amy Polley)
By day's end the two had spent much of their time at the camp off to the side by themselves. Hood would spin a basketball on the tip of his finger then gently place it on Scott's, all while watching the amazement only a child can display as he realized he could do the same things as a Kentucky basketball player.
“He just kind of hung out with me the whole time because he couldn't really participate in what was going on at the camp,” Hood said. “Dribbled with me, passed it back and forth to me, stuff like that. I knew he was sick and having trouble. He was really skinny.”
Scott was more than just sick, he was fighting for his life every day. He was born with a congenital heart disease condition known as Tricuspid Aresia, which according to the Mayo Clinic is when one of the valves between the heart's two chambers doesn't form, leaving only solid tissue in its place. Blood can't flow correctly, inhibiting its ability to collect oxygen from the lungs to disperse throughout the rest of the body.
“The day he was born he was flown to Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville and was there four solid months,” Kim Schaefer said. “They did not think he would make it. They didn't think he'd ever make it out of the hospital and he made it 12 years. Up until the last year he was pretty normal. The last year he just didn't have the endurance.”
Hood didn't know any of that when he first met Scott. All he knew was there was a young boy who loved Kentucky basketball and the hometown star who was going to play for the Wildcats, which was enough reason to show some kindness. Couple that with the fact Hood's younger brother, Mitchell, also has special needs and he had none of the guilt or awkwardness people sometimes feel around those with disabilities.
“Jon is the oldest grandchild so he's always taken care of the younger ones,” Kelly Hood said. “Then with Mitchell he's had a hard road himself. He just has a big heart. When kids maybe need a little extra help along the way he has always been good about that. He's a really good kid that way. I think it's a combination of having a soft heart for people who need it but he's just so used to it, it's a part of life. There's no hesitation.”
The first meeting was captured by a local photographer from the Madisonville Messenger, the soon-to-be UK player with all of his dreams ahead of him and the boy who never knew how long he had to live. On the surface it looked like the type of 'My Wish' segment you'd see on ESPN where an athlete spends a day with a child in need and then each goes their separate way.
Only Jon Hood and Scott Schaefer never went their separate ways again. They were forever bound after that first meeting, each believing the other was his hero.
Hood and Schaefer always found time for each other when Hood returned to Madisonville
A BUDDING RELATIONSHIP
Hood still can't talk about it without smiling, or better yet, impersonating the voice. Every time he made the three-hour trip from Lexington to Madisonville one of his first stops was either Scott's school or home, almost as if the car drove itself there. Scott would never know he was coming, which made the visits even more special.
“I went to see him last year right after the season and went to the door (of his class) and knocked,” Hood said. “The teacher was the same teacher I had so she tells Scott to come open the door. He's like, 'Jon!' She told him to introduce his friend and it was the same thing he always said, 'This is my friend Jon.' That's all. This is my friend Jon. The other kids are like, 'That's Jon, he plays basketball for Kentucky,' but to Scott it was no big deal. It makes you happy. It's nice to be noticed but it's nice to not be noticed.”
Phone calls were met with the same aw-shucks reaction, a quick 'Hey Jon!' before the conversation would invariably shift to something else. It was as if the two had been best friends for their entire lives.
“I really don't know why exactly but they just clicked,” Kim Schaefer said. “They were buddies from the beginning. Every time Jon came to town he came to see Scott. Every time. I realized that it was more than him trying to do community service for a sick child like a famous person doing service. It was more than that.”
“It's hard to explain,” Kelly Hood said. “I have this running debate with Scott's parents because they're always like, 'Thank you for Jon's help and for being so nice to Scott.' I don't think they understand that Jon got more out of it than Scott.”
How it got to that point remains a mystery for Hood, all he knows is that somewhere along the way in the four years he knew Scott it became vital to spend time with him. He would send basketballs signed by his UK teammates to Scott. Hood invited Scott, his parents and Scott's sister, Sarah, to Rupp Arena for a game during the Cats' national championship season, escorting him into the locker room after the game to meet players and get his picture taken with UK coach John Calipari and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
As the clock neared midnight in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome last April 2nd, Hood climbed the ladder at one end of the court, took a pair of scissors, looped a piece of the net over twice and snipped away. He quickly tied one piece of the championship net to his hat and clutched the other in his hand. That piece was going to Scott Schaefer.
“You go home to see the people who make you feel good and make you happy,” Jon Hood said. “Scott was one of those. I don't think he realized the impact he had on me. I don't think his parents did until I got there that Wednesday, the day he passed.”
Hood and Schaefer first met at a Kentucky basketball camp in Madisonville (Photo courtesy of Madisonville-Messenger)
THE RACE HOME
It was pouring down rain, but Hood didn't particularly notice or care. The droplets splattered on the windshield and the trees whooshed by as his truck tore across the empty stretch of the Western Kentucky Parkway, past Leitchfield, Beaver Dam and Central City.
“I was doing about 85 to 90 the whole way making sure I was going to get to see him,” Hood recalled. “I didn't know what state he was in. I did not call my mom because I feared she'd tell me to stay (in Lexington) because there was nothing I could do. I ran out of gas on my way into town, literally out of gas. I was in such a hurry when I left that I gassed up just enough for me to get to Madisonville and go to his house.”
Hood had calculated incorrectly, coming to a halt on the side of the Pennyrile Parkway. In a chaotic 12 hours you could hardly blame him. The Cats had been thumped by Florida the night before, losing star freshman Nerlens Noel in the process. When the team reached the airport for its chartered jet home Hood's phone buzzed with a text message from his mother.
“I talked to Scott's dad the day before the Florida game,” Kelly Hood said. “This family, it's always, 'How is Jon doing? How is Mitchell?' I asked about Scott and he told me how bad he was and he probably wasn't going to make it through the week but asked me to please not tell Jon until after the game. That's just the way they are. I waited and texted Jon that he needed to call me but he wasn't in trouble. He called me back and when I answered he just said, 'What's wrong with Scott?' He knew.”
Hood wasn't prepared for the news of Scott's worsening condition. He begged off the phone so as not to get emotional in front of unsuspecting teammates and sought out Calipari. The coach told him to do what he needed to do and not worry about team activities the next day. When the team landed in Lexington and returned to Wildcat Coal Lodge, Hood tried to sleep but his thoughts kept racing. He couldn't bear not seeing his friend again.
The last time Hood and Scott had seen each other it was through the Schaefer's front door and window. Hood was home for Christmas break but would remain in town longer as he battled a case of mononucleosis. The Hood family planned to give Scott a personalized No. 4 Kentucky jersey with 'SCHAEFER' on the back but Hood couldn't go inside to deliver it himself because of the medical complications that could arise if Scott contracted mono.
“I lost it that night because he didn't know or understand and I didn't know how long he had,” Jon Hood said. “My biggest fear was getting a call that he had passed and the last time I saw him I touched his hand through a glass door.”
Now, with the knowledge that Scott would not live much longer, Hood was racing against the clock to avert that fear.
Hood cut two pieces of the 2012 championship net so he could give one to Schaefer
A FINAL VISIT
It was early Wednesday morning when Kim Schaefer's phone rang. Hood was on the other end asking if he could see Scott, which left the family a bit confused.
“We had seen him at Florida the night before,” Kim Schaefer said. “He called about 10 and said he had to see Scott again. I knew Scott probably wouldn't make it through the week but it was a long drive (from Lexington), 210 miles one way. He didn't have to do that. He said he'd be here in 10 minutes.”
Hood arrived at the Schaefer home and made his way to the room wallpapered with Kentucky and Jimmie Johnson memorabilia. Scott was asleep with his family at his side. He had chosen to stop taking his medication and accepted that he was going to pass away soon. Hood sat down next to the bed.
“Everybody was really quiet,” Hood said. “His dad said, 'Scotty, Jon is here,' and he woke up but he woke up in pain. He was moaning in pain. I went to say something and nothing came out, like, I couldn't do it. I just...nothing came out.
“He calmed down a little and I basically said that he meant the world to me, that he was one of my heroes and that I loved him. He wasn't able to speak. I kissed him on the top of his head and told him it was time for me to go. That's all I could take.”
As Hood made his way to the door Scott's father broke the silence.
“I'm crying and he's talking about what a good young man I am and I went to say thank you and nothing came out,” Hood said. “Then he said something that eased it, 'You all had a tough one last night.' Your child is dying and I understand you've come to terms with it but I could never do it. He's a stronger man than I could be, I don't get it. I don't understand it. It would be really hard for me to come to terms with my son passing away at 12.
“The last thing he said to me was, 'Be safe driving.' I went straight to see my mom. I made it most of the way there and then I just lost it. I was trying to keep it in and then I just couldn't. You can't help but cry. I don't understand how people don't cry.”
Although she didn't know her son had made the drive to Madisonville that morning, a mother's intuition gave Kelly Hood a pretty good indication something was amiss. When the 6-foot-7 athlete walked through the door looking like a shadow of himself, she knew just how deeply Scott had affected her son.
“It was like he couldn't hold it in any longer,” Kelly Hood said. “He said, 'Momma, he's suffering so bad. He's hurting so bad.' It was terrible. I'm very thankful he got to come see (Scott) but he realized Scott is much better off.”
Scott Schaefer passed away that evening just 18 days after his 12th birthday.
“I was in the driver's seat of my mom's car and her phone lit up and said Scott had passed,” Jon Hood said. “I sat there and I couldn't move. I couldn't speak. I couldn't talk. I couldn't make a noise. Mitchell was in the backseat and I was trying to keep it together for him. He reached up and started patting me on the shoulder. Then it was just a waterfall.”
“If Jon had waited one more day he wouldn't have gotten to see Scott one more time,” Kim Schaefer said.
MOVING FORWARD WHILE LOOKING BACK
Perspective can be difficult to gain. It's a challenge to see the bigger picture, especially when you're part of the fishbowl that is Kentucky basketball. Players are treated like rock stars, with all the trappings of fame coming as easily as the game itself.
Scott Schaefer kept Jon Hood grounded. Whatever Hood's status as a Kentucky basketball player did to make Scott's life a little easier, Hood maintains it paled in comparison to what Scott gave him.
“Basketball is just a game,” Jon Hood said. “Life isn't just basketball. Freshman and sophomore years I thought life was nothing but basketball. My grades reflected it and my demeanor reflected it. Now, basketball isn't as important as some things. It's really important but being here has allowed me to be on a pedestal, to say a lot of things and have a voice for a lot of different people. It's not about basketball. Basketball is a minimal thing. The relationships mean the most.”
Hood credited Schaefer with keeping his spirits up while rehabbing a knee injury last season
In Scott, Hood had someone who didn't care if he rarely played. Hood was Scott Schaefer's hero because of their friendship not because of he suited up for Kentucky. Conversely, Scott taught Hood there was more to life than what transpired inside a gym, a lesson that was never more evident than when Hood ravaged his knee during a summer pickup game and missed the 2011-12 season.
“It's no secret Jon has struggled (at Kentucky) and I think Scott put things in perspective for Jon,” Kelly Hood said. “Scott reminds you that there are more important things than basketball, that it's a game, that you should be happy for your health and just...happy.
“Jon never complained about being hurt and Scott was an extension of that. He kept him grounded. Jon would say, 'Why am I fussing? I play for Kentucky.' It's hard to explain. There are times when you say, 'Oh, this kid is having a hard time so I need to be nice to him.' In Jon's mind, Scott was not that case. Jon really cared about this kid. That was a special kid that meant special things to Jon.”
Throughout the grueling process of rehab Hood would often think of Scott.
“It made my rehab so much easier,” Hood said. “Scott is going through what he's going through and I'm complaining because I can't straighten my leg? I mean, he helped me in so many ways that he'll never know, that his family will never know. For a kid who just turned 12 and gone through what he went through...to realize you're going to die and be okay with it and understand it and not get mad at God? I don't understand it. I never saw him get mean, never saw him get nasty, never saw him get upset. He was always happy.”
Scott's impact was more apparent at his funeral, which drew so many people there was a line out the door and friends waiting patiently in their cars just to pay their respects. Not long before he passed away Scott had told his mother that he had talked to God and that his funeral would be on a Saturday – which it was – and that he wanted people to bring drinks because, as Jon Hood tells it, 'Scotty was always thirsty.'
“I didn't realize how much he affected a lot of people's lives, a lot of people, as far as what's important in life,” Kim Schaefer said. “I think he affected a lot of people, more than I ever realized. We've had a lot of people tell us that Scott was their hero. I didn't realize that. I didn't realize how many people he had touched just by being positive all the way through, even at the end when he was so, so sick.
“He never asked anybody for anything. He would give before he would ask.”
Kentucky will close a disappointing season in the coming weeks but in many ways it has been Jon Hood's most fulfilling campaign. He lost a dear friend but learned a great deal about himself along the way. Even as he tells stories of he and Scott's relationship between tears and laughter he constantly comes back to one thing: this is Scott's story, not his.
“It's all about Scott,” Hood said. “I didn't know how to get his story out there. People in Madisonville know it because he affected so many lives, but it's all about Scott. He meant the world to me.
“How can someone affect you so much that quickly? Everybody you meet will have an impact on your life. It could be very minimal or it could be like Scott who teaches you so much: how to enjoy life, never take anything for granted, to have fun, to have faith in God. Everybody can do it. Anybody can make someone else's life better. It's simple. Everybody can make two other people's day better in this world every day. Two people.”
Eleven days after Scott Schafer physically left Earth his spirit was felt once more. Not long before he died Scott had the opportunity to talk to Jimmie Johnson on the phone, a last wish of sorts for the little boy who had No. 48 plastered all over his wall. Johnson won the Daytona 500 that Sunday afternoon but it wasn't simply winning a race that made Scott's friends and family smile.
“A lot of people texted me that day and said they knew Scott had something to do with that,” Kim Schaefer said. “We had some friends at the Daytona 500 and they said as soon as Jimmie won the sun came out and they said it was Scott smiling.”
Scott's heartbeat seemed to be all over the place.
“Scott was a great kid with a big heart,” Kelly Hood said. “And Jon has a big heart too, but they were two different kinds of hearts.”
There won't be any overt tributes to Scott Schaefer from Jon Hood. There won't be the initials 'S.S' scribbled on his Nikes or a point to the heavens when he makes a shot. That's not the way Hood wants to honor the boy who helped changed his life by simply finding the joy in life.
“I don't need to,” Hood said. “He watched every game and he's watching now.”
That's perfectly fine for the Schaefer family, who sees a little bit in Scott every time Jon Hood comes into focus. Whether he plays or not, Hood will forever be a part of their family.
“You know how people are today,” Kim Schaefer said. “It lets you know there are still good people who have pure motives and a good heart. It made Scott feel so special. He had been through 20 surgeries in 12 years. Just to see him smile...
“It just helped him to feel special, not because Jon was a basketball player but just the connection of having a friend.”