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The Players tees up big surprise for young cancer patients

Bender Middlekauff, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor last year, got to meet Justin Thomas

The Players tees up big surprise for young cancer patients
The Players tees up big surprise for young cancer patients

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A 25-year-old cancer patient got the surprise of a lifetime on Wednesday afternoon.

Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center gave Bender Middlekauff tickets for him, his family and friends to attend The Players Championship. But little did he know that when they got there, he’d wind up meeting his favorite professional golfer, Justin Thomas.

It’s the sort of moment every golf fan dreams about.

“Unbelievable,” Middlekauf recalled. “He called me out by my name at the 16th tee: ‘You’re Bender, right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re Justin Thomas. Can I call you JT?’”

Middlekauff acknowledged the experience was a little overwhelming but said he and Thomas got to chat for a few moments. He said they mostly talked about the University of Alabama, the school they both attended.

It was a completely different feeling than the diagnosis he received this time last year.

“I had a seizure on March 8 (2020),” Middlekauff said. “It was just a Sunday night we were watching Suits together, a TV show, and I drifted off to sleep and fell asleep on the couch and made this really strange noise. And I couldn’t stop it.”

Middlekauff’s roommate immediately called 911 and rushed him to the Baptist Beaches. He was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor located near the left frontal lobe, which is linked to speech and controls the right side of the body.

He had a brain surgery while awake March 20, the same day Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended elective surgeries statewide. The procedure lasted five hours. Middlekauff said he passed the time during surgery by talking about golf.

“We talked about at that time (I hit a) hole-in-one at No. 8 at (Timuquana Country Club) and my passion for golf,” he recalled. “And then after brain surgery, six weeks later, I had another hole-in-one.”

Neuro oncologist Dr. Robert Cavaliere, MD, said Middlekauff’s brain tumor is called an oligodendroglioma, a rare kind of tumor that occurs most often in men ages 35 to 44. About 1,000 people receive this diagnosis each year.

Now in his third round of chemotherapy, Middlekauff said he’s been doing well. He’s been able to continue playing golf and has gotten to enjoy moments like the one he shared with Thomas, his favorite golfer, on Wednesday.

“I got a handwritten note from Justin Thomas that says: ‘Bender, you’re an inspiration! Keep fighting! Roll Tide,’” he said.

Another young cancer patient’s dream was fulfilled Wednesday with an invitation to The Players from his favorite golfer, Dustin Johnson. With the help of the Dreams Come True organization, 13-year-old Christian was surprised with a golf-filled day at TPC Sawgrass, including an opportunity to meet Johnson.

Christian, who’s a patient at Nemours, was diagnosed with hemophilia when he was one year old. Since he cannot play contact sports, the teen said golf became his lifeline. And on Wednesday, he got an exclusive tour of the PGA Tour’s headquarters and an opportunity to watch the pros at work from behind the scenes.

Christian, 13 and his family got to meet his favorite golfer, Dustin Johnson. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

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Multi-media journalist with a special interest in Georgia issues.