A Lifetime of Undying Devotion To a Life Tragically Cut Short

By Matthew Stanmyre
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 17, 2008

Courtney Crews wiped the tears from her eyes and took a deep breath. She stared at the softball diamond in front of her, pulled the catcher's mask over her face and settled into a crouch behind home plate.

Every couple of innings, Courtney, a senior at North Stafford High School, gazed into the bleachers out of habit on this early-April night and searched the crowd for her boyfriend's face. She saw her parents, trainer, teachers, friends. But the only trace of her boyfriend, Justin Whitaker, were reminders of him.

The jersey number that Justin wore when he played varsity baseball for North Stafford -- No. 7 -- was stenciled on T-shirts worn by many in the bleachers. The number was taped on the bunches of balloons that were tied to each end of the bleachers, fluttering in the wind. It was written on the tiny lime-green ribbons that the entire North Stafford team had pinned on their left shoulders, the same ribbons worn by supporters in the stands.

Courtney, 18, tried to narrow her focus as she caught the 50-mph pitches being hurled at her. It was April 8, and Courtney, roughly 10 weeks from graduation, was supposed to be enjoying the final moments of her high school experience, getting ready for the senior prom and making summer vacation plans with classmates. Instead, she was at the end of a 22-month ordeal, nursing Justin through his fight against non-Hodgkin's T-cell lymphoma, an aggressive form of cancer that attacks the immune system.

Justin made Courtney promise never to miss a game or an event at school because of him. She had organized buffet dinners, pancake breakfasts and talent shows to raise money toward Justin's medical expenses. She had struggled to sleep for even a few hours most nights, yet often would have to get up at 4 a.m. to work out with her trainer, a habit that had helped her earn a softball scholarship to Hofstra University. Courtney didn't miss a meeting of the Student Council Association, of which she was president, and she never strayed from her role as a big sister to her schoolmates and teammates.

"Courtney's definitely outside the mold of your typical high school student," said her leadership teacher at North Stafford, Leigh Swift. "Sometimes, when she's in my class, I'll look at her and I can't even imagine what's going through her head. It's so much for a high school senior to think about."

She was thinking about all of it during the game against Albemarle. Under the mask, Courtney's face was long and blank. The girl who never had wept publicly found herself sniffing back tears. She took in deep breaths, then exhaled hard.

A Perfect Match

Courtney and Justin met when they were 12 years old. In one of their first encounters, she struck him out in a Stafford County youth baseball game. Later that year, they became teammates on a local traveling team composed of the best players from the teams in the youth league.

Courtney was the only girl on the team, and opponents -- sometimes even teammates -- picked on her. Justin was the opposite. "He was very protective," Courtney said. "He would step in and push them off or tell them to back off."

There was no place in the world Courtney would rather be than on a baseball field, playing catch, mud caked on her cleats, infield dust darkening her face. Justin, who wore No. 7 in honor of his favorite player, Mickey Mantle, shared the sentiment.

After that baseball season, Courtney and Justin lost touch for almost two years. They went to different high schools as freshmen -- Courtney to North Stafford, Justin about three miles away at Colonial Forge -- but reunited when the schools played a football game in fall 2004.

During the second quarter, Courtney spotted Justin near the concession stand and rushed over to hug him. They talked in the bleachers for the rest of the game -- about baseball, school, friends -- and Justin walked Courtney to her car afterward. He asked Courtney to be his girlfriend, and she didn't hesitate.

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