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How Jason Campbell Lifted Pinky's Last Hours

Antoinette "Pinky" Berry fought hard, but as she drifted into her final days, she had very little left. In bed at Washington Hospital Center's Cancer Institute, surrounded by family and friends, she had stopped eating, wasn't much for talking, and showed little of the spirit that made her so popular at work at the Oxon Hill Safeway's bakery department.

Making her rounds at the hospital, Vera Oye Yaa-Anna, a storyteller and artist who visits patients to offer encouragement and perhaps a song, opened the door and instantly recognized Pinky from her time at Vera's neighborhood Safeway on Capitol Hill.

"Seeing Pinky in her terminal state was devastating," Oye says. Trying to hide her own emotions, Oye edged toward the door after a quick hello. But on the way out, she noticed that Berry was covered with a homemade Washington Redskins blanket.

Oye asked if the Redskins were Pinky's team, and her drawn face lit up. Have you been to a game? Would you want to go?

"No," Perry replied weakly. But she did have one request.

"Jason Campbell," she said. The patient wanted to see or talk to the team's quarterback.

"That was a request I couldn't do anything about," Oye says. So she made her farewells and slipped away. "I thought I'm never going back to that room; I cannot help her." But Oye's inability to bring any light into a patient's last days nagged at her. She sat down and, knowing no one in the Redskins organization, sent an email to the generic mailbox on the team's site.

The Skins' web operation passed the email to B.J. Corriveau, the team's vice president for community relations. Within 30 minutes, Corriveau was on the phone with Oye: Good news--Campbell wanted to make the call.

The next day, says Tina Carter, one of Pinky's younger siblings, "my sister was so excited that she sat up in bed and put on her wig--she'd lost her hair from the cancer treatments--and put on her makeup too. For a phone call!"

Campbell called at the appointed hour. He spoke to Pinky for ten minutes, about the team and Pinky's lifelong devotion to all things Redskins, about her spirits, about the need to keep on keeping on.

"I was just trying to make her feel real important," says Campbell, the 26-year-old, third-year quarterback. "Cheer her up, thank her for being such a big fan. A story like this really gets your heart. If you can encourage them even a little bit, you have to try."

After he finished with Pinky, to the shock of everyone in the room, Campbell asked to speak to each and every relative and friend who was visiting Pinky. They passed the phone around, each hearing the player tell them "to support her all the way. Let God do the worrying for you," Campbell said. "She's in God's hands and he has total control. All you can do is give her your love."

"And then he wanted to make sure he said 'God bless' to each one of us," Carter says. "We were just thanking him because he really didn't have to do that."

Through it all, Pinky just beamed. "The smile on her face--irreplaceable," Carter says. "We hadn't seen that in quite a while."

"I was in awe of the transformation," Oye says. "She didn't look like death anymore."

Pinky Berry went home the next day. There was nothing more the hospital could do for her. She refused all medication from that point on. Campbell's visit on the phone "had put her at peace," Oye says.

"Sometimes we forget just how powerful these connections can be," says Corriveau, whose job it is to field a great many requests from fans, often from families in which someone is in great need. "The players are great about this kind of thing."

"I can remember when my grandmother was passing away," Campbell tells me. "I came home from college and I remember thinking how this puts life in perspective."

The Redskins sometimes quietly arrange for dying patients to attend a last game. There's even a semi-secret location just off the playing field where the team arranges for some critically ill fans to meet players for autographs. But there are always more requests than can be accommodated.

When Pinky got home, her family stayed with her, and just as they had all her life, they surrounded her with love, with themselves and with a symbol of all their years of togetherness, their Redskins paraphernalia.

"We are all crazy Redskins fans," Carter says. "My whole basement is decorated Redskins. We are diehard, win or lose, good weather, bad weather. It's something that's passed on through the generations. Our father passed it on to us, and we did the same to our kids. When Daddy died in '99, his obituary said he was a diehard Redskins fan. You are Redskins fans, that's who you are."

The players usually experience that kind of devotion from afar, quick glimpses into the stands, a passing encounter at an autograph session. "You can't really even imagine it from our side," Campbell says. "You can't know what's inside the feelings." But on the phone with Pinky Berry, he says he got a clear sense of what solace a love of a home team can bring, how it can bind a family.

Pinky died the day after she got home. She was 49. The obituary her family wrote notes that she was a fashion plate and a crafts lover, someone who baked and made her own candles, lotions, soaps and oils. She sang beautifully and she was a giving big sister. And, the obituary notes, "she loved the Redskins."

Pinky's mother, Geraldine Berry, is doing ok, Carter says. The whole family has had to pick itself up and turn their emotions around, because this weekend Tina's daughter is getting married--to a Steelers fan. God, the Berrys say, will give them the strength they need to get past that one.

By Marc Fisher |  September 28, 2008; 8:12 AM ET
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Good job, Jason.

Posted by: SA | September 28, 2008 10:54 PM

Good for him and the nurse who didn't think it was possible but tried anyway. Two people who did something kind for the sake of kindness. Hopefully a lot more athletes will realize that they can use their status to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

Posted by: Reese | September 29, 2008 10:21 AM

Marc: That was probably the best I have ever read in your blog. Thank you.

And God bless Pinky's family; the nurse who cared enough to try; and Jason Campbell, who showed his true faith by re-presenting Christ to the world.

May our Lord and Saviour comfort and watch over all of you.

Posted by: SoMD | September 29, 2008 12:28 PM

Good article, Marc. The Skins players do a remarkable job at community service and showing care for others.

Posted by: slm | September 29, 2008 12:43 PM

For all the crap that surounds the professional sports world I've never heard of any players turning down a request from someone in the hospital. Most are pretty quiet about doing it, but they're around a lot. I know Brian Roberts from the Orioles visits kids in hospitals a lot as does the entire Washington Capitals organization along with a lot of the Wizards and Nats.

Posted by: EricS | September 30, 2008 10:03 AM

Fantastic Story! God Bless their family as they deal with the loss. JC is one heck of a guy for being there in their time of need.

Posted by: Beatdallas | September 30, 2008 11:17 PM

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