How a 7-year-old boy made a lasting impact on UNC freshman Aaron Sabato

The group of 20 or so children and their families stood in left field, waiting anxiously, hoping to get their favorite North Carolina baseball players’ autographs, a photo, or maybe spark up a conversation. They were patients at UNC hospitals in Chapel Hill. Some had cancer. Some were terminally ill.

Among the children on this October 2018 day was a 7-year-old boy, who wore a gray Tar Heels T-shirt, black shorts, a small black glove on his right hand and a white and black baseball cap which nearly covered his eyes. Under the baseball cap was a scar that started at his forehead and wrapped around his ear, where doctors had performed two surgeries to remove a brain tumor.

North Carolina freshman Aaron Sabato noticed the small boy standing with his family away from the group. Sabato walked up to the boy and introduced himself. The boy’s name was Brady Niles.

The two began talking and they hit it off. Soon Brady was on the field with Sabato, taking pictures, meeting players and doing what he did best: Telling jokes.

“He had everyone cracking up,” Sabato said with a smile.

Sabato showed Brady around the team’s locker room and signed his autograph.

For Sabato, it put things into perspective. He grew up in a blue-collar Italian family in Rye Brook, N.Y., with his mom, dad, older brother and younger sister. He has played baseball and has been healthy. He went to a private school. He earned a scholarship to UNC.

And here was Brady, a young boy, fighting for his life everyday.

Brady and Sabato spent about an hour and a half together. As Brady and his family headed back to their car, they could hear the crunching from cleats against the parking-lot pavement. A voice called out, “Brady! Brady! Brady!”

They turned around and saw Sabato running toward them.

“Brady, will you sign my hat?” Sabato asked.

His face lit up. On the 40-minute ride home to Graham, Brady’s father Jason Niles said his son asked him how many games they could go to this year.

“What he did for my grandson, you can’t pay that back,” Mike Niles, Brady’s grandfather, said. “It didn’t make sense to us why he took Brady under his wing, and it just meant the world to us and to Brady. It was just tremendous.”

But Brady never saw Sabato play.

‘Ripped my heart out’

Brady, who was named after Tom Brady because his family is from Boston, had his own comedy routine, which included hundreds of jokes, and according to Jason Niles, he told them “perfectly.”

In kindergarten, Brady was reading at a third-grade level. He learned how to play chess during his extended stay at the hospital.

He was also strong. After being diagnosed with brain cancer in 2017, he spent 14 days in the pediatric intensive care unit at UNC hospital, underwent two brain surgeries, went through 30 rounds of radiation and six months of chemotherapy. After nine months, he rung the hospital bell, signifying his cancer treatments were complete.

Logan Niles, left and Brady Niles, right, pose for a photograph with North Carolina freshman Aaron Sabato in October 2018 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill. Sabato formed a friendship with Brady and his family when he was a patient at UNC Hospitals. Photo courtesy of Mike Niles Robert Willett

“Brady was loved by so many, and was the kind of kid that just kept amazing us with everything he did,” Jason Niles said.

In March 2018, Brady relapsed and fell ill again. He met Sabato seven months later. Over Thanksgiving break, Sabato texted Mike Niles, and asked how Brady was doing. He wanted to hear some of Brady’s famous jokes.

Mike Niles texted Sabato back and told him that Brady’s condition had gotten worse since the last time they saw each other.

Sabato, who was in New York, texted back.

“OK, when I get back to Chapel Hill, I’m coming to see Brady,” he replied.

Three days later, when Sabato got back to Chapel Hill, he called Mike Niles to see if he could come by. But by that time, Brady was unresponsive. And week and a half later, on December 5, Brady died.

He was 7.

“It kind of ripped my heart out because how much he meant to me, and how much I meant to him,” Sabato said. “It was kind of painful at the time, especially because I didn’t realize how much of an impact he would have on my life.”

‘With me for the rest of my life’

Aaron and his parents Valerie and Ted Sabato continue to stay in touch with the Niles family. They like to say they’ve become “one big Italian family.” They text regularly and check in with each other. The Niles watch Sabato’s games on television or on their phones and come see him play a few times a season. Sabato always has tickets waiting for them. Before every game, Mike will send Aaron a text telling him good luck.

Sabato, who is 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, has been one of UNC’s best players this season. He leads the team with a .341 batting average and 58 runs batted in. He is tied for the team lead with 16 home runs. He won ACC freshman of the Year, and Collegiate Baseball co-national freshman of the year. He also helped his team get to this weekend’s super regional against Auburn.

North Carolina’s Aaron Sabato (19) reacts after scoring on a single by Ike Freeman in the seventh inning to tie the score 4-4 against UNC-Wilmington during the NCAA Regional on Friday May 31, 2019 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

“The day Brady and Logan signed his hat, we would have been ‘Bato’ fans if he never saw the field this year,” Jason said.

The Carolina blue hat sits on the shelf in Sabato’s locker. He occasionally uses it for practice, but most of the time, it stays on the shelf. Before every game he looks at the hat.

“I wanted a piece from him that I could take with me for the rest of my life,” Sabato said.

If you flip the hat over, you can see Brady’s autograph written on the sweat band.

Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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