J's Bulls: Why We Do This in the First Place

W680 54431864 race 0.03115896964991738.display Nick Psaris remembers when the email from Everett Watson hit his inbox. Everett was an analyst at Bank of America, where Nick served as a director. With striking poise, the young man’s email was soliciting donations from the firm for an athletic contest called The D10. Nick had never heard of The D10, but he was altogether familiar with the event’s charitable beneficiary: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In recalling his fundraising approach, Everett explains, “It’s a noble reason to be connecting with people. I don’t expect anything. I tell our story, and I make the request politely. Then it’s up to them.”

Nick put in a donation immediately— accompanied by a personal email. At the time, Nick’s daughter Jasmine was receiving extensive treatment through Memorial Sloan Kettering for metastatic bone cancer. Everett followed up to thank him and to learn more. The two agreed to meet for coffee. “With Everett,” Nick recalls, “his heart is into it. You can tell he wants to make a difference in people’s lives.”

A varsity rower at Stanford, Everett had come to New York City after graduation in 2015. He connected at Bank of America with a friend and high school teammate from California, Xavier Russo, who’d just concluded a celebrated football career at Brown University. In The D10—a combination of track and field and NFL combine-style events—they saw a way to carry forward the camaraderie and discipline of high-intensity athletic competition that had propelled them their entire lives. “I went to college 30 minutes from where I grew up,” Everett says. “Moving out here was a new experience, and I wanted to branch out and meet new people. The D10 was a big way I did that.”

Joined by their colleague, former Hamilton College soccer standout Ian Hildebrand, they registered for the upcoming 2016 D10 event, and set about training and fundraising. They called themselves The Bulls—more precisely, The BAC Bulls, in acknowledgment of their employer. “That first year, I didn’t even join for the real purpose,” Xavier recalls. “I wanted to compete and to stay in shape, and coming from a background like football, there’s something to be said about being on a team.” The D10 enforces a fundraising minimum of $8,000 per team, with 100% of donations going directly to Memorial Sloan Kettering. Split four ways, the total was not especially daunting, although none of The Bulls had ever raised so significant a sum before. 

The Bulls set their sights even higher. Because The D10 factors fundraising into overall team standings, they knew their athleticism alone would not be enough to challenge for the team title. They wanted to win the thing, and they knew they’d have to raise at least $20,000. 

They raised $36,505.45, with the experienced and well-liked Hildebrand spearheading the charge. “I had never actually seen impact on this scale before,” Xavier remembers. “You realize, holy sh-t, we’ve really done something here. That opened my eyes toward the real goal.”

Xavier turned in exceptional performances on the Dips and Football Throw, Everett in the 500 Meter Row, and Ian in the 400 Meter Run and the Vertical Jump. They found themselves within striking distance of the coveted title, and drew even closer when their fourth member, Bank of America colleague Obumneme Obukwelu, put up the best Bench Press score of the day: 44 reps. In the end, they fell just short of catching the team they’d been chasing all day long—a team that raised more than $60,000.

As training and fundraising for the 2017 event ramped up, the Bulls had resolved not to get out-fundraised again. Though he was coming up on his 25th high school reunion, Nick Psaris had been an accomplished scholastic hurdler, and he fancied an opportunity to get back into prime physical shape. He wondered if he might be of some assistance to Everett’s team athletically—an overture Nick now recalls, with good humor, as a function of his naivete. Everett gently let on that the team of four was already fully subscribed. It was fundraising, outreach, and support where they could use all the help they could get. When Everett met Nick over coffee, he encountered more than a donor. “Nick has grown from a supporter into a mentor, a teammate, and a friend,” Everett says. “He gave our team inspiration.”

In her too-brief, extraordinary life, Jasmine Psaris made a vivid mark on the world. She was born in Manhattan in 2004 and began her schooling in Hong Kong, where her parents relocated for work when Jasmine was not quite two. Her intractable will and fighting spirit emerged early on, and allowed her to hold her own in nursery, elementary, and Taekwondo classes in which she was the only girl. On summer trips back to America, she took pride in braving the scariest rides at her favorite water park—the rides children twice her size and three times her age shied away from. When bone cancer in her leg knocked her out of school in fourth grade, Jasmine kept up her piano, math and language lessons, and took the opportunity to write and illustrate a short story collection for young readers called “Cally and Bean: Middle School Mysteries.” 

In support of Jasmine’s treatment—and on the encouragement of the punningly named pediatric cancer non-profit St. Baldrick’s—Nick shaved his head. Though he’d styled his own hair in a ponytail long enough to become identified with it, he recalls going bald with Jasmine as one of the proudest days of his life: “She was just as pretty bald as she was with a ponytail. We began to grow our hair out together, but I lost the race. It seems my hair doesn’t grow as fast, or as thick, as it used to.”

Two years later, Jasmine had reclaimed a happy normalcy. She excelled in her studies, earned her red/black belt in Taekwondo, cherished the friends she made among Hong Kong’s transitory international population, and displayed a keen aptitude for games both old-fashioned (Egyptian Ratskrew) and new (Minecraft). But in her sixth grade year, Jasmine’s cancer returned, and the family moved back to New York to enroll Jasmine in treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Under tutelage from her dedicated home instructor, Susan, Jasmine passed the sixth grade curriculum with highest marks. “Yeah, [I’m] hooked up to a machine and trying not to throw up, but we’re living our life,” is how Nick recalls Jasmine’s mindset during this time. Her precocious artistic talents continued to flourish, and she began sketching wonders of the world she had not seen: the Blue Mosque in Turkey, the Lighthouse of Alexandria. For Jasmine’s memorial service in January 2018, Nick wrote: “She spent her time focused on living. She kept a notebook to record everything she wanted to accomplish and challenged herself each day to check them off - one by one. Jasmine gave life everything she had. We’re so proud to be her parents.”

In the months preceding The D10 in 2017, the Bulls made Jasmine their honorary teammate. Everett and Xavier paid her a visit at the hospital. Nick remembers the initial strangeness of the “musclemen’s” appearance—specimens of health and gleaming strength, almost like visitors from another world.

Xavier: “She was really sweet, quiet. That was a special moment for us. After she passed, it was something that stuck with us even more.”

Everett: “She was bubbly, adorable—shy at first. She warmed up to us, I think. She cracked some jokes about her Dad. The times we did get to spend with her were always memorable. It reminds me why we do this in the first place."

Impelled by their experience with pediatric care on two continents, Jasmine’s parents have undertaken some significant fundraising of their own. They raised $85,000 for a fund dedicated to improving quality of life for children in treatment for life-threatening disease, and another $54,000 for St. Baldrick’s. Nick feels grateful that Memorial Sloan Kettering’s pediatrics department works to maintain a humane and personable atmosphere: kindness from the doctors and nurses, whose faces aren’t permanently hidden behind surgical masks; accommodating pets and plants and trips home; the arts and crafts and toys and video games that provide normalcy as well as diversion. “I do believe that they were treating the person, and not just the disease.” He adds that the food, in contrast to the hospitals in Hong Kong, was unbelievably good—not just good enough for children fighting to get calories into depleted bodies, but good enough for Nick to add a few pounds of his own.

Come the event in June, with Xavier’s former college teammate Michael Walsh now enlisted in Obumneme’s place, Jasmine had become the team’s rallying inspiration. “I was thinking about Jasmine throughout the day,” Everett remembers. “Every time we were feeling tired, the thought was, We’re gonna fight harder because we know how hard she’s fighting.”

A year after falling just short, the 2017 Bulls hoisted the team trophy. Even in their moment of victory, they kept a bigger goal in sight, raising more money for Memorial Sloan Kettering in the week following the competition than in the week leading up to it. They visited Jasmine at the Psaris home soon afterward and presented her with the trophy they’d won for their fundraising prowess. They gave her a medal, presented to any athlete who completes The D10. They gave her a D10 hat, and a framed picture of the team holding the first place trophy. “Dear Jasmine,” read the inscription. “Our fifth Bull. The team is always behind you.” 

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Toward the end of 2017, when Jasmine’s prognosis worsened, and the end drew close, the Bulls stayed in touch. When they learned that Jasmine, their teammate, had passed peacefully, they resolved to carry her memory into the 2018 competition.

Happiness is a theme in Nick’s thoughts these days, as it was in Jasmine’s throughout her life. The Thanksgiving before Jasmine died last winter, the Psaris family took turns saying what each person was grateful for. “I’m thankful that my Mom and Dad are always with me,” Jasmine said. Her older brother, home from boarding school, wanted to spend time with her, knowing it might be his last chance, at the same time wrestling with the gravity of the moment and of his brotherly obligations. He needed to hear from her what he could do to help. 

“I want you to be happy,” she told him. “That’s what I want.”

Readers of Jasmine’s story collection “Cally and Bean” will find several delights within its pages: clearly drawn characters, effectively constructed suspense with real stakes, satisfying climaxes and payoffs. Readers may also notice two motifs, which—even in Jasmine’s youthful style—recur frequently enough so as to constitute a distinctive voice. One of these motifs is forgetfulness, which often elicits panic or sets a story in motion. Another is how often characters remark on how lucky they are. In these twin themes of remembrance and acknowledgment of fortune, Jasmine, in some small and mysterious way, anticipated a core truth of her own legacy.

“When I see parents with young kids, holding hands, walking in the snow, I’ve been sad. I’ve been jealous,” Nick acknowledges. “But in reality, I was lucky. I did have that opportunity. I had a wonderful daughter, and nobody can take that away from me. 

“I’m grateful that I had those years with Jasmine. In her last year, we had fantastic times together. I try to keep a smile on my face. In general—when I’m walking the streets of Manhattan—I’m  appreciating life. And wishing that others do as well.”

Jasmine Psaris’s life endures in the lives of everyone she touched. This summer in Virginia, two of her closest friends from Hong Kong are planting a cherry tree in her memory. Her parents are not only raising money to benefit quality of life care efforts, they envision programs that will pass along Jasmine’s fighting spirit to other young girls, make them as unafraid as she was, open doors to coding and computing that Jasmine unlocked for herself in the time she had.

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The Bulls each have bracelets in Jasmine’s favorite color: sky blue. The bracelets read “Jasmine Strong” — the guys will be wearing them when they look to repeat as D10 Team champions June 9th, at Columbia University. They are already more than halfway to their 2018 fundraising goal of $60,000. But whatever happens on Game Day, the trophy will not again be inscribed with the name “BAC Bulls,” as it was last year. They are “J’s Bulls” now, and Jasmine’s parents and brother will be there to cheer them on.

Help the Bulls break the Team fundraising record by donating to MSKCC here