A strong 8-year-old inspires the Mets coaching staff to train for a marathon

Tim Brown
MLB columnist
Leighton Accardo, the 8-year-old daughter of Mets pitching coach Jeremy Accardo, is inspiring players and coaches across the sports world in her battle with cancer. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

Her name is Leighton Accardo. She is 8. She’s had some difficult days, enough of them to add up to a year, what with the surgeries and the treatments and all the serious conversations about what the tests show and what’s next.

She smiles a lot anyway, so you know. Lately, she’s been making tie-dye shirts and painting rocks pretty colors. When she comes home, she’ll get on her bike and follow her dad on his runs through their neighborhood. They always take videos of those, her dad and her running and riding and acting a little goofy, so they can send it to the people who need a little encouragement that day.

Those people have a marathon to prepare for and that’s a lot of work, a lot of positive thinking, a lot of good attitude, a lot of determination. Leighton is there for them, telling them to keep going, to have fun, to remember to smile, too. To go faster.

Her dad’s name is Jeremy. He is the assistant pitching coach for the New York Mets. He also, lately, is an expert third-grade teacher, first-grade teacher and preschool teacher to Leighton’s sister and two brothers, this being a time when other people are getting sick, too. Her mom is Carly. Leighton and her mom have spent the past 3½ weeks together in New York, for the surgeries. Also, for more of those serious conversations. They’re going to come home to Gilbert, Arizona, at the end of the week. The doctors said it would be good for Leighton to be at home and comfortable. Maybe Jeremy will hit her some ground balls. She loves fielding ground balls.

“I hate that word, ‘comfortable,’ ” Jeremy says. “Sounds like we’re giving up. And we’re not.”

They’re not.

They call themselves Leighton Strong. They’re a dozen or more friends, mostly guys who work with her dad. Their plan is to run the New York City Marathon on Nov. 1 together, under the Leighton Strong banner. Their plan is to have Leighton at the finish line, smiling, cheering, reminding them all she told them they could do it, that all it took was a little courage and maybe a few Band-Aids.

So, in Port St. Lucie, Florida, Mets manager Luis Rojas gets out of bed and walks past the treadmill and heads out into the streets. In Sandwich, Massachusetts, third base coach Gary Disarcina and his girlfriend, Julie Johnson, lean into another mile. Then another. In Collinsville, Oklahoma, pitching coach Jeremy Hefner fixes breakfast plates for four children, stretches his achy knee, and tells them he’ll see them in an hour or so.

They don’t have to run all 26.2 miles. One more step will do. One more than was comfortable yesterday. Two more than the day before. The stomp-stomp-stomp of covering all that ground, gaining on something worthwhile, gaining on the smile that awaits in Central Park.

Mets manager Luis Rojas and pitching coach Jeremy Hefner are among the group running under the Leighton Strong banner to rally around assistant pitching coach Jeremy Accardo's daughter. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

So Tom Slater, the assistant hitting coach, runs. Brian Schneider, the quality control coach, runs. So do the bullpen catchers — Dave Racaniello and Eric Langill. Sean Bardenett, the rehab coordinator, runs. Harold Kaufman, vice president of communications, runs. Gary Disarcina’s brother, Geno, runs.

Jeremy Accardo runs.

On text message threads, they send encouragement and share tiny victories, along with screenshots of that day’s journey. They video themselves saying hi to Leighton, reminding her they’re out there, asking her to keep fighting, telling jokes maybe only they will laugh at. She sends back videos, always smiling, and that’s enough, reminding them why they’re out there.

“She’s fighting her ass off,” Disarcina says. “And I’m feeling humbled and honored to put myself through the training for such an incredible little girl.”

He recently sent her a video in which he plays air instruments — guitar, horn, drums — to “Wipe Out.” He is in a bear costume, the one he wears to hand out Halloween candy. He dances. At the end, he holds up his paw in a loving toast to her. The bear smiles for him. He — Disarcina, not the bear — is up to six miles.

A few of the coaches and staff met Leighton when the Mets went through Arizona last June. Others this spring, when she visited Florida during spring training. She was on a break from chemotherapy.

Luis Rojas is up to seven miles.

“It breaks our hearts,” he says. “But, at the same time, the strength and personality that little [girl] has is amazing.

“Before, you know, I had no purpose in my running. I was just trying to stay in shape. Next thing I know, with Leighton Strong, I’m like, ‘Hey, count me in!’ This is how we keep her present.”

Jeremy Hefner is up to eight miles.

“She’s a sweetheart,” he says. “She’s a fighter.”

A year ago, on Mother’s Day, Leighton was diagnosed with germ cell cancer. Nine surgeries have followed, two, on her lungs, recently. She has endured radiation and chemotherapy treatments. In between, she takes those bike rides, she plays ball in the backyard, she makes her mom and dad laugh until they cry. She would, perhaps, remind herself to keep going, to have fun, to smile. To go faster.

The grown-ups watch. They listen. They’ll lace new shoes over their sore feet and dread the first steps on an unforgiving road. It’s not so bad, they’ll tell themselves. Just take the first one. The rest follow. The courage is in the first one.

“They’re incredibly strong people,” Hefner says of Jeremy and Carly, of all the Accardos. “I think that’s why Leighton is so strong. She learned from her parents not to give in.”

This little girl who is going so hard, living so hard, she gathers the wind behind her. When her hair was going to give in to the chemotherapy, her baseball teammates shaved their heads in solidarity. In friendship. The NHL’s Arizona Coyotes have had her to games and helped pay her way to New York City, where some of the fight must be.

Justin Upton and his wife, Ashley, paid for a private jet for the most recent trip. The game, the people in it, they gather in the wind behind the little girl and her family. And when they run it is not away, it is to the finish line, at the end of all those miles, where she will be.

“I think it just shows humanity is good,” Hefner says. “With all the chaos going on … people are generally good. When there are like-minded people, good things can happen. We have this group of guys and they’re all drawn to this 8-year-old girl. That’s because of what she brings to the day.”

The conversations about the tests are serious again. She’s coming home soon. The men with “Mets” on their shorts or T-shirts or socks will run their miles. They will be as Leighton Strong as they can be. They will call. They’ll get smiles in return. Keep going. Have fun. Go faster.

A year passes no one could have seen coming. Leighton’s dad calls it a roller coaster, the only analogy he can think of that lifts them all to the clouds and then takes their stomachs away.

“The ups,” he says, “the things you look forward to, the light at the end of the tunnel. And then almost immediately it gets slammed shut. But, now, after this year, I think I’m a lot more grateful. There’s a thousand different things. But grateful is the most glaring one. Appreciative of the health people have. Of my other three kids. And how in awe of my daughter I am. To go through this. Her soul. Every time she gets knocked down seven flights of stairs, she looks up and smiles.”

She amazes him. She amazes them all.

Her name is Leighton Accardo. She is 8. This part is going to be hard. Again. More of those kinds of days. More of that kind of fight. And what’s that thing she says all the time anyway, that thing she’s always saying to her dad? 

“Well, I gotta do it,” she tells him. “I want to live.”

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