The Laughing Survivor

The pitcher let loose.

In the left batter’s box stood 14-year-old Aaron Adair, his feet shoulder-width apart, weight on his back leg ready to explode forward. Left hand curled around the bat handle and stacked firmly on top of his right, he gripped 32 inches of aluminum, parallel to the dirt, over his left shoulder.

He was afraid. Worried. Unnerved.

Not because of the pitcher’s stuff. Not because he doubted his own ability.

His eyes made out two balls headed toward him, one above the other.

What could be happening to him? Baseball was his world, and the thought of something upending that, like a dirty slide taking out a shortstop on a double play, had him freaking out.

“My life was based on how my last game went,” Aaron says over two decades later. “If I had three hits, my life was great. If I went 0-fer, my life sucked. That’s all I cared about was baseball.”

For months that year, no one had been able to get the kid out. Aaron hit a torrid .592 for the Dallas Braves, a select team of area players that overpowered every comer to win the Sandy Koufax World Series in August 1994 after amassing a yeah-we-can-beat-anyone 67-2 record. The roster was stacked with a dozen players who would move on to college or professional ball.

“He was as good as seniors in high school, and he was in eighth grade,” says Blair Robinson, a pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Raleigh, N.C., who has known Aaron since they were pre-teens. “He was almost mythical. He was a bona fide prospect when he was 14 years old.”

But Aaron, a switch-hitter with a left-handed swing destined for greatness, spent that fall seeing two of almost everything.

In the outfield, he misjudged fly balls he’d never had trouble with. In the infield, he saw two grounders coming at him, then two first basemen – one standing on top of the other – when he set up to make throws from third. On the basketball court, he was shooting at two hoops.

Aaron tried to convince himself the problems would go away. He knew he had a future in baseball – one with immense promise – and didn’t want to do or say anything to dash his chances and hopes. So he kept his mouth shut and stifled his fears.

Aaron Adair — back row left next to his dad, Coach Steve Adair — hit a blistering .592 for the season in 1994 when he was 14 years old as the Dallas Braves compiled a remarkable 67-2 record and won the Sandy Koufax World Series.

“This is it, my career’s gonna be over,” he remembers thinking. “I was in complete misery. I didn’t know what to do. This is my gift and it’s going away.”

Aaron’s father and coach, Steve, a youth baseball pioneer and revered mentor in North Texas, had noticed something odd about his son’s eye movements in early fall. Doctors found nothing.

After a couple of embarrassing baseball practices with older players after Christmas, when Aaron’s double vision was at its worst, his parents took him to a neurologist. Clinical tests led to a magnetic resonance imaging scan of his brain.

On Dec. 29, 1994 – Aaron’s father’s birthday – the young phenom learned what was wrong: He had a tumor in the pineal gland near the center of his brain. Eight days later, a 10-hour surgery removed the cancerous germinoma – caused by a reproductive cell that had traveled to Aaron’s brain – through a large, horseshoe-shaped incision on the back of his skull.

About a month later came six weeks of radiation on his brain and spine. Aaron went bald and permanently lost his hair above his ears.

Brain cancer was the first curveball, dropping from 12 to 6 o’clock and freezing Aaron at the plate, that would alter the life course he’d begun seeing for himself. He would never become the next Wade Boggs or Tony Gwynn, the future baseball Hall of Famers whose sweet left-side strokes he mirrored.

Yet as fervently as the youth wanted a baseball career, the adult steadfastly insists he didn’t miss out.

“That’s where I was headed, but it was so shallow and so meaningless compared to my life now,” he says. “I’d have been so miserable, with nothing to show for it but some stupid game.”

The superstar-in-waiting always looked for fastballs, then adjusted to what the pitcher dealt. For the past 27 years, he’s adjusted to what life has thrown him.

“I’m the most positive, upbeat person you’re ever gonna meet because of my faith and my perseverance and what it’s made me,” Aaron says.

And he laughs. And laughs. And laughs. At everything. At nothing. At whatever.

“He’s just always happy,” says his mother, Myra. “He just sits there and laughs all by himself. I go, ‘What are you laughing at?’ He enjoys every minute of the day.”

Another major curveball – unthinkably, a second brain tumor – came 19 years after Aaron’s childhood cancer. Along the way, he saw other nasty pitches aimed at his health, living with one since 2001, when he was fighting to keep his fading baseball dream alive at the University of Oklahoma.

By late 2013, Aaron’s health problems and inability to recapture the magic of his youth had long since waylaid his sure-thing baseball career. He was single and working as a shift manager at a Pizza Hut in Oklahoma City – far from the path he was certain of as he pulled doubles into the right-center field gap in the summer of ’94.

While living in Oklahoma City, Aaron spent several years as a volunteer at OU’s Stephenson Cancer Center, serving mainly to encourage patients by helping them believe they could beat cancer like he had. He relished being a “cancer ambassador,” as his former supervisor describes his self-assigned role – and as a “supreme optimist,” she says, he was the perfect picker-upper.

“He was always ready to give a big smile, his unique brand of humor and his story away to anyone that was ready to listen, especially the brain cancer patients,” says Deb Olson, former director of patient experience and volunteer services. “Always with a nod to, ‘You’re going to make it. I did it, you can do it. And your life will be better because of it.’”

Soon, Aaron would need to count on his own vast support network. At age 33, it had been 10 years since he had seen a neurologist. He says Olson told him, “If you’re going to volunteer here and give people advice and you’re not getting help, you’re a hypocrite.”

Aaron had just signed up for medical insurance at work, so arrangements were made at the cancer center for him to have a brain MRI to make sure all looked normal.

Things were far from it. The scan showed Aaron had a second brain tumor near the top of his skull – this time a meningioma. Surgery was set at Stephenson for Dec. 6, 2013, the day a blizzard hit the area. Aaron had a huge circle of friends, many from his earlier five years working at Texas Roadhouse, and he knew the hospital waiting room would be packed for him. What better way to help his family and friends wait out his operation than to throw a pizza party?

Cancer survivor faces another battle, surgery to remove new tumor, while inspiring others

“I wanted my friends to celebrate me if something happened in that surgery,” he says.

The MRI’s timing would be fortuitous. Although the tumor turned out to be nonmalignant, it was growing near an artery. If it had gone undetected another six months, his doctor said, it likely would’ve killed Aaron.

A little over four years later, after bouncing between restaurant jobs, Aaron was 37 and married, unhappily, to a woman he says made him choose between her and his friends and family.

Luckily …

“My wife thought I wasn’t right in the head, so she made me rush my yearly MRI in 2018,” he says. “That’s where they found the third tumor.”

It was a second nonmalignant meningioma, in the same spot as the previous one – after which doctors had given Aaron a 1% chance of developing another.

Out of the more than 120 brain tumor types, meningiomas are one of the two most common, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Forming in the meninges, the protective tissues between the skull and brain, they make up about 30% of all brain tumors. Like Aaron’s two meningiomas, about 85% are benign and don’t spread – but they can become malignant.

No cutting would be required for Aaron’s third brain tumor – an outpatient gamma knife laser procedure destroyed it that April. As with the other, he needed no radiation or chemotherapy.

Sixteen months later, Aaron left his wife in Norman, Okla., and moved back to the Dallas area for the fresh start he desperately needed – although with “no idea in hell what I’m going to do.”

His divorce was final in February 2020.

When Aaron Adair was born July 4, 1980, nine years after his only sibling, sister Stephanie, it was a given he’d be a ballplayer. Their father, Steve, a baseball and football star dubbed “White Lightning” at the old Carrollton High School (now R.L. Turner), would spend over three decades as a coach and mentor to thousands of young ballplayers in the Dallas area.

Injecting more baseball into Aaron’s blood, grandfather Jimmy Adair gave 50 years to pro ball as a player, manager, coach and scout, and was inducted posthumously into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. He died when his grandson was two and a half, but Aaron knows plenty of lore – for instance, in 1930, Jimmy was the first hitter ever to face eventual Hall of Fame pitcher “Dizzy” Dean in the minor leagues.

The year Aaron was born, his dad became the baseball coach at First Baptist Academy of Dallas. He filled the same role at Trinity Christian Academy in Addison, where Aaron attended first through 12th grades, from 1988 until his death in January 2001, leading the Trojans to seven state championships.

Steve Adair, Aaron’s dad, coached the baseball team at Trinity Christian Academy in Addison from 1988 until his death in January 2001, leading the Trojans to seven state titles. He’s holding the team’s plaque after its 1999 championship, when Aaron was a senior.

Aaron’s baseball baptism came when he was 3, and he played T-ball at 4. His father gave his budding star the nickname “Hito” (HE-to), from the endearing Spanish term mijito (me-HE-to), which means “my little son.” (Aaron’s mother is from Panama.) The fact that Aaron became a prolific hitter with a nickname that had “hit” in it couldn’t have been more perfect.

Over the next 10 years, like a sugar addict, Aaron couldn’t get enough baseball. “It’s all I did; it’s all I knew,” he says.

In 1984, his dad had a bold plan for an all-year indoor baseball facility, with batting cages, pitching mounds and every tool for young players, including instruction and summer camps. No one in the Dallas area had pulled off that kind of business with success.

So the Adairs opened Adair Sports Park in Plano, with Aaron’s mother running the business and his father and other coaches handling the baseball. Starting when Aaron was 5, after Mom picked him up at school, he’d spend hours hitting. In a few years, Aaron was told he also had to help with the business. He and his parents dragged themselves home at 10 or 11 almost every night.

By 1989, the Adairs needed more space. They moved into a 16,000-square-foot building on Midway Road in Carrollton west of the Dallas North Tollway, calling it Adair Baseball World. Kids all over North Texas came to hone their game under the staff’s tutelage and at the camps.

“We were the only game in town that was successful back then,” Aaron says. “We were the hot spot in this part of the country. All over the country, people would call my dad about baseball.”

Aaron’s brilliance showed up early when he was playing with older kids and winning tournament MVP honors. By fourth grade, he could hit an 85-mph fastball.

“Hitting was my life. I was exceptional,” he brags. “I was an amazing hitter. I was a protégé.”

At Adair Baseball World, people gathered around his batting cage to gape. Blair Robinson, a year younger than Aaron, recalls his father being so impressed that he asked Aaron to give his son a hitting lesson. Robinson went on to play college ball at Oklahoma and Dallas Baptist University, rooming with OU sophomore Aaron during Robinson’s freshman year.

Aaron’s grandfather, Jimmy Adair, played briefly for the Chicago Cubs in 1931 but was known for spending 50 years as a player, manager, coach and scout in the minor and major leagues.

Tommy Hernandez, a former instructor at Adair Baseball World who has led the Dallas Tigers select club for 28 years, remembers the untold hours Aaron put in on his hitting.

“There’s nobody who took more swings in the batting cage than that guy,” says Hernandez, 13 of whose former players were on major-league rosters in 2019 – multiple Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw and Corey Kluber among them. “It was crazy. We’d have to tell him to quit hitting. He was a dedicated, hard-working kid.”

Steve Adair coached two Dallas Braves select squads to nationals in 1994, when Aaron’s sensational season helped lead the 13-14-year-old team to its title. At the Koufax World Series in the Houston suburb of Spring, the Braves went 5-0, outscoring opponents 59-18. Aaron and five teammates made the all-tournament team.

He never saw what was coming next.

“Within four or five months he gets this diagnosis, so it kind of takes you down to earth pretty quickly,” says sister Stephanie Byrd, who had her own scare 16 years ago with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare parotid salivary gland cancer.

Ever since his boyhood cancer ordeal, Aaron has been able to handle most adversity. Not just handle it – laugh at it and tell it to go to hell.

That approach started after he awoke from surgery on Jan. 6, 1995. His personality, his outlook and his ranking of what matters most had done a transformation. Almost everything about him changed.

“This different personality came out, a great personality” is Blair Robinson’s description.

“It was like he went through some kind of machine” is how Aaron’s sister describes it.

“He’s just become a little wilder since he had the (first) surgery. … I wish sometimes he would calm down,” his mother, Myra, says as Aaron laughs nearby.

Aaron calls it “a rebirth.”

On the operating table, he went from a quiet, shy 14-year-old whose lone interest was baseball to an outgoing, upbeat teen who says he “began to love everything” more – including the God he’s thankful to for letting him survive.

“Life just had so much more meaning besides baseball,” he says. “The joy in my life just increased a hundredfold.”

Several of Aaron’s childhood friends marveled at the makeover in sections they contributed to You Don’t Know Where I’ve Been, the book Aaron wrote before graduating from OU with a journalism degree in 2004.

“He went in as one person and came out as a completely different person,” his sister says.

While she and others believe he’s the main reason for his reshaped mind-set, some speculate about changes in his brain’s “wiring” as part of the reason for the new Aaron. He maintains there’s a simple explanation.

“Before, life was just baseball. Now I have an appreciation for life and the smaller stuff,” he says. “Everything made me happy, appreciated it, had fun with it, enjoyed it because it was almost taken from me.”

During his five days at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, the teen had hundreds of visitors. Nurses said they had never seen so many for one patient. His weight plummeted from 160 to 140. The 20 pounds of muscle he had sweated to add in the weight room the previous fall were gone.

Missing three and a half weeks of school before going back half-days the rest of eighth grade, Aaron underwent 30 radiation treatments. During the first week, he passed out getting out of the shower and also suffered an excruciating seizure on what he calls “the worst night of my life.”

As he gradually worked his way back, though, Aaron experienced one of his most memorable days. One morning early that May, he walked into his Far North Dallas home. Waiting to greet him was 25-year-old Ken Griffey Jr., the Seattle Mariners’ superstar and Hall-of-Famer-to-be.

“I almost had a heart attack,” Aaron says. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. Oh my God. We sat there and talked baseball about three or four hours.”

Chad Kreuter, a former Texas Rangers catcher playing for Seattle that year, was friends with the Adairs and trained at their facility. When Aaron had his surgery, Kreuter was playing winter ball in Latin America but called often to check on him. With Seattle scheduled to play the Rangers in Arlington, Kreuter told the Adairs he’d bring Griffey to visit Aaron. His autographed photo with “Junior” is a keepsake whose story will live on for generations in the family.

Ken Griffey Jr. came to visit 14-year-old Aaron in early May 1995, when the Mariners were in town to play the Rangers. It was four months after Aaron’s first brain cancer surgery.

So what about baseball? Even though Aaron says it had become a lesser priority, he was resolved to play again. The day before his surgery, the Adairs had sold their business. But high school at Trinity Christian, where his dad coached, was just ahead, and Aaron wanted to be ready to play.

“I was a big superstar, and I was going to get back to that spot if it killed me,” he says.

That would prove to be a monumental challenge. The tumor’s damage had left Aaron needing to relearn all the skills that had made him stellar. Gone were the hand-eye coordination and swing mechanics he’d spent years building on his way to that extraordinary .592 season months earlier.

He had to start over.

His father and others told Aaron he didn’t have to do it. He was determined to prove to them and himself that he could regain the level he had achieved before his cancer.

In his first couple of months back on the field, Aaron says, he couldn’t hit because “my brain couldn’t find the ball.”

“Slowly but surely, I added pieces back to the puzzle and I finally got to where I needed to be after lots of perseverance and character-building,” he says. “I kept going and going until I got there. It took me three years to get halfway decent again.”

Instead of returning to third base, Aaron found his niche at designated hitter. The Trojans won state titles his sophomore and senior years, and he earned all-district and all-state honors as a senior in 1999, when he says he came as close to his old form as he ever would. He reached 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, and his senior showing earned him a partial scholarship at Oklahoma.

Aaron gained all-district and all-state honors playing designated hitter as a Trinity Christian senior in 1999, earning a partial scholarship to the University of Oklahoma.

As Aaron went through high school and beyond, he also shared his cancer experience with others, speaking at churches, schools and Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings. He even gave inspiration to friends’ parents who had cancer.

But while Aaron played the sport he still loved throughout high school, his family was coping with another cancer diagnosis – a devastating one his mother calls “a death sentence.”

On Dec. 30, 1995 – a day after his 52nd birthday and a year and a day after Aaron’s first tumor was found – Steve Adair learned he had multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer. The coach was given four months to live if he opted for no treatment – and at first, says his widow, Myra, that’s what he wanted. But he changed his mind, enduring chemotherapy and other treatments.

“There was always something on the other side that Steve wanted to fight for, another state championship, (daughter) Stephanie got pregnant and he wanted to see his grandson,” she says. “I would say, ‘You cannot just leave us and you wouldn’t see your grandson.’ He would always look at something that was coming and he needed to fight for and he did.”

At the time, she says, life expectancy for multiple myeloma patients was about two years. Steve made it five, spending his last 10 days at Baylor University Medical Center before dying at 57 on Jan. 7, 2001 – one day after the six-year anniversary of Aaron’s first surgery. Aaron, who was a sophomore in college, estimates 500 people came to say goodbye on the coach’s last day.

Baseball autographed by Aaron’s dad, Steve, who had a huge impact on legions of young baseball players across North Texas in three decades of coaching.

The impact Steve Adair had on legions of players, and the towering esteem they held him in, filled Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano four days later at his funeral, attended by several thousand people. When Aaron asked that all who played for his father or whose lives he’d influenced stand up, two-thirds of the sanctuary did.

As Aaron went through high school, he believed his father wasn’t doing enough to fight his cancer, a point on which he and his mother strongly differ. In his book, he wrote about how, when his ill father wasn’t coaching, he spent most of his time watching baseball games and “ordered me around like I was his slave child.”

“My father was very stubborn,” Aaron says. “He didn’t want to push himself. He accepted that he was going to die from this stuff. He accepted this was going to kill him. He wouldn’t go the extra mile to help himself. He taught me how not to do it.”

His mother disagrees, stressing that her husband didn’t give in to his cancer and that there weren’t many viable treatments for multiple myeloma at the time.

“Maybe Aaron was young and he didn’t feel like he (Steve) was fighting enough like Aaron fought his,” says Myra. “But multiple myeloma is very different than the cancer Aaron had in his brain. His cancer, they took it out and he would survive that.

“You can only fight so much and your body just gives out.”

Aaron with his grandmother, Elia

The father-son relationship had already been strained before Aaron’s first surgery, in part because he says his dad concentrated too much on baseball and not enough on him. Aaron also saw his father as overly controlling and critical, allowing him little space to grow up.

He grew to fear his father and had a panic attack during a high school game that sent him, hyperventilating, below the stands to take out his rage with a bat on whatever was around him. Aaron attended a few therapy sessions – and sometimes lay in bed trying to think of ways to kill his father, although he never had the courage to follow through.

“My father’s death was a blessing for me,” he says. “I lived in fear and hatred of my father during the time of us having cancer. I didn’t realize that until I wrote the book. His death was a release from his control. The sicker he got, the harder it was to be around him. While he was dying, I was finding myself.

“When Dad was sick, I had already let go. My family wished he would get better and survive and I did not want him to survive, because if he survived, my mother’s life would be a living hell. When we went to the hospital, they were praying for a miracle and I was praying for him to die.”

Myra, now remarried, doesn’t know what to make of Aaron’s view of his father’s treatment of him.

“They did not see eye to eye, but I just think it was more of Aaron’s perception of what his dad expected of him,” she says. “There were some things that maybe he (Steve) could’ve handled a little better, but I don’t think he was tougher on Aaron than really anybody else.

“But Aaron felt, ‘I’m the son and he should be easier on me,’ I guess.”

Like a player’s average climbs with each game of a hitting streak, Aaron hoped his career would keep elevating once he arrived at the University of Oklahoma. He quickly realized how much he needed to improve, his game and physically, to catch up with his teammates. He had just one at-bat his freshman year, then redshirted his sophomore season in 2001 after his father’s death.

Then things really started falling apart.

That spring, when Aaron began feeling nauseous and lightheaded in workouts, he shrugged it off. Things worsened significantly over the summer. More than once, as he took batting cage swings, his hands and arms went numb and he dropped the bat.

After a physical and a series of tests, doctors found Aaron’s painful stomach teeming with hundreds of noncancerous polyps. He couldn’t digest food properly and was losing lots of weight and blood. In the coming months, his condition deteriorated so much that he crashed to 145 pounds.

“I was a walking dead man,” Aaron says.

Twenty years later, the polyps remain, blanketing his insides like mini-stalagmites.

Jimmy Adair, Aaron’s grandfather, was a coach for the Houston Colt .45s from 1962 to 1964, and when the team became the Astros in 1965.

Doctors from Texas to the Mayo Clinic couldn’t diagnose the student, and he was put on steroids that have produced mood swings and weight gains ever since. Aaron’s doctor insisted he not play the 2002 season, but he planned to work hard that summer with a goal of being Big 12 Conference comeback player of the year in 2003. After the polyps also took over his throat and esophagus, the OU athletic trainer had to persuade Aaron’s doctor to let him play when school resumed that fall.

While Aaron was dealing with all that, he had two breakthroughs. First, his roommate during his junior year saw an opportunity to help him “see things differently,” Aaron says – by making him watch the 1999 movie Fight Club. Second, the cult classic motivated him to write his book.

In the movie, Brad Pitt’s character (Tyler Durden) is a figment of Edward Norton’s narrator character’s imagination and the person he wants to be. The entire movie changed Aaron’s life, but one scene had a lasting effect: A bar owner named Lou beats the crap out of a laughing, refusing-to-give-in Durden while a stunned crowd of Fight Club members watches. The battered Durden jumps up, tackles Lou, spitting blood into his face and mouth, yelling over and over, “You don’t know where I’ve been, Lou!”

The movie, Aaron says, “changed my whole perspective on everything.” It also helped reinforce – and strengthen – the Aaron who woke up from cancer surgery seven years earlier.

“I base my life the way I live now because of that character,” he says. “I learned how to have fun with this stuff. I laugh, I’m very outspoken, I’m very loud, I’m not scared of it. I talk to people; I show them to have hope and faith and joy through this stuff (cancer). This is not bad, this is a blessing, you were chosen for this stuff.

“And this is how you have fun, how you help other people. I put a smile on people’s faces because of the character and how it changed my life.”

When Aaron decided to write the book – whose title is Durden’s comeback line against Lou – he also switched majors from management information systems to journalism. A year later, he legally changed his middle name – from James to Durden.

Although Aaron says he “really found myself and who I was through writing this book,” it also wound up shutting down his ill-fated baseball career. On the verge of publication in 2003, he gave OU’s director of compliance a flier with info on how to order the book. She told him making money off his likeness was an NCAA rules violation. He had to hold off or quit baseball.

Since he’d already put over $1,000 into the project, Aaron angrily made the agonizing choice to give up his remaining athletic eligibility – and his passion.

Trace Welch had already been part-owner of a Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Oklahoma City for several years when a tall, friendly, slightly goofy-looking fellow with bald spots came in looking for a job in 2007. He didn’t fit the image of the chain’s typical hire. But Welch made it his policy to talk to all candidates, because he considered personal connection more important than looks.

When he heard Aaron Adair’s story about growing up in a baseball family with a famous father, his cancer and other health issues, his volunteer work at the cancer center – and saw how he was “the most positive guy I’d ever met” – he knew he’d found a new employee.

“It was kind of a moment for me to say, ‘Hey, this guy is amazing,’” says Welch, who ran the location for 12 years. “He could use every reason in the book to be depressed, angry, hateful and bitter, but he chooses to take the high side.

“So I was like, ‘Hell, I’d love to have you work for me, because everyone’s gonna love you, and you’re gonna make yourself a lotta money and you’re gonna make me a lotta money.’”

Aaron stayed there five years, becoming part of the leadership and training team and the restaurant’s consistently highest-paid server. He made his share of mistakes, but the relationships he built with customers and his colleagues made those inconsequential.

“There were powers that be that told me to fire him because of the way he looked, and I basically told ’em to f-off because it’s like, dude, you have no clue who this guy is or what he does,” Welch says. “It just proves the point that you’ve gotta believe in people and who they are.” 

Aaron’s desire to lift others shined through in touching scenes his old boss will never forget – like when little girls with cancer came in with their families and the children’s faces lit up when they saw Aaron. He greeted and visited with them, encouraging them in a way only he could.

“He’s the most genuine person I’ve ever met,” says Welch, who still uses his history with Aaron as a training tool with servers at his steakhouse in Denver.

Toni Podenak remembers Aaron training her when she started as a Texas Roadhouse server in 2010. When it comes to how to go through life with a positive outlook and treat people with kindness and respect, she says, he set the tone for her six-plus years at the restaurant.

“I would consider him a role model for me, definitely someone to look up to,” Podenak says. “I will tell my kids about him. I think everyone should know him. Even just the exposure to him, if you don’t realize the impact he’s having on you, is pretty profound.  

“He definitely teaches us that happiness is a choice, and it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks.”

After Podenak was diagnosed with melanoma in 2019, six months after having a baby, Aaron was the first person she thought of. She reached out to him for support. She’s now in remission.

When Aaron moved in 2012 to Pizza Hut, where he worked four years, he brought the same energy and joie de vivre – not to mention many of his customers who followed him from Texas Roadhouse. Tracy Graven arrived later to manage the troubled location with a history of failed inspections. After he saw how Aaron, the head server, connected with the clientele, he put him in charge of the dining room.

Graven says he caught flak for that because Aaron wasn’t the fastest worker, but he knew it was the right decision because he brought in customers and treated them right. “His life is interacting with people and bringing them joy,” Graven says.

A 2021 photo of Aaron, who couldn’t be happier with his life.

One of Graven’s most poignant memories of working with Aaron dates to May 31, 2013, when a tornado outbreak slammed the Oklahoma City area. Without hesitation, Aaron went outside to usher fearful bystanders into the kitchen. Calling Aaron “a champ,” Graven says about 85 people ended up crammed inside.

The restaurant received a commendation from Gov. Mary Fallin, thanks to how accommodating and humane Aaron had been. How did she find out? Because one of those taking shelter – a woman with a dog and a cat – happened to be Oklahoma’s secretary of state, Graven says.

“From the hospitality standpoint, he was just a superstar,” he says. “This guy’s dedication and his love of people, man, every freakin’ day. He never had a bad day – ever.”

Thanks to his Texas Roadhouse connections, once Aaron moved back to the Dallas area in August 2019, he found another gig as a server, at Aspen Creek Grill in Irving – and two years later, he’s still inspiring customers there. He says they always ask for him “because they love the crazy man” and eat up his story and optimism. Aaron hauls in tips – country singer Garth Brooks’ manager gave him $130 in early 2020 – and offers support to diners he senses are sick or need comforting. He lived with his mother and stepfather for a while and now lives with his sister’s family.

The list of awesome things happening to Aaron keeps growing.

Within a few months of returning to Texas, Aaron paid off the $10,000 in debt he had when he left Oklahoma. He lost 30 pounds, thanks to workouts with trainer Shane Kimler, who also trains with Aaron’s stepfather and says, “I’ve never met anyone that loves life like Aaron.” And in June 2020, Aaron’s doctor pulled him off the steroids he’d been popping since college.

Those who know Aaron best say his off-the-charts positivity is no act. On Facebook, he created Project Freedom to inspire and support people going through cancer and other problems. He’s a member of a Facebook group called Fuck Cancer, where he dishes out hope, through posts and messages, to those scared and worried about whether they’ll make it.

“Maybe he has a clearer view of what this world’s all about and what’s most important in life,” says his longtime friend Robinson, the pastor. “And you can’t see that unless you’ve walked in the path he’s walked in.”

Blair Robinson

Almost 20 years after being afflicted with his gastric growths, Aaron finally learned the cause – and he jokes that he’s “a genetic freak.” The day he found out in April 2020, his Facebook post began: “Everyone please take a second with me and just laugh. Hahaha! Lol!”

After his gastroenterologist suggested genetic testing, Aaron learned he has a rare disorder called PTEN hamartoma tumor syndrome. It causes the kinds of polyps he has, can produce brain tumors, is the reason for his large skull – and puts him at risk for other types of cancer. For the rest of his life, he’ll have annual screenings on his liver, kidneys and thyroid.

One person, three brain tumors – an extremely rare occurrence. Between the gene disorder and another possible link, he’s been stuck on an 0-2 count for a long time.

“It’s not uncommon that these childhood tumor survivors who get radiation (treatments) will develop meningiomas later in life,” offers Dr. Byram Ozer, an assistant professor of oncology and neurology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

“Brain tumors on the whole, both benign and malignant, have no known cause in most cases. A low percentage of them are associated with some sort of genetic abnormality, but most of the time we don’t know what it is,” says Ozer, who treats neurological tumor patients at the school’s Kimmel Cancer Center at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Now 41, Aaron has laughed at pain and death since he was 14. Like any hitter, he’s dealt with slumps. So the prospect of taking on another cancer doesn’t rattle him.

“My life is totally changed and blessed from cancer,” Aaron says – laughing, of course. “If I didn’t have cancer, my life would be miserable. Cancer has made my life fun. I always laugh and I’m always happy because of what God has shown me.”

Robinson says he can’t help being inspired by someone who’s “motivated by really good things.” The pastor had lost touch with Aaron for years after college and was elated to see him appear in fall 2019 at First Baptist Church of Irving, where Robinson was ministering. Aaron wound up joining the church.

“It’s one thing to persevere, to survive, to get through a test, get through a storm, but not many people persevere through the storm with joy and with hope,” Robinson says. “And I think that sets him apart. I equate this back to his Christian faith, his hope in Christ. I think it’s evident in Aaron’s life. I think that’s the lesson we can all learn from Aaron.”

Editor’s note: Last year, I wrote this reported narrative about Aaron, whom I found by chance on a baseball-themed Facebook group a friend invited me to. I entered the piece in the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference writing competition and was fortunate to be one of the 10 winners in October 2020 of its prestigious Ten Spurs awards for narratives and personal essays. I’d hoped to find a publishing home for it — either The Dallas Morning News (my employer) or somewhere else if that didn’t work out — but unfortunately that hasn’t happened. My colleagues I pitched it to at the DMN said, understandably, that it’s too long. I also had a shot with Texas Monthly editors earlier this year — they loved Aaron’s story, but after several weeks of trying to figure out how they could at least make it a digital-only presentation, they told me it was just too long. Still trying to figure that one out, since TM publishes longform narratives all the time. So for now, I’ve decided to put it up here on my blog — but I’ll keep trying!

2 thoughts on “The Laughing Survivor

  1. Okay, Frank. Please tell me this piece on Aaron has been or is scheduled to appear somewhere other than your blog. Texas Monthly? Sports Illustrated? The world is severely off its axis if not.

    Well done. 😊



    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jim, thanks so much for reading this and for your usual thoughtful words. I ended up adding an editor’s note after I hit publish. This was the piece I won a Ten Spurs award at Mayborn for last October. I pitched it to some eds at the DMN, but it was just too long for the paper — which I knew. When I wrote the winning Mayborn piece in 2016 about my birth father, our editor loved it and we worked on it together to shorten it to make it work for the paper and published it for Father’s Day 2017. But no one seems willing to do that w/this one. And you mentioned Texas Monthly — I pitched it there earlier this year and they loved the story but also ended up saying it was too long, which I found difficult to believe since TM publishes longform narrative (much longer than this, which is 6,000 words) all the time. I may reach out to George G. to see if he has any ideas on where I might be able to turn. I also may pitch it to one other colleague at the DMN. Thanks again for your compliments!


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