Inspiration for a team can manifest itself in various forms.
Some have demanding coaches, respected veterans or a raucous fanbase. But for the North Carolina wrestling team, their inspiration comes from Mason Fannin, an 8-year-old boy from Clayton, North Carolina.
Fannin has been undergoing treatment for Leukemia since February 2019. Shortly after his diagnosis, the Fannin family applied and was accepted to Team IMPACT, an organization that facilitates relationships between college teams and children with chronic illnesses, where they were matched up with the UNC wrestling team.
UNC wrestling has a history of working with pediatric patients, having raised over $5,000 for UNC Children’s Hospital in 2018, and wanted to further their involvement by developing personal relationships. The team was eventually matched with Fannin, and he signed a National Letter of Intent to become an official member of the UNC wrestling team last November. He has been an inspiration to the team ever since.
Redshirt junior Gino Esposito is the community service outreach leader on the wrestling team and one of the Tar Heels who has worked most closely with Fannin. He described the nature of the team’s relationship with their youngest teammate.
“My vision, and the team’s vision, was that he’d be a part of our team, a part of our family,” Esposito said. “He comes to our events, our practices, I FaceTime him three or four times a week and he even plays Xbox with the guys.”
Fannin has since returned home, but during his stay in the hospital last year, his teammates would visit him regularly. Two wrestlers, as well as members of the coaching staff, shaved their heads to coalesce around their new team member. Most importantly for Fannin, the team gifted him some Nerf guns this past Christmas.
Josh McClure, a redshirt senior who co-organizes community service events with Esposito, spoke on the motivation he gained from visiting Fannin during his stay in the hospital.
“I’ve noticed through visiting him that it reminds us that there is something bigger than ourselves that we wrestle for," McClure said. "He is a big source of motivation for us."
Their relationship with Fannin has given the wrestlers a new perspective on their sport, reminding them that their athletic abilities have also granted them the opportunity to impact others’ lives. Head coach Coleman Scott knows that these privileges are invaluable to his team.
“Watching Mason's fight has put a lot of things into perspective for us,” Scott said. “It has shown us what toughness is, and given us the ability to see the bigger picture. Many of us wear wristbands that say ‘Warrior Mason's Army.' It is a constant reminder for us.”
Fannin returned to school for the first time in two years earlier this week, and the entire team is excited to FaceTime with him to see how it went. He'll also be looking forward to putting his Christmas presents to good use in his first post-pandemic Nerf war with his teammates.
His fight against Leukemia and return to school have opened Esposito's eyes to the struggles that others endure.
“We get to wrestle, it’s a sport," he said. "When we go into a match, we aren’t fighting for our lives. There are things that are a lot bigger than wrestling, but the beauty of the sport is that it has given my teammates and I a platform to reach those bigger things.”
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