FARMINGTON — A battle that started in 2011 has led to a pivotal 2014 for Justin Solomon.
Solomon, a Piedra Vista High School graduate and baseball player at the school, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in July 2011, the summer between his junior and senior years of high school. Two and a half years after his diagnosis, the 19-year-old's fight against cancer is still a daily struggle.
He has traveled from Farmington to Albuquerque; Houston, Texas; and Durham, N.C., for treatment, which has included a bone marrow transplant and dialysis for kidney failure. The family now lives in North Carolina.
After nearly a year of in-and-out stays at the Duke Children's Hospital and Health Center in Durham, Solomon will return home to New Mexico to be part of a special fundraiser camp on Jan. 19 in Albuquerque hosted by Ryan Brewer's Albuquerque Baseball Academy.
The ABA and Strike Zone Baseball of Farmington both hosted benefit camps about a year ago, but medical complications forced Solomon to miss the camps. He is determined to not let that happen this year.
"It is going to be great, and I'm very thankful," Solomon said of the opportunity to return home. "I can't thank the people enough who are making it possible for us to come. I'm very excited for the ABA camp, especially since last year I wasn't able to attend."
The two camps last year raised more than $10,000 for Solomon and his family. The ABA camp raised $6,600 alone.
"The ABA has been such a huge support for us," said Justin Solomon's mother, Jennifer, who has been by Justin's side for constant care since his diagnosis. "This fundraiser has helped us tremendously. Justin has not only been hit hard by cancer but also been hit by nearly every side effect of the chemo, radiation and medications possible."
In 2013, the teenager lost at least half of his vision and has significant nerve damage in his legs and feet, severe and constant nausea, his mother explained. He needs daily dialysis due to kidney failure, and his immune system barely functions as he constantly fights pneumonia-like symptoms.
"I can't work. I've tried, but I can't because Justin needs me to care for him most of the time," said Jennifer Solomon, whose husband, Jason Solomon, works to support the family. "These fundraisers allow me to be with my son. The money raised helps us pay for gas, food, medications, hospital bills, etc."
Justin Solomon is facing a critical 2014. He is scheduled for another bone marrow transplant in March because his body is rejecting the donor marrow he received in 2012, and he is facing a kidney transplant. Jennifer Solomon is providing the kidney for the procedure. The bone marrow transplant will only go through in March if Justin Solomon and his new kidney are healthy enough to undergo more chemo and radiation.
"This year, 2014, holds a lot of hope and promise for forward movement. We were presented with a few options with how to move forward with Justin. Justin, of course, wants to do the one with the most risk," Jennifer Solomon said. "We are both terrified and hopeful. March is a big month for him."
Before the weight of his pending procedures fully sinks in, the Solomon family will have a chance to get back to the sport they love: baseball.
Brewer had tickets donated to fly Jennifer and Justin Solomon to Albuquerque for the camp, and several of New Mexico's finest young professional baseball players will lead the camp. Among those players will be La Cueva High School graduate Jordan Pacheco, who plays for the Colorado Rockies, the team that used a 35th round draft pick in 2012 to select Justin Solomon as a symbolic gesture.
"This is for a great cause to help Justin try to live a normal life," Pacheco said. "It is amazing, when you talk to Justin, his spirits are through the roof. ... Everyone in the Rockies' organization views him as a teammate."
Blake Swihart, a graduate of Cleveland High in Rio Rancho and 2011 first-round pick of the Boston Red Sox, has helped organize the camp for the last two years. Also in attendance will be Max Walla of the Milwaukee Brewers, Austin House of the Oakland Athletics, Scott Gracey of the Toronto Blue Jays, Mitchell Garver of the Minnesota Twins and Sam Wilson of the Texas Rangers.
Farmington's own Jake McCasland and Shilo McCall, two Piedra Vista graduates who are prospects in the San Francisco Giants farm system, will also attend.
"I have stayed in touch with Justin, but, sadly, I haven't seen him since the summer after we graduated," said McCall, a high school teammate of Justin Solomon's on the Panthers' 2011 and 2012 state championship teams. "I'm beyond excited to be reunited with him. Justin has inspired so many people with the journey he is on, so any way we can encourage him to hold on and keep fighting is really important."
Brewer isn't surprised by the positive response from so many professional players and their willingness to help instruct a quality camp for a good cause.
"It's just the way baseball is. Guys seem to always stick together," said Brewer, who pitched in college for Texas Tech before being signed by the Kansas City Royals' organization. "I have always said I have had two families, my family at home and the 'baseball family.' As guys get older and in pro ball, they understand what a privilege it is to play the game as long as they have. They also understand they need to give back to the game."
Jennifer Solomon has long credited the baseball community for helping the family get through the tough times.
"I have been flat blown away by the baseball players, coaches and scouts far and wide and their kindness and generosity. These guys doing the camp are just outstanding men," she said. "It's not just a fleeting thing. They really care about Justin and act on it. I'm so impressed by them. We are so grateful, so deeply grateful."
Justin Solomon may have never played a game for the ABA or for an Albuquerque-area high school, but Brewer said he has become part of their family.
"I just know if the tables were turned, the Solomons would be there for us," Brewer said. "He is a fighter. A grinder. Mentally tough no matter what. Those are the types of guys I want on my team."
Even though a camp won't be held in Farmington this year, Brewer encouraged anyone from the Four Corners interested in the camp to participate.
"Just getting 10 kids to come down for the camp from Farmington is another $1,000," he said.
Kids attending the camp won't only get the chance to learn from some of the state's best players playing at the professional level, but they will also receive a personal message from Justin Solomon. He said that message is simple.
"No matter how hard things get, don't give up or stop believing," Justin Solomon said. "As Babe Ruth said, 'It's hard to beat a person who never gives up.' I hope the kids understand how lucky they are to be able to play baseball, that they understand they have coaches who come together to help them be better than they were yesterday, and that they appreciate this great game and the health they have to play it."
What: Throw Cancer a Curve benefit baseball camp for Justin Solomo
When: 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 19
Where: Albuquerque Baseball Academy, 6700 Edith NE, Albuquerque
Cost: $100 per player. 100 percent of proceeds go to the Justin Solomon Foundation.
More info: Camp is for players ages 7 to 14. Camp will be led by professional players from New Mexico, ABA staff and high school coaches. To register, visit www.ababaseball.com.