Our Kind of People

St. Jude saved this George County baseball player’s life. Now he’s giving back big time.

Dylan Eubanks is no stranger to defying the odds — but after everything he’s accomplished in his life, this latest hurdle was nothing.

As an infant, the Lucedale native was diagnosed with an “unclassified” form of cancer after doctors found a lump on his sternum. Medical officials wondered how he was still alive when they were finally able to operate. After the tumor grew back within weeks, Eubanks was sent to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for more than a year of chemotherapy and other treatments. He has since been in remission for 15 years.

Then there was the fact Eubanks grew up playing baseball. The game he cherished was briefly taken away from him in middle school while he recovered from major surgeries — too many to count, Eubanks said — that were the result of his numerous cancer treatments. As a sophomore, George County High coach Brandon Davis took Eubanks on as a team manager, but before long he was out-producing some of the regulars in batting practice and forced his way onto the active roster.

Most recently, Eubanks returned from a checkup at St. Jude inspired. What started as wanting to buy St. Jude bracelets for his Rebel teammates to wear in solidarity turned into an idea: If the Rebels raised $5,000, Eubanks, along with teammates Trevor McDonald, Ethan Coleman and Logan Tanner would shave off their long, “Bama bangs” haircuts. In about just a month’s time, powered by an outpouring of support from the Lucedale community, the Rebels easily cleared their goal, raising more than $6,100 to go back to the hospital that has saved the life of Eubanks and countless other children.

Thursday the quartet had to pay up for their good deeds in front of a packed crowd in the school’s gymnasium.

“As a mama of course I’m partial, but I’m very, very proud of him. It melted my heart when he came home and wanted to give back to the place that we credit for helping to save his life,” Eubanks’ mother, Nina Merritt said before Thursday’s pep rally. “Ultimately we know it was God and he’s a walking miracle, but St. Jude had a big part in where he is today.”

How it started

Eubanks, 17, was just about a year old when he was originally diagnosed. He was at the hospital for respiratory syncytial virus when the doctors discovered a lump on his sternum. After undergoing x-rays, doctors confirmed the tumor and Eubanks quickly underwent the knife.

“They were actually surprised he was alive then because his wind pipe was almost completely cut off, so they wouldn’t even let us leave the hospital that night,” Merritt said.

Within two weeks the lump was back, protruding from Eubanks’ chest, and he was sent to St. Jude for what turned into a year’s worth of chemotherapy plus another six weeks of radiation. Because the cancer was “unclassified,” Eubanks said, they treated him for Ewing’s sarcoma. The treatment worked and by age 2, Eubanks was in remission; the severity of the treatments, however, have affected his life ever since.

Over the years Eubanks has had too many surgeries to count, including inserting a heart monitor. With all of the subsequent surgeries and regular checkups in Memphis, St. Jude’s has a big place in Eubanks’ heart.

“I say St. Jude is the best place on Earth. I know a lot of people say that’s Disney World, but if you could have seen the difference in him being at Tulane and me having to hold him down, it was horrible,” Merritt said. “And then for him to be excited to go to the hospital because it was fun (at St. Jude), he has never thought of St. Jude as a bad place to go.”

Added Eubanks: “It’s different from any hospital I’ve been in. I’ve been in a lot of different hospitals throughout my life for various reasons. With St. Jude, everything is way different. They treat you so great. It’s really just something you have to see to believe.

“Because of how good they treated me, I wanted to do anything I could to help.”

Great idea

Eubanks knew his $5,000 goal was optimistic, but he was also banking on the hometown he has come to love.

At last count, the “Hometown Heroes” fundraiser squashed its goal mostly by selling T-shirts, “jeans passes” for students to wear denim to school on Fridays and numerous sponsorships and donations. The shirts included the name of Eubanks and four other Lucedale children — Carlie, Brandon, Lyndsey and Houston — who either have received treatment at St. Jude or are currently patients.

“I know how this small town is. A lot of people know our stories, so they were really wanting to support us,” Eubanks said. “This means a lot. It’s a great little community to live in.”

Motivations for the donations apparently varied.

“What’s funny a lot of people just donated a lot of money when those guys said they were going to shave their heads,” Davis said with a laugh. “One guy walked up and offered $200 just to see Ethan’s head shaved.”

Inspiring teammate, friend

Largely through Eubanks, and more recently the fundraiser, his GCHS teammates have earned a better appreciation for life outside the baseball diamond.

“He opened my eyes a lot. He said the kids at St. Jude love baseball players and they love baseball teams, just the game period. I had a bad attitude a couple months ago. I had a bad, bad attitude. When I would strike out, I would throw my helmet, throw my batting gloves,” Coleman said. “Those kids would die to be in the batter’s box, getting just one at-bat. Strikeout or not, they’d come back and say ‘at least I got to bat.’

“They look at me as a role model, and I’m sure they’re ashamed of having a bald head, so I did it so if they see me, they can say, ‘he’s my role model and he has a bald head, too, so why should I be ashamed of having one.”

The fundraiser turned out to be a humbling experience.

“It’s awesome to be a part of something a lot bigger than us,” McDonald said. “The kids at St. Jude will have a better Christmas since we can give them all that money.”

Never stop working

Davis knew several years ago he had a special addition to his baseball team. Maybe not a future big-leaguer or first-round draft pick, but a guy who would impact his team on a number of levels.

Tryouts for George County’s highly successful baseball team are always at capacity. Davis doesn’t keep an overflowing roster with deadweight. If a player makes the cut as a player or manager, Davis said, he must come with “a high level of character and quality.”

“We saw that in him as coaches and said we have to keep this kid around,” Davis said.

Originally listed as a manager — in part because he was still recovering from his latest surgery in 2012 — Eubanks remained hungry.

“He kept working and kept working. He didn’t get his feelings hurt because he didn’t make the team, he just took the advantage of working while he was out there,” Davis said. “When he got all his duties done, he would go in the cage and hit. One day I asked him to come out here (to the field) and he just started crushing it.”

Davis said it was the first time in 15 years that he’s seen a player work his way from manager to player.

“He’s relentless. He doesn’t stop,” he said. “If he’s in your group or out there with you he just finds a way and brings everybody’s level up, too.”

Eubanks’ successes have deeply resonated with his teammates.

“I could just never imagine going through that,” Tanner said. “He fought through it and it just shows a lot about what kind of guy he is. He’s a great person.

“I don’t know how he did it, but he did it.”

Sun Herald photographer John Fitzhugh contributed to this report.