Revised on: 06.19.2018 at 09:42 a.m.
Posted on: 06.19.2018 at 11:00 a.m.
By Margaret High
Jason Council, an 11-year-old Whiteville native, looked at an impressive breakfast laid out in his hotel in Madrid, Spain. He had taken all seven pills necessary before eating, then went to sit with his family. It was Friday, April 13th. Council was a little nervous.
Four days earlier, Council was sitting with his classmates at North Topsail Elementary School when his teacher called him up as a volunteer. At the rear of the cafeteria walked in his mom, Jodi Council, with balloons and Jason’s favorite poster of soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo. Council was a little confused.
“About three years ago, Jason had the opportunity to make a wish. As much of y’all know, Jason has cystic fibrosis,” Jodi said to the cafeteria, one arm around her son. “He was allowed a wish, and his wish was granted yesterday.” Her voice broke.
Jason was flying to Spain to see Ronaldo.
Jason instantly buried his face into his mom’s side, crying. He had been waiting since he was 9 years old. Make-A-Wish Foundation warned him it would take time, but he wanted only one thing: to meet Ronaldo.
The cafeteria erupted in applause. Classmates high-fived Jason. Teachers cried. Jason’s club soccer coach asked if they would pack him in a suitcase and bring him along.
“Because it was such a quick turnaround, Make-A-Wish couldn’t come and do their big, whatever,” Jodi said, “And I didn’t want to just say, ‘Hey Jason, your wish has been granted.’”
Roughly 36 hours later, the Council family was boarding an airplane in Charlotte Douglas International Airport headed for Madrid.
Jason was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when he was 2 and a half years old. It’s an incurable, progressive disease affecting the lungs, pancreas and liver. Since CF is caused by a genetic mutation, everyone has different difficulties. For Jason, his pancreas struggles to produce enzymes to break down fats and proteins, resulting in a daily regimen of roughly 50 pills.
“We’re lucky it hasn’t really affected his lungs,” Jodi said. “But you never know, he could wake up tomorrow and all of a sudden have a lot of problems with his lungs.”
People with CF have two copies of the defective CF gene. There are more than 1,700 known mutations of the disease, making it difficult to effectively test babies. Jason was tested as a newborn, but only for a handful of common CF genes. They found one CF gene, the most common mutation, but didn’t find the other.
It wasn’t until he was clearly not retaining food as a baby that Jodi took Jason to the doctor. They thought it was a gastro-intestinal problem; then the doctor performed a sweat test and deferred Jason to a CF specialist.
“I was in denial,” Jodi said. She knew Jason had already tested negative for CF as an infant, making it hard to understand that the initial testing wasn’t exhaustive enough and missed the other signal.
While there is no cure for CF, there have been major medical advances that dramatically increased life expectancy. In the 1950s, many with CF didn’t live to make elementary school. Today, the median predicted survival age is close to 40.
For now, Jason takes pills with every meal. He monitors his medication for the most part, but sometimes he’ll be too hungry to wait and take his pills.
“We joke that when he comes out of his room he says only two words: I’m hungry,” Mark Council, Jason’s father, said.
Being hungry is part of being 11 years old, but it’s also a side effect of struggling to absorb nutrients from meals.
So traveling to Madrid, there was a lot of medication packed alongside Ronaldo jerseys.
“It was funny, when (Make-A-Wish) was asking Jason to fill out his top 10 wishes, they all were about Ronaldo,” Jodi said. “Number one was meet Ronaldo, number two was, like, watch Ronaldo play. You know, so on.”
Cristiano Ronaldo is arguably one of the best soccer players of all time. His name will be retired with other soccer legends, like Pelé, Beckham, Messi and Maradona.
While the list of top players is heavily Brazilian, Cristiano Ronaldo comes from Portugal. He broke onto the international soccer scene at 16 years old, signing with Manchester United for a record-breaking $14 million and creating a name for himself despite recent Brazilian legend Ronaldo coming before him.
Cristiano is known for his support of Make-A-Wish Foundation, donating nearly $800,000 in 2017 by selling a replica of his Ballon d’Oro, a trophy awarded to the top soccer player in the world.
Being the best comes with a price: everyone wants to meet Ronaldo. Including Jason Council.
“I don’t know when he first started to love Ronaldo,” Jodi said. “Maybe it was Brett (his older brother) who got him into it. But there was just a connection Jason had with Ronaldo.”
Jason was sure it would be worth the wait.
“I just got the call,” Mark texted Jodi on Monday, April 9t. “This is it.”
On Friday, April 13t, Jason stood in the lobby of Real Madrid’s practice soccer facility, the famous professional team Ronaldo plays for. Nine other Make-A-Wish kids stood beside him with various other illnesses. Most were Spanish. Jason was the only American.
Jodi stood close behind him with the other parents, waiting eagerly for the 6’2” superstar to walk through the doors.
“I told Jodi, ‘You carried him for nine months, you get to go with him to see Ronaldo,” Mark said. “But if she didn’t want to go, I’d happily do it.”
Other big names on Real Madrid’s team walked in, including one of the best defenders in the world, Sergio Ramos García.
Jason said hey, congratulated the club on making it to the Champions League final, which is the Super Bowl of professional soccer.
Gareth Bale walked in, another superstar of the world’s most successful professional soccer team. Jason repeated the same congratulations and got a picture.
Marcelo, Benzema, Casemiro all walked in. Jason got his pictures, exchanged a few words, got his hair tousled a couple times.
Then came Ronaldo in all his glory. Tanned skin, frosted tips and dark sunglasses adorned the most recognized face in soccer. Jason was speechless.
“I was in shock,” Jason said. “There were tears in my eyes.”
It was The Man. Three long years on an equally long waitlist, and here was Jason, smiling into a camera wearing his Ronaldo jersey with the legend giving him a side hug.
Back home in Whiteville, Jason keeps his signed soccer ball and Ronaldo jersey in a glass case.
Beside his player poster is the picture of Jason and Ronaldo, signed soccer ball sitting in Jason’s hand.
There’s a slew of other memorabilia: a newspaper from Malaga with Ronaldo on the front page, promoting the Real Madrid versus Malaga game that Jason watched, bobble heads of Real Madrid’s most popular players, a booklet about Real Madrid’s stadium they toured.
The trip fueled Jason’s love for Ronaldo. The Councils are traveling to Maryland on Aug. 4 to see Real Madrid play in the International Champions Cup tour.
They watched Ronaldo complete a hat trick for Portugal and keep a stacked Spanish lineup at bay in the World Cup game played on Friday, June 15.
Jason continues to wear his teal Real Madrid uniform at soccer practice.
It was the trip of a lifetime. He got his wish.