The road ahead is long for cancer patient Austin Freeman, but he has found a few bright spots along the way.
The 12-year-old was nearly speechless last week when NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. surprised him at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.
“Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh,” Austin said, as his racing idol approached. “I’m trying not to tear up about this, but this means a lot.”
The two quickly hit it off.
They tossed a football and raced atop electric “Cruzin Coolers,” a modified beverage cooler on wheels.
After Austin took the checkered flag, Earnhardt challenged him on the remote control car track.
The six-time Talladega champion edged out Austin in a photo finish, but he handed over the autographed cars as a consolation prize.
Big news came in a news conference with Talladega Superspeedway Chairman Grant Lynch.
Austin found out he will be in Earnhardt’s pit box during the race Oct. 25.
“This is a dream come true for me. I literally can’t believe that Dale Jr. is sitting beside me,” said Austin, who had someone pinch him to make sure it was real.
He was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a bone cancer, a couple of years ago.
Chemotherapy and radiation knocked it back for a year, but it came back this summer.
CURE for Childhood Cancer Program arranged the meeting with Earnhardt while Austin was on a break from his latest round of chemotherapy at Children’s Health Care of Atlanta.
“You have no idea what this means to me,” said Austin, who had to push back the autographed Talladega cap that was slipping on his bald head. “It has touched me so. I just can’t believe it. He’s been my driver ever since I started loving NASCAR.”
Earnhardt and Austin looked at the exhibits and joined in the interactive games.
“Spending time with my new little buddy, Austin, was so rewarding because he is an amazing kid,” said Earnhardt, who also was touring the hall of fame for the first time. “It was a day I had hoped for and more. I really dig this kind of stuff.”
Austin loves cars, said his grandfather, retired Macon-Bibb County Assistant Fire Chief Cliff Rushin.
“He loves classic cars, particularly,” said Rushin, who along with his wife, Lenny, are caring for Austin at their Lizella home. “He’s kind of an old soul. Austin is not your typical 12-year-old.”
The family faces some difficult decisions about pending major surgery to remove Austin’s tumor. A difficult recovery is expected to take two years, Rushin said.
In the meantime, celebrity encounters brighten his day and outlook.
Austin met John Smoltz, Matt Ryan and singer Kellie Pickler, who accepted a ring he purchased at the hospital gift shop while she was entertaining the children.
Austin even rode in the steam engine during the recent Nancy Hanks excursion from Macon to Tennille.
“He’s done a lot of stuff, but I think this was one of the best ones,” Rushin said of the Earnhardt encounter. “It was really neat, and Dale was just very good with him. He’s obviously concerned about Austin, and I’m hoping they’ll develop a nice relationship going forward.”
Earnhardt will seat Austin with his crew chief Greg Ives for the race.
“You will be part of the team,” he told Austin. “You are going to be our good luck charm, and if we win, we will have to take you to some more races.”
To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303, and follow her on Twitter@liz_lines.