Before he strode onto the NFL draft stage beside Roger Goodell to announce the Ravens first round pick, before he became a national treasure with an instantly viral fist pump, TJ Onwuanibe was in the commissioner’s private lounge doing breathing exercises. But before that, he was an 11-year-old kid in a hospital bed, clutching onto his favorite football and coming to grips with the word “cancer.”
On Feb. 16, 2015, TJ was admitted to the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. after his parents noticed that he had been struggling to read his euphonium sheet music. Doctors soon diagnosed him with grade 4 choriocarcinoma, an extremely rare form of brain cancer. But they didn’t use that word: cancer. Doctors told TJ that he had something growing in his head—a highly aggressive tumor—and they needed to remove it immediately. TJ’s first question was, “Can I finish the basketball season first?”
Chemotherapy began on the first day of March, and it wasn’t until a nurse put a “Cancer Fears Me” hat on his head that it registered. Wait, he had cancer, that word he had only seen in movies and on TV? “Does this mean I’m going to die?” TJ asked his mom, followed by, “Does this mean I’m going to lose my hair?” TJ had been growing out his afro for three years.
As he went through the chemo treatments—six cycles spanning nearly four months, overlapping his 12th birthday and coming with all of the usual, unpleasant side effects—TJ refused to use the word cancer. But eventually, he embraced it and decided that he was going to beat it.
More than anything, TJ missed playing football. Well, he still played. But only now it was in the hospital, with doctors and nurses, throwing his favorite football back and forth from his bed or in the hallway. His parents bought him the ball before he got sick, but it wasn’t until he was cooped up in the hospital that he started carrying it with him everywhere.
“The nurses knew something would be up if I didn't have the football,” TJ says.
Doctors quickly realized that in order to engage TJ you had to talk about football, and you better be willing to discuss his beloved Baltimore Ravens. To pass the time, he would memorize and recite the Ravens players’ stats, year-by-year. On the day he got his head shaved (he had been hanging on to the last three patches of hair left from his afro for as long as he could), he was given a signed Dennis Pitta jersey to buoy his spirits.
He missed the sport so much that while he was undergoing the chemo treatments, he coached his younger brother’s flag football team. As he went through his fourth cycle of chemo, his biggest concern was who the Ravens would draft. During his sixth (and final) cycle, he woke up in the middle of the night and asked his mother if she thought his football coach would let him get the number 91 back when he returned to the team.
Chemotherapy ended in late July, and that was followed by six weeks of proton radiation. But by October, the oncologist delivered positive news from his MRI, to which TJ replied, “Well, then this brings us to the key question for today.” He didn’t even have to specify. The doctor knew what he meant. But, unfortunately, no, he was not yet cleared to play football.
In March of this year, just a couple weeks after TJ turned 14 and 18 months since he finished treatment, doctors told him that his cancer was officially in remission. TJ’s first thought upon hearing the news was that now, finally, he could play football again. This time he was right.
At one point during chemotherapy, a social worker gave TJ a packet from the Make-A-Wish foundation. When he was asked if he had any ideas for a wish, TJ quickly responded that he wanted to meet Ray Lewis, his favorite player. When she encouraged him to think bigger, he said “Meet Ray Lewis today!” After toying with the idea of a trip to the French Riviera (“the expensive” dream), TJ decided on announcing the Ravens first-round draft choice (“the once in a lifetime” dream) in the 2017 NFL draft.
He never expected it to be granted.
On Friday, April 21, TJ attended what he believed was just a regular school assembly, in which he was set to perform as a featured dancer for a Hamilton song. But after the performance was over the school’s principal called TJ back up to the stage, and a video of John Harbaugh came onto the screen. Harbaught told TJ that his wish was being granted, and he would get to announce the Ravens first-round pick.
“My brain was going error, error,” TJ says.
It’s the first day of the 2017 NFL draft, and TJ is wearing his Terrell Suggs jersey and cradling his football, which is now fully frayed at both edges, the pigskin brown peeled off by years of overuse revealing its cream-colored entrails. The football will be in TJ’s arms for the entire day, as he sits, as he walks, as he does interviews, as he lays down in bed. Over the last two years it has morphed from regular football to magical talisman.
“It helps keep me calm,” TJ says. “When I hold it, it calms my nerves.”
TJ has already been on SportsCenter and had an interview with the Fox affiliate in Philadelphia that morning. When asked how he’s holding up, he says, “I am technically still awake.” When asked if he, as a Ravens fan, feels bad for Browns fans who find themselves at the top of the draft yet again, he breaks out laughing. When a video producer tepidly admits that she is a Steelers fan, TJ gets up from the restaurant table and jokingly walks away. And when a reporter conflates two stats in Ravens history, TJ quickly corrects him. His true fan credentials are not to be impugned.
TJ has never been the talkative one in his family—that designation goes to his eight-year-old brother, Chidi—but since his diagnosis he has became more comfortable when conversing. Last September TJ gave a speech at his middle school, which included lines such as: “Communicating is one of the ways that I was able to get taller on the inside, where it matters.” And: “My heart has grown. Empathy is a fire that can touch anyone.”
This improved level of comfort would be beneficial for him on this day, as when he walked down the street in Philadelphia after lunch he was stopped nearly a dozen times by strangers. They told him that they saw him on TV, that he was famous, amazing, a superstar, an inspiration. Several asked for pictures.
That afternoon TJ checks out the NFL Experience, does three separate interviews and meets Dennis Pitta. Everywhere he goes he’s asked who he wants the Ravens to pick. And every time he answers, a cornerback. He’s convinced that is what the team needs most. He’d be happy with a receiver, but his heart is set on a cornerback.
Late afternoon he heads back to his hotel, exhausted from all the walking and talking, and collapses into bed—football in hand. But by 7 p.m. he was dressed in his grey checkered suit, pink shirt and purple bow tie—for the Ravens, of course. He’s ready for the draft.
After the Kansas City Chiefs trade up to take QB Patrick Mahomes, an NFL representative comes to whisk TJ and his dad backstage. He walks down the aisle, up a staircase, then another, through a back door, into a labyrinth of hallways draped on all sides with black curtains, and finally into the green room.
He eats a sugar cookie as he strides down another set of stairs, this time into the special off-stage lounge created for commissioner Roger Goodell—replete with snacks, a tray of brownies and a fridge of Pepsi products. TJ waits here as the picks tick from 14 to 15 to eventually the Ravens at 16. As he waits, he goes through his breathing exercises to calm down—in through the nose, out through the mouth. His dad reassures him that he’s been through all the hard stuff already, the cancer, the chemo. This, now, is the easy part.
Then TJ meets Goodell, who shakes his hand, asking him if he’s any good at football and if he’ll see him back here one day to have his name called. “Yeah, in about eight years,” TJ replies.
Sitting in a beige chair, TJ is a pent-up ball of nervous energy, his arms gyrating up and down, rubbing the arms of the chair.
“Is that an arm exercise?” Goodell asks.
“I have no idea,” TJ responds.
Goodell assures him that he’ll do great and to get back to his breathing exercises, as he goes over the pronunciation of TJ’s last name with his father. An NFL staffer hands TJ a sample draft card, and they practice the sentence he’ll have to say. With the 16th pick in the 2017 NFL draft, the Baltimore Ravens select…
Someone asks TJ what he’s nervous about.
“My tie being out of place, saying the 17th pick, saying 2016, then maybe me fainting after it's over,” he deadpans.
It’s time. The Ravens pick is in, and Goodell puts his arm around TJ. “OK buddy, come on down,” the commissioner says.
The crowd roars, easily the loudest it has been all night, when TJ is introduced. TJ takes one last deep breath as Goodell adjusts the microphone. He reads the card perfectly—gets the pick right, the year right, his tie remains in place. As he realizes that the Ravens picked Marlon Humphrey—a cornerback, just like he had wanted—TJ can’t help but let loose a fist pump. In her seat off-stage, his mom begins to cry.
“You’re going to take my job,” Goodell says to TJ as they walk back into the lounge. The commissioner signs the draft card and gives it to him. “You should keep this as a keepsake.”
TJ is ushered outside, as fans reach over the railings to slap hands and bump fists. His feet are bouncing up and down as a smile overtakes his entire face—his excitement can no longer be contained. Someone asks what he’s doing. Is it a celebration dance? A touchdown dance?
“I have no idea what this is,” he says. “This is me freaking out. I still feel like the last week has been a dream. This is the best thing that could have ever happened.”
TJ is presented with a special Ravens draft day hat, as team executives thank him for representing the franchise well. Both of his parents radiate pride. Soon TJ is back in his seat, his dream day coming to a close and his favorite football back in his hands.