He’s already performed “Rocky Top” for Peyton Manning and become friends with Joshua Dobbs and his family.
Now six-year-old cancer survivor AJ Cucksey, who has seven inoperable brain tumors, has met two of Oak Ridge’s best athletes: junior Destiny Kassner and senior Tee Higgins, both basketball players.
AJ was at the Friday night game, when Destiny helped the Lady Wildcats beat Bearden in a regional tournament quarterfinal. He was back again on Saturday, when Tee helped the Wildcats in a win over West, also in a quarterfinal game.
AJ, a kindergarten student at Farragut Primary School in Farragut, met Destiny and Tee on Friday, and he sat on the bench next to Tee on Saturday. Tee, who spent time talking to AJ, dunked for him.
AJ, a football fan, was asked what he thought about meeting Tee, a top football recruit who has been named a Mr. Football finalist in Tennessee for the second year in a row.
“Cool,” AJ said.
He said a prayer and gave a pep talk to the Oak Ridge boys in the locker room after they eliminated West from the playoffs.
“Guys, I’m proud of you,” AJ said he told the team. “Great job. If you keep it up, you’ll win the trophy.”
During his visits to Oak Ridge, AJ was an honorary assistant coach, and he received a basketball, an Oak Ridge Wildcats T-shirt, and a shirt autographed by Tee and Dabo Swinney, coach of the Clemson Tigers, this year’s national college football champion. Tee will play football for the Tigers starting later this year.
John Cucksey, AJ’s father, said that Destiny followed AJ’s story on Twitter, and the Cucksey family followed her back.
“She always let us know she’s praying for him,” John said. He said Destiny also has ties to East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.
The family followed Tee’s recruitment in football, hoping he might go to UT. Tee decided instead to go to Clemson.
“He’s a great young man, and he has a talent,” John said of Tee.
AJ’s tumors are currently non-malignant. One is on his optic nerve, one is on his brain stem, and one is on his pituitary gland.
“Even trying to remove them would be dangerous to his life,” John Cucksey said.
There is a 50/50 chance AJ would lose his vision.
“It’s not good,” John said.
The family learned about the tumors after cutting short a trip to Disney World in October 2014 when AJ developed some problems with his coordination and walking. The tumors are referred to as pilocytic astrocytoma. That’s a type of low-grade glioma, meaning the tumors could grow slowly larger but not spread to other parts of the body.
Chemotherapy was required. It has been used to keep the tumors at bay, stabilize them, and keep them from growing.
The tumors are dangerous even though they’re not malignant now, and AJ is considered a cancer patient, John said. Most children might have one or two tumors, rather than the seven that AJ has. AJ once lost use of the left side of his body due to pressure from the tumors, and he was in a wheelchair.
Through it all, AJ kept smiling, John said Saturday.
AJ’s no longer in a wheelchair, and his 41 rounds of chemotherapy ended in December 2015. Doctors don’t expect any long-term effects from the chemotherapy.
But AJ has lost vision because of the tumors, and he is legally blind.
“You can’t really tell because he uses other things to adapt,” John said.
AJ has MRIs every three to four months to evaluate the status of his tumors. The time between MRIs could be extended later. His next scan is in May.
“We hope these tumors just give up and go away,” John said.
A story about AJ was published in 2016 by East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. It said AJ is aware his eyesight is affected, and he understands he has tumors, but that does not keep him from living as normally as he possibly can.
“He’s back to running and playing,” Children’s Hospital pediatric oncologist Susan Spiller said in the article.
AJ has been named an ambassador, or “champion,” for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals for the state of Tennessee.
Among the things he has been able to do: meet senators, watch his beloved New York Mets play, and chat with Miss America.
His singing performance for Manning, a retired NFL quarterback and former Tennessee Volunteer, was publicized in several news stories. And his friendship with Dobbs, a UT quarterback who considers AJ like a little brother, was highlighted in an ESPN story.
John said AJ has also become friends with three UT linemen: Dylan Wiesman, Brett Kendrick, and Jack Jones.
Oak Ridge fans, players, and school staff members appreciated AJ’s visit to Wildcat Arena on Saturday. He was interviewed on the Wildcats post-game broadcast by Coach Aaron Green. Aaron had jokingly asked AJ if he wanted to go out and play for the Wildcats toward the end of the Saturday night game against West.
“It’s not something he’ll ever forget,” said Karen Trent, AJ’s teacher at Farragut Primary. Karen is the mother of Lauren Trent, an assistant coach for the Lady Wildcats. “It’s a lifetime experience. He’ll talk about it at school all next week.”
See a Myles Hebrard video of Tee’s Saturday night dunk for AJ here:
— Myles Hebrard (@myleshebrard) February 26, 2017
See more photos here.
Do you appreciate this story or our work in general? If so, please consider a monthly subscription to Oak Ridge Today. See our Subscribe page here. Thank you for reading Oak Ridge Today.
Copyright 2016 Oak Ridge Today. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.