To this day, Shani and Brandon Inge can’t explain the initial tug they felt more than a dozen years ago to devote their time, energy, and resources to help raise awareness about childhood health issues.
But one thing is unmistakable. The urge was both undeniable and, at times, uncomfortable.
Brandon Inge, who spent 12 years as an infielder for the Detroit Tigers before retiring in 2013, admits to feeling uneasy before he made his first visit to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, where he and his teammates spent time with childhood cancer patients. He feared he wouldn’t know what to say to kids facing a life-threatening disease, or to parents facing so much uncertainty.
Behind the scenes, Shani had been instrumental in bringing Tigers players to Mott after she had developed a friendship with Tammi Carr that, over the years, became an unbreakable sisterhood.
Yet, even with the many hospital visits he made and through the countless hours he spent signing autographs and interacting with kids and their families who were facing the most difficult of circumstances, Brandon – along with Shani, who also worked to get the Tigers’ wives more involved in the community – still didn’t have a clear answer as to why they felt so compelled to take action.
Then, in 2014, Chad Carr was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG). And just like that, everything changed.
In the five years since, the connection Shani and Brandon have established with The ChadTough Foundation has deepened significantly, as have their efforts to bring more awareness to a type of brain tumor that is diagnosed in 300-400 children in the U.S. each year and that has a zero percent survival rate.
The couple has taken on key roles with the foundation’s annual gala and, after moving back to Michigan from Virginia in 2018, has seen the work of ChadTough become even more central to their lives. Shani serves on the foundation’s board of directors, while Brandon’s love for baseball has led to the creation of the inaugural Dingers for DIPG event, which will take place August 17 at C.O. Brown Stadium in Battle Creek, MI.
But even before they had ever heard of DIPG, the groundwork for their involvement was being laid – even if Shani and Brandon didn’t realize it at the time.
“There’s that piece that tugs at you about why we were called to do that and why that connection felt like it did,” Shani said.
“There was always that question mark.”
Soon, there would be answers.
Two events stick out in Shani’s memory.
The first happened in 2010 when Shani was in Lakeland, Florida, during Tigers spring training. She’d left her phone in her car while she ran in to a local store. When she returned, she found 10 missed calls from Tammi Carr, who had just learned she and her husband Jason would soon be parents to a third son.
Four years later, another set of missed calls and a subsequent text message from Tammi – this one discovered at 6:30 a.m. – brought more life-changing news.
“I need to talk to you,” the text read.
Shani, Chad’s godmother, called Tammi immediately.
“‘Chad has cancer’ were the only words she could get out,” Shani said.
Seven years before, Shani and Brandon had donated $100,000 for the creation of an activity space in the pediatric infusion area of the new $523 million C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, which opened in 2011. Then, like now, the couple felt uncomfortable being cast into the spotlight for their contributions and instead wanted their connection to the cause to be more symbolic and meaningful, rather than public.
In the years since, Brandon had made countless visits to Mott and had become known as the Tigers player who allowed children to autograph his arms to the point that the signatures – written in permanent marker – were visible during Tigers TV broadcasts. After overcoming the discomfort he felt during his initial hospital visits, Brandon realized that even five minutes of his time was making a world of difference.
“What I realized is that I was fortunate enough to play a game for a living, and these kids are going through life-and-death situations and they’re 14 years old, which was just unreal to me,” said Brandon, who now serves as the Director of Baseball Player Development at The Legacy Center in Brighton, MI and is an assistant baseball coach at Detroit Country Day School. “I realized that in a matter of maybe five minutes of meeting with a family and a kid, I could brighten up their day just by them asking baseball questions or (engaging in) small talk.
“The way their eyes would look – they weren’t thinking about treatment, they weren’t thinking about the cancer, they weren’t thinking about anything they were going through at that moment. For that one brief second or the minutes we were able to be around them, it was probably the most fulfilling thing we ever did in our career.”
At the time, Brandon and Shani never realized what those interactions would lead to.
After learning of Chad’s diagnosis, Brandon and Shani immediately drove to Michigan. As much as they couldn’t imagine what their close friends were going through, they knew they had to be there to lend whatever support they could.
“We didn’t know what else to do,” Shani said.
Brandon added, “People going through this have enough emotions as it is – they don’t need butting in. They just need a shoulder to lean on every once in a while when they need it.”
Once they arrived in Ann Arbor, the conversations about DIPG began. For as many questions as Shani had, Tammi had answers. Quickly, Shani and Brandon discovered just how devastating DIPG is and learned of the tumor’s nonexistent survival rate. On a more personal level, Shani could tell how much Tammi and Jason were struggling to come to grips with what was happening to them and their family.
“For me, Tammi’s always been that symbol of unbelievable strength. That existed well before Chad was born. She’s been this absolute fighter, go-getter – her level of determination is something I’ve always had unbelievable respect for,” Shani said. “To see my friend with that level of hurt and the inability to fix it – because that’s it – she was always going to fix it. That’s what she turned into.
“She’s going to fix it. She’s going to fix the survival rate. But during (Chad’s) fight, she couldn’t do it. That was the hard part – not being able to help her and fix what she, Jason, CJ, Tommy, and Chad were all going through.”
Since 2015, when Chad’s courageous 15-month fight with DIPG ended, more answers have come to Shani and Brandon about why they continue to do what they do. Chad’s infectious personality and smile live inside of them, and the way his determination and his spirit represented a perfect blend of his parents remains with them four years after his passing.
And ever since hosting a baseball clinic benefitting ChadTough led to the creation of Dingers for DIPG, not only why they’re doing this but where has become even more evident and meaningful to Brandon and Shani.
While ChadTough’s mission is well-known in southeast Michigan, the foundation’s work isn’t as recognizable in other parts of the state. But last year, when Brandon hosted that day-long clinic in Battle Creek, which was initially part of the silent auction at the annual ChadTough gala, and the event raised an additional $3,000, an idea was born. This year’s day-long Dingers for DIPG event will include not just the baseball clinic, but also a home run derby, fireworks, a concert, and appearances by former Tigers Placido Polanco, Craig Monroe, Alan Trammell, and Mike Hessman.
The event will take place in a city where two cases of children fighting DIPG have arisen recently, which has helped raised awareness of this devastating brain cancer among Battle Creek residents. Now, Shani and Brandon understand why a city best known for breakfast cereal is home for the Dingers event.
While the money raised for DIPG research is vital as the search for a cure continues, making people aware of how DIPG affects families impacted by the condition remains at the center of ChadTough events.
“So many people have taken hold of this cause and genuinely want to put an end to it so that this is not a death sentence,” Shani said.
“The greatest feeling [of helping raise awareness] is the idea that the cause was once completely unheard of, but it’s becoming totally recognizable. And now, we know we’re exactly where we’re meant to be.”
By Jeff Arnold – ChadTough volunteer writer