Almost one year ago, the Fitzgerald family headed to Boston from their home in Northborough, ready to watch former Bruin Shawn Thornton return to the TD Garden and take on his old team. Eight-year-old son Liam, an avid fan and well-known to the team from previous games and visits, was invited by staff to sit on the Bruins bench to watch warm-ups.

But as a seasoned, savvy rink regular, Liam was not content to just sit on the bench. Older brother Nick had taught him well: The real action was at the end, right by the tunnel where the players exit the ice and head for the dressing room.

“He knew enough to sit on the very edge of the bench,” mom Christine recalls of that now infamous night. “And the poor guy next to him, Derek [a Bruins trainer], was worried about him falling off the bench because he scooched right over to the end.”

One by one the Bruins stepped off the ice and onto the ramp leading into the tunnel, only to find a small fist extended their way. Liam waited patiently, knuckles out, completely sure of the outcome. There was no need to shout or clamor for attention, this was what hockey players do when they step off the ice. That he knew.

To a man, every player fist bumped the boy, hitting him in stride as they lumbered toward the dressing room, forward Daniel Paille even affectionately tapping Liam on the top of his Bruins cap. he wore no massive grin or awestruck expression you’d expect from a child meeting his heroes up close, but rather a small, sly smile with a business-like, grown-up air, completely at ease and at home. His mature façade cracked only once, when center Gregory Hamilton hit his hand a little too hard, causing Liam to shake it out and smile.

“We’re watching and amazingly enough every player got him,” Christine recalled. A special moment for Liam, a great game, and a 2-1 overtime win for the good guys over the Panthers. What more could you ask for?

The next morning, dad Bill, home with a now under-the-weather Liam, picked up the phone. It was Christine, calling from work: “You’re not going to believe this…”

What followed in the next 11 months was, looking back on it, impossible to predict, yet once you learn about the Fitzgeralds, completely believable: viral video fame that the family has parlayed into over $150,000 in donations to fight blood cancer and a platform to raise awareness and opportunity for people with Down syndrome.
“We refuse to be victims”
“I remember when we were first told in the delivery room that he had Down syndrome. We know that we were older having him, that there was some chance, but it was still a shock because at that point we didn’t know,” Bill recalled. “We didn’t have any of the aggressive testing to find out because termination wouldn’t have been an option for us. We had each other and we were able to say, ‘Wait a minute, we can handle Down syndrome.’”

So they did.

“For the first four years, he was extraordinarily healthy,” he added. Save for an occasional sinus infection, ear tubes, and glasses at age 2, Liam avoided many of the medical issues often associated with children who have Down syndrome, such as gastrointestinal and bowel issues, eating and digestion difficulty, thyroid problems, or life-threatening diagnoses, such as heart conditions that require open-heart surgery in infancy or leukemia.

“I never thought about it until he had some blood tests that didn’t look too good,” Christine said. “And I went, ‘Oh…’ The minute I heard that I thought, That sounds like leukemia.”

Her mother’s intuition was brutally correct; Liam was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at age 3.

“When it came to cancer, I think we cried for about 5 minutes and then said, ‘OK, we’re gonna move on.’ We both have this outlook: we refuse to be victims,” Bill said. “Whether it was the bully in the playground, difficult first marriage, Down syndrome, leukemia, whatever, I just said, ‘OK, we’re going to handle this. We’ll get through it.’ Parents lose children in car accidents, swimming pool accidents — you can lose them at any time. We always said we’re going to enjoy him as long as we have him, and that’s really what carried us along.”

“One of the things I found that was most important for us: We were very positive. We went through it with an incredibly upbeat attitude that ‘We can do this. We can handle it,’” Christine added. “It’s incredibly important for your child, for you to be the rock and help them through it. From Liam’s perspective, people would say, ‘He adapts so easily to all the treatments, all the medications.’ He never really seemed to have a hard time with it, and I think part of that is how you approach it as a family. It has to be everybody on the same page. We never changed the way we treated him.”

Looking back, the couple says this attitude set the stage for the next four years of his treatment, which resulted in a cancer-free declaration at age 8 and a Facebook post celebrating his last chemo treatment in May 2013: the grinning boy holding a sign: “I KICKED CANCER’S BUTT.”

“When he was undergoing treatment, he had to get a lot of needles,” Bill explained. “From the very beginning I said, ‘This can be hard or this can be easy. Look, I’m not going to kid you, it’s going to hurt. But it will be quick, it’ll be over, and it’ll be fine. If it’s hard, it’s going to hurt, it’s going to take longer.’ I’m literally trying to talk to him as an adult: ‘If you take a deep breath, relax, I’ll hold you, we’ll get that needle in once, and it’s over.’ Most of the time he would take the deep breath, he’d get one stick, and he’d be fine.”

To this day, when Liam takes a needle, he requests quiet; he doesn’t need to be talked through it anymore. “He wants you to be quiet, he’ll get it done, and when it’s over, it’s done,” Christine noted.

“You can be brave and cry,” Liam noted.

Bill smiles proudly at the statement: “That’s right! I used to tell him you can be brave and cry at the same time.”

It’s a philosophy and practice that has paid off well. Once, when it was time for a shot and Liam was in the middle of watching game highlights, he simply stuck out his arm and kept watching.

“It was hysterical,” Bill said. “I went, ‘Wow, it worked!’”

Becoming the Bruins #1 fan
The family started attending Bruins games annually thanks to Liam’s big brother, 19-year-old Nick, who always asked for tickets as a Christmas present.

Yet Liam soon caught Bruins fever (“Who do you think turned him into the little sports nut that he is?” Christine laughed) and discovered his favorite player, defenseman Adam McQuaid. His parents report that over breakfast, regardless of the sports season, Liam will watch the previous night’s highlights of any game while eating his favorite breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon or waffles and bacon (common denominator: bacon).

“If it’s baseball season, we’re on MLB. If it’s hockey season, we’re on NHL video highlights. All New England sports, he loves them,” Christine said.

When Liam dressed up as McQuaid for Halloween 2013, Christine took a picture and posted it on Facebook and Twitter, where it somehow found its way to McQuaid’s sister. She still has no idea how McQuaid’s sister found the photo as she never tagged him or the Bruins.  “We were away on vacation and I came back to a call from the [Bruins] community relations manager saying, ‘Adam McQuaid would like to invite you and your family to a game. He saw Liam and he’d like to meet him,’” she said. “That was the start of us getting to know the Bruins.”

Fast forward to February 2014, when the family attended a game courtesy of McQuaid. While the “fist bump game” nine months later would be more famous, Christine said it was “the Adam McQuaid game” that was almost more incredible.

“During the game, so many interesting things happened,” she recalled. Liam was named Fan of the Game, so he was featured on the Garden’s video scoreboard, earning him instant celebrity in the 17,000-person crowd. “We met so many people in the stands who did these amazing things. There was a vet behind us who had a combat action badge. He gave it to [Liam] and said, ‘You need this to keep you safe.’ A guy on his way out handed me a $20 bill and said, ‘Put this in his college fund, I’ve never had so much fun at a Bruins game sitting around this kid and watching him.’ On the way to the train station, people are recognizing him and saying hi because he was Fan of the Game.” A woman took a medal from around her neck and handed it to Christine. “It was blessed by the Pope,” the woman said. “I want your son to have this because it’ll protect him.”
Worldwide fame
Now, back to the morning after the Bruins-Panthers game last November: Bill was working from home because Liam was out of school with a sinus infection. Christine was on the job at Tufts University’s Medford/Somerville campus, trying to work in between fielding emails and calls from strangers, then the Bruins, and soon the media. She quickly realized what happened.

When Liam was fist bumping the Bruins the night before, someone in the crowd caught the moment on video. A little over a minute, the clip was picked up by a Swedish freelancer, HockeyWebCast, which uploads game highlights to YouTube. The footage soon took off and made the rounds across U.S., and then worldwide, news. Within one day the video had 1 million views, eventually racking up more than 5.5 million.

“We had no idea someone was taking a video,” Christine said. “We didn’t know until the next morning. I started getting notes from people saying, ‘Isn’t this Liam?’”



The Original Fist Pump Video



While Christine set up the media schedule, Bill was at home in a scene that sounds like it came straight from a sitcom. In between juggling his own work and conference calls, Bill was trying to get the house ready for news crews and an under-the-weather Liam ready for a day with the media: “I’m cleaning up the house, picking it up, throwing him in the shower, steaming him up. They walk in and he’s the picture of hospitality: ‘Hi, how are you? Welcome to my home.’ Two hours later, they leave, I throw him back in the shower, steam him up, put him down for a nap, the next crew comes in. Later that night, the next crew comes in… He kept saying to me, ‘Dad, this is my third shower!’ The funny thing is, he looked like the picture of health on TV.”

“It was hysterical to think about what he was able to get through that whole day,” Christine laughed.

The family, which does not have season tickets, attended several games last season following the fist-bump game, invited by the Bruins, charitable organizations, or season ticket holders who offered up their seats. When Liam walks through the Garden today, he’s one of the most famous people in the building not on skates.

“All the Bruins fans know who he is, whether they’ve been to a game or not,” Christine noted. “People will call out, ‘There’s Liam!’ You don’t know the person, they don’t know us as a family, but they know of us.”

Yet she said the boy has always had a knack for attracting attention, just for being himself: “Ever since he was a baby, people have come up to talk to him and see him. There’s something about him. That’s always been happening, no matter where we go, and that’s before the video. Even when we went to the Garden before the video, people would come up to see him because they just thought he was a cute kid, plus he understands sports. You forget when you see a little kid who you think is a lot younger than they are, you watch how into the game he gets and you think, ‘How is that possible?’ and then they realize 1. He understands sports; 2. He’s older than he looks.”

Earlier this year, the family got to park in the players’ lot one night and ran into Andy Brickley, former Bruin and current color commentator for Bruins broadcasts on NESN. “Hi, Liam,” he greeted. “You’re here more than I am!”

Beloved by the staff, from the front office to the ushers (one of whom was the first to ask for his autograph), Liam enjoys his popularity, obligingly posing for photos and giving fist bumps as the family tries to wind their way through the concourse to their seats.

When he’s appearing on the video scoreboard or at an event, he’ll be sure to tip his cap to the crowd, a move he borrowed after seeing Derek Jeter do it during his retirement season. Christine laughed, remembering the first time she and Bill saw it in action: “We’re, like, ‘Oh, my god, look at him, he’s tipping his cap!’ We didn’t tell him how to do it.” (But, never fear: When asked if he’s a Yankees fan, Liam’s response is firm, quick, and emphatic: “NO!”)

“The world has embraced him and I thank them for that,” Christine said, noting she has heard from her son’s admirers from as far away as New Zealand. “He was given to us to raise, but he was given to the world to love. It’s so true.”

What may be most amazing about the video is, at first glance, viewers are taken in by an impossibly cute boy in black and yellow fleece, doing something very appropriate for the setting and very wise for his age. The appeal has nothing to do with the fact he has Down syndrome.

“It’s not about his disability, it’s about his ability,” Bill said. “The fact he was sharp enough to sit on that bench. Nobody told him to put his hand out. He just knew, ‘I’m on the bench — boom.” I’m always amazed at just how functional he is and how many times people have said in their own ignorance, ‘Wow, he can do this? He can do that?’ Don’t assume he can’t do something. He’s such a good friend. He’s such a caring, sympathetic, empathetic guy. He lives for the moment. He’s always in the now and he gets such joy out of the most simple things.”

By viewing Liam as he is, a 9-year-old boy, and not his diagnosis, Bill said parents can raise a new generation of inclusive, diagnosis-blind people.

“They are just people with a different diagnosis. Don’t treat them any differently, make sure they’re included in things, and look at them as just another person in the world,” he urged. “If you can have them as part of the crew, part of the team, part of the classroom, and really understand it, [people are] going to be so much more tolerant and have kinder hearts when they get older because they remember. If I’m a parent with a neurotypical child, my child is going to be better because of Liam. My child is going to be better because he or she will be more sympathetic, more aware, more tolerant.”

“One of the things that is really important to the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress is awareness, opening up the eyes of people about what people with Down syndrome can contribute to the community,” noted Maureen Gallagher, executive director of the advocacy organization. “Allowing Liam to be front and center, showing how he participates in everyday life, how he is an amazing sports fan and goes to school and has friends, that he’s living a full and meaningful life — that’s the message we’re trying to portray to the community, and they exemplify that through their work with Liam. It’s just amazing to us.”

Both Gallagher and Bill Fitzgerald, who also sits on the MDSC board, cited the organization’s latest public awareness project: Your Next Star, a campaign to make employers aware of the strong, competent, and dedicated employees they can find in adults who have Down syndrome.

“So much of this, it’s not financial support we need,” Christine said. “It’s more awareness, it’s more opportunity. It’s access. We don’t need any money to get people employed. You need to know the people are out there.”

“When you think about how far [the video] traveled, that means that awareness traveled that far,” Christine added. “What I heard from people, they saw the video, then they would say, ‘And now I’ve read your son’s story. I knew there was more to this than just a cute little kid on the bench fist bumping.’ The awareness it has brought beyond our local sphere has been amazing, and to see how kind people are and the way they embrace him and what he’s dealt with. I do think it’s helped people.”

Despite the worldwide popularity of the clip, some have still left ignorant, rude comments here and there online regarding the genetic disorder. Taking it in stride, Bill encourages people to “concentrate on what [Liam] was doing, the fact he knew what he was doing and knew what to do. Don’t make a prejudgment about a kid with Down syndrome or any other disorder, for that matter.”

While Liam’s story spreads an important message about inclusion and acceptance, Christine said it highlights the character of hockey players, as well: “What do you see in the character of these guys who see this little kid on the bench and pay attention to him as they come off? The hockey players are amazing, they’re very down to earth, very real, people. You see them always as the tough guys, but if you get beyond that there’s a real strong human in there. The people who work there and the team: very down-to-earth, amazing people.”

The bond between the Bruins and the Fitzgeralds is not surprising, when you think about it — they’re all grinders — hard workers focused on one goal: winning.
Man of the year
While 2014 ended strong for Liam — international YouTube sensation, named Best Fan 2014 by USA Today and one of the Top 15 Cutest Kids 2014 — the new year promised even more accolades and opportunity.

There were offers of more Bruins games, a game in Patrice Bergeron’s suite on St. Patrick’s Day, turning 9 in February, and the unveiling of Liam’s own official Upper Deck trading card. The company contacted the family with an offer for the latter; it was unveiled on ice at a packed March 2015 game. Liam carries it in his wallet (one branded with the Bruins logo, naturally) and flashes it as his ID (“I’ve gotta show this guy my ID,” Liam announced at the grocery store recently. “We’re buying fish,” Bill replied, “why do we need to show him an ID?”). Liam was seen on every major media outlet in the U.S., joined Bruins broadcasts in between periods, and was the subject of a lengthy profile on ESPN’s E:60 news program, one so touching it will make even the steeliest viewer’s “allergies” act up.



Behind the Scenes of the Cover Shoot



Both parents are clear, while the family has enjoyed special, amazing experiences through charitable organizations and Liam’s newfound fame, “it’s not about the fun or the activities we’ve had the opportunity to do, it’s about the people we’ve met,” Christine stated. A twin goal is raising awareness and money for the causes closest to their hearts.

Christine decided to take a very firm, ambitious step toward the latter, riding Liam’s wave in an attempt to break the fundraising record for the Massachusetts chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s annual Man and Woman of the Year competition. A 10-week campaign held every spring, participants attempt to raise the most money to earn the title. It’s also a “silent” campaign — entrants have no idea how much they’ve raised until the May banquet, when the winner is announced. Yet Christine didn’t submit her name, she nominated Liam.

Team Liam held fundraising events throughout the state, from personal appearances where he sold and autographed his Upper Deck card and bracelets proclaiming #bumpoutcancer, to T-shirts and a karaoke dance party. “I had a great marketing tool,” she admitted. “Bringing him places physically made a huge difference, people wanted to meet him.”

Months later, even recalling the project sounds exhausting: “We killed ourselves on this campaign,” she said. The Bruins Foundation stepped up, donating $23,000 to the effort. At the awards dinner, when the Man of the Year was announced, it was the guy with the glasses, huge smile, and spiky hair wearing the size 4 tux. Liam and family raised a grand total of $154,000. Overall, Man and Woman of the Year candidates raised a combined $415,000 for the organization, which will fund everything from research to critical financial assistance for patients and community services.

“After going through the campaign, it really didn’t matter who won,” Christine noted, admitting she is competitive and had her eye on the $250,000 record. “We’re all raising money for the same purpose with the same great outcomes in mind.”

Sharon Klein, executive director of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, noted that Liam’s entry also delivered invaluable media attention, which translates into tangible benefits.

“It brought us a ton of little clips on TV that we would never get,” she said. “It opens up so many doors. It’s, yes, making people aware and educating them, but it’s also bringing people to us who need resources. That’s our goal: to reach as many people as we can and help them. It did that. It’s still doing that.”

“Everybody has some sort of direct connection to cancer. I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t know someone or has been personally affected,” Christine added. “How can you help? You don’t have to have a lot of money to help, there’s so much that can be done with volunteer work. They’re always looking for volunteers. We have to expand and broaden.”
A new season ahead
It has been a busy off-season for the Fitzgeralds and the Bruins. For the former, Liam has grown 4 inches since last November, thanks to nightly injections of growth hormones, which his body was not producing on its own. He’s still tiny for his age, the size of a preschooler, but he’s now growing steadily. Swiping through the photos on her phone — a who’s who of Boston sports (Liam in David Ortiz’s arms, sitting at Bruins coach Claude Julien’s desk, on the field at the New England Revolution game, and shots with the majority of Bruins), she’s amazed at his progress. “I had to buy him new black pants,” she exclaimed happily, pointing to his legs.

Over the summer, Liam enjoyed bowling, mini golf, and tennis, time at his family’s place in New Hampshire, and sleeping in: “He thinks 9 a.m. is the crack of dawn,” Christine noted. He loves Minecraft and any time he can spend with his best friend, Chase. In August, he was invited to the Lowell Spinners game, where the family and the crowd broke the Guinness World Record for Most Simultaneous Fist Bumps with a grand total of 2,602, smashing the previous record of 1,821.

Now Liam is getting ready to lose his first tooth — a bottom incisor is very wiggly — and he’s finally tall enough to ride the “big yellow school bus”
to third grade. That’s a treat he’s been waiting for since he started school; at 3’4” he meets the height minimum to ride safely.

Big brother Nick is back at school in his sophomore year at Marist College in New York. “He misses him terribly,” Christine noted. “They Skype every week.”

For their part, the Bruins shook up their roster after their fifth-place finish in the Atlantic, one spot removed from the playoffs. Gone are “buddies” Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille, and — worst of all for Christine — her favorite, Milan Lucic.

“Mommy was very sad,” Bill grinned.

As you might expect, the Fitzgeralds will return to the Garden on Thursday, Oct. 8 for the opening of the 2015-2016 Bruins season. As you also might expect, the family will be volunteering, selling 50-50 raffle tickets to benefit the MDSC. On Oct. 12, Christine will run the Tufts 10K in Boston with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Moms in Training group, and on Nov. 22, Nick will come home to skate for the MDSC All-Stars in their 10th annual benefit game against the Bruins Alumni team.

A new grade, a new tooth, even a new pair of pants for a growing boy. A fresh new season for his favorite team.

So, how will the Bs do this year? Liam’s prediction is quick: “Happy.”