BYRON, Ill. – It was a surprise Matt Henkel never saw coming.
“Something never in a million years you think would happen.”
Ian Happ stood in Henkel’s house in Byron, Illinois – a two-hour drive west of Chicago, bearing gifts.
“Some baseballs, some hats, baseball cards, a pair of Jon Lester’s signed cleats, which was pretty dang neat.”
The Cubs outfielder also spent time with Henkel’s 15-year-old son Ashton, an aspiring ballplayer, who once worked a spring training game as a bat boy on a day Happ homered.
“I jokingly said something like, ‘should’ve slid that bat under fence,’ but when Ian surprised me he brought a game used bat that he autographed.”
For this lifelong Cubs fan, Happ shined a bright light amidst the darkness.
Since 2008, the 41-year-old father of three has battled brain cancer. He underwent surgery in 2010, followed by 33 radiation treatments. His scans steadily improved as he continued working full-time as general manager at Prairie View Golf Club. But by the summer of 2019, he noticed increasing difficulty to focus and concentrate.
“I would type emails and I would have to reread them four times and make corrections and this was just not normal.”
After arriving at the neurosurgery clinic in Wisconsin, he knew right away the news was bad.
“A six-year-old could’ve looked at it and said, ‘you know what, that lit up area bigger than golf ball was not supposed to be there.'”
The diagnosis was Glioblastoma – a rare and most aggressive form of brain cancer.
“I had two craniotomies in the next two days. Everything came so fast. Then, it was on to chemo and another round of radiation again. Been a real struggle since then.”
With the tumor still visibly growing, Henkel reached out last month to UCLA’s Department of Neurosurgery, hoping they would accept him for an upcoming clinical trial. In early January, as he entered hospice care, he got the call to come out to California.
“I can’t remember if it was the next day or whenever but that’s when Ian showed up to save the day.”
While Henkel was contacting UCLA, his former assistant Mike Brown messaged Happ on Twitter. Happ’s father Keith had died of brain cancer in 2015. Like Henkel, Keith devoted his life to the links, working as a USGA agronomist.
Happ called Brown soon after and the surprise was set in motion.
“He said he knew what he went through with his dad Keith’s experience. I’m thankful he kept it real positive and kept me on track.”
That track may be scary and uncertain as Henkel begins treatment in L.A. but he’ll carry Happ’s generosity with him on his fight.
“It made that journey all that more easy. My spirits were higher and more hopeful.”