Penn State Football

He met her when she was battling cancer. Now they're family.

Leah Fait and Brandon and Andrea Smith pause for a photo during Thon 2015.
Leah Fait and Brandon and Andrea Smith pause for a photo during Thon 2015.

Diane Fait knew her 3-year-old granddaughter had no idea what football was.

“But the nurses came in and told me to be quiet and put her slippers on,” Diane remembered with a laugh.

The nurses gave Leah Fait blue and white beads, along with a set of pom-poms. Nittany Lion football players were visiting Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, and the kids were encouraged to go meet some of the guys.

They didn’t have to tell Leah twice.

Wearing her green surgical mask — Leah’s white blood cell count was especially low at the time — the bundle of energy burst out of her room and into the hallway, waving her pom-poms and jumping around like crazy.

Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith couldn’t help but notice her.

“She wanted to see us,” Brandon said, surprised that someone so sick had so much spirit. “I don’t think she cared that we were football players. She just saw big people that she hadn’t seen before.”

Brandon hung out with Leah for a bit that day, July 23, 2014. He met Diane, too, shaking her hand and saying goodbye before leaving with the team.

“I didn’t know that I’d ever see her again,” the now-redshirt junior said.

Little did he know that Leah would forever be a part of his life.

Leah, who battled acute myeloid leukemia, made an impression on Brandon, enough for him to call his then-girlfriend and now-wife Andrea immediately after leaving the hospital.

Andrea, a student at Messiah College at the time, was getting ready to volunteer at Hershey Children’s Hospital in the emergency room only a month later. Brandon told her about Leah, suggesting she visit the little girl and her grandparents when her time volunteering started.

The two contacted Leah’s grandparents, Diane and Rick, who told Andrea to come by whenever she could. On her first day volunteering, Andrea snuck away to Leah’s room.

“When I opened the door, she just screamed and came running over to me,” Andrea said. “She was just the happiest little girl, just not what you picture of someone fighting cancer. I thought she would be lying in her bed, but oh my goodness, she had so much energy.”

Andrea played with Leah for a bit and went back to the ER, but came back to visit the following Monday, and the Monday after. A trend started to develop.

“That became what I looked forward to each week,” Andrea said.

And Leah looked forward to it, too. The inseparable duo would walk around the hospital and meet new people, or go outside and explore.

Diane and Rick, who are Leah’s guardians, didn’t mind at all — but Diane did feel bad for Andrea sometimes.

“Poor Andrea,” the grandmother said, “Leah would put stickers in her hair. ... But I was 66 at the time, so it was a relief for me.”

Andrea’s weekly visits built a bond. Soon she was going to Leah’s doctor appointments with Diane and joined the two for lunch frequently. It became more than just an occasional drop-by. Andrea and Brandon were invested in Leah.

“It was a friendship that turned into family,” Andrea said.

Diane agreed.

“They’re wonderful, wonderful people,” Leah’s grandmother said of the couple. “It’s a special relationship.”

That bond helped Leah get through each week at the hospital. But it was Leah’s attitude — the same one that caught Brandon’s attention during Penn State’s team visit, and the same one that put a smile on Andrea’s face each and every Monday — that led her in the fight against cancer.

Before Leah’s diagnosis, she hadn’t been feeling well for months. She had a bad cough and experienced stomach pain, and despite her local doctor’s initial reluctance to put her through tests, Diane insisted.

“The doctor kept saying, ‘If I X-ray every child for a belly ache,’ ” Diane recalls. “But I finally sat down, looked at the doctor and said that I’m not leaving. We’d been there every month, if not twice a month. There was something wrong.”

That same day Diane put her foot down, on Leah’s third birthday, the doctor ran a kidney scan and took bloodwork.

A day later, the bloodwork came back, and at 4 p.m., Diane and Rick received the call no guardian ever wants to get. Leah was diagnosed with leukemia, and with her white blood cell count quickly crashing, she was rushed to Hershey Children’s Hospital.

She was admitted on June 26, 2014.

“We’re lucky we did what we did,” Diane said.

Less than a month later, Brandon met Leah, and Andrea first introduced herself in August. The two were there every step of the way.

The process wasn’t easy, either. Between spinal taps and bone marrow testing, Leah endured unfathomable pain. But she didn’t know what was going on, and really didn’t understand that she was sick. She stayed positive, no matter the circumstances.

Diane remembers Leah’s doctor at Hershey warning her and her husband at the start of treatment. With chemotherapy and everything it entails, not only would Leah lose her hair, but her mood would also change.

She wouldn’t have the same energy, or the same smile on her face every day. She wouldn’t be the same Leah.

But the 3-year-old defied that assumption.

Her doctor would come in for treatment, and there was Leah, jumping down from the windowsill onto the sofa and to the floor. She’d play hide-and-seek from the nurses, somehow climbing into a nightstand drawer and peeking out with a smile. The hospital even had to bring in a special bed for her, because Leah would swing on the crossbars of the regular one.

“He kept saying it was going to happen,” Diane said of Leah’s expected negative change in behavior. “Finally, he said, ‘I’m not going to say another word.’ ”

Leah proved him, and really conventional wisdom for that matter, wrong.

“Nothing stopped her,” Diane said.

And after months of treatment, Leah won the battle with cancer. In January 2015, she was released from the hospital.

She could go home, and two members of her “extended” family couldn’t have been happier. When Andrea found out from Diane, she called Brandon immediately to share the news.

“There was a huge reality that she might not make it,” Andrea said. “I was just proud and thankful to God that he brought her through that. I saw her at her best, and I saw her at her worst. I know how hard it was on Leah and her grandparents, and to know that she did beat it, I was just so happy to think about what her life was going to be like outside the hospital.”

At the time, Brandon still couldn’t believe Leah had the level of courage and energy throughout the process.

“They go through some tough times,” Brandon said of families affected by cancer. “Seeing her so joyful, it was something special about her.”

Leah’s departure from Hershey Children’s Hospital meant no more Monday visits from Andrea, but they remained close. Andrea still got lunch with Leah and Diane, while Brandon would FaceTime and Skype with the Faits.

In February 2015, Leah went to her first Thon. Brandon carried her around on his shoulders for much of the weekend; they’d play on the Bryce Jordan Center floor, visit the football team and interact with other Four Diamonds families.

And in the summer of 2015, Leah joined Brandon and Andrea for another momentous occasion: their wedding. On June 13, 2015 — nearly a full year since she was diagnosed with cancer — Leah served as one of the flower girls at Brandon and Andrea’s ceremony.

Both Brandon and Diane joked that they weren’t sure how Leah, forever overflowing with energy, would behave. But it was especially important to Andrea that she be a part of the wedding. Andrea didn’t have any younger sisters or cousins to be flower girls.

“I immediately thought of someone who was really significant in my life,” Andrea said, “and that was Leah.”

To her credit, Leah didn’t cause a ruckus or anything.

“She’s literally Miss Personality,” Diane said laughing. “But she behaved.”

On a day when Brandon and Andrea’s bond was solidified in the sacrament of matrimony, Leah’s place in their hearts was further cemented.

To this day, that relationship continues to blossom.

Brandon and Andrea, together in State College as he makes an impact on Penn State’s defensive unit and she works at Mount Nittany Medical Center, keep frequent tabs on Leah, whether it’s messaging with Diane on Facebook or video chatting.

Leah, now 5 years old, started kindergarten this fall, and the couple, who just a few months ago celebrated their one-year wedding anniversary, sent Leah a care package filled with arts and crafts before her first day of school.

Things are looking up for Leah, but of course, she isn’t out of the woods yet. She’s been in remission for about a year-and-a-half, and goes to Hershey for checkups every three months.

“It can come back,” Diane said, disappointed. “She is not cured.”

But Leah’s grandmother knows that they have two more family members providing support that they didn’t have at the beginning of this process.

From the moment Brandon saw Leah waving her pom-poms in the hallway of Hershey’s pediatric oncology floor to the time she walked down aisle at Revival Tabernacle church in Watsontown on the day Andrea married Brandon, the relationship between the three of them has been and always will be unshakeable.

When Leah goes in for her next doctor’s visit on Dec. 13, the Faits won’t be alone.

“We’ll be holding our breath,” Diane said, “and we know Andrea and Brandon are holding their breath, too.”

Penn State vs. Rutgers

Game Day Breakdown

Who: No. 8 Penn State (8-2, 6-1) vs. Rutgers (2-8, 0-7)

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: High Point Solutions Stadium

Series: Penn State leads 24-2

KEYS TO WIN

For Penn State: Get Barkley in space. After being bottled up for 1.8 yards per carry at Indiana, feeding Saquon Barkley early and creating some open field ahead of him would be key for the Nittany Lion offensive line’s confidence.

For Rutgers: Isolate Darius Hamilton. He’ll likely garner frequent double-teams, but if the Scarlet Knight defense can get its stud defensive end one-on-one against Penn State’s tackles, he could have a major impact.

Nittany Lion to watch: Garrett Sickels. The senior defensive end, a New Jersey native, has six sacks this year, and could be in for a couple more Saturday. The Scarlet Knights rank 86th nationally, allowing 2.4 sacks per contest.

Scarlet Knight to watch: Justin Goodwin. Between kickoff returns, rushing and receiving, the senior tailback averages 88.6 all-purpose yards per game. The Scarlet Knights’ offense is rather bad, but Rutgers loves to get the ball in Goodwin’s hands.

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