WANTAGE — The Princeton University men's soccer team made Sunday a memorable day for Derek Watson of Hardyston.
Watson is a 9-year-old boy with a brain tumor, who plays center midfield position for the High Point Lightning U10 boys' travel soccer team. In Watson's first year on the team, the Lightning is undefeated.
As the game against the Hanover Blue Dragons started, Princeton University’s soccer team — the Tigers — arrived to cheer.
Derek’s father, Robert Watson, said Derek told him after the game it was the best day of his life. His siblings, Devin, 11, and Kyla, 6, were also at the game cheering him on.
"It feels good when the team came out to support me," Derek said.
According to Robert Watson, the event was a surprise.
Derek was ‘adopted’ by the university’s soccer team Sept. 11 through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation.
“When they adopted him, words can’t describe it. He was very excited,” Robert Watson said. “The Princeton University soccer team is a great group of guys.”
In Feb. 2011, Robert Watson noticed Derek’s pupil was not constricting properly. Originally thought to be Adie’s pupil, Derek was later diagnosed with third-nerve palsy. In August of 2012, Derek had surgery to realign his pupil, but his condition only worsened after the surgery.
Derek had his first MRI in March of 2011, but it wasn’t until his parents took him to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in February that a neuro-ophthalmologist recognized the mass that had been found behind his eye was a benign tumor after sending him for another MRI. Derek’s tumor is located in the cavernous sinus and is displacing his carotid artery, putting pressure on his third cranial nerve. Therefore, Derek has complete ptosis, a drooping of his eyelid. On Nov. 26, he will have surgery in Washington, D.C. to try to remove as much of the tumor as possible and identify his condition, which is currently undiagnosed.
“The tumor is in a difficult place,” Robert Watson said. “Derek has already gone through chemotherapy, which didn’t shrink the tumor. The surgery was a last-case scenario. As he gets older, the condition could become life-threatening.”
Watson says the chances of Derek regaining the sight in his one eye are slim, “but we’re still hopeful.”
Princeton Senior Brady Valashinas, 21, has been the Watson family’s contact ever since the "adoption."
"We were told there was a kid in the area that loves soccer and wanted to be a part of our team,” Valashinas said. “There was no doubt in our mind that was what we wanted to do.”
According to Valashinas, Derek has been to every one of the Tigers’ games, so the team thought to surprise Derek by showing up at one of his.
“We were upset because we were running a little late, and we were hoping we wouldn’t miss anything great,” Valashinas said. “A couple minutes after we arrived, Derek scored his first goal of the season. That was pretty amazing to be able to be here and see his excitement.”
Seniors Billy McGuinness, 21 and Patrick O’Neil, 22 are the university team captains. Both play defensive midfielder for the Tigers.
“Supporting Derek is something we feel really good about doing," O'Neill said. "It’s heartwarming to see how much fun he gets out of hanging out with us.”
Todd Miller, coach of the High Point traveling soccer team said he became aware of the surprise a head of time and thought it would be great for the kids, especially Derek.
"Derek’s condition doesn’t limit him whatsoever," Miller said. "He’s just as competitive as any other kid, which is great to see.”
High Point won the game, 5-1.Aside from being adopted by the Princeton Tigers soccer team, Derek has met all the members of the Philadelphia Union Major League Soccer team, and Monday, he met the NHL’s New York Islanders. “Derek has had a lot of very nice experiences,” Watson said. “I’m just glad he’s not thinking about the upcoming surgery. Right now, his thoughts are happy.”