INDIANAPOLIS — As a junior at Belleville East, Malcolm Hill struck up a friendship with Jeremiah Radford.
Hill was a blossoming basketball star who was drawing interest from a handful of college programs, including Illinois. Jeremiah was an up-and-coming football player who had impressed as a freshman fullback ready to make his mark going forward.
“A good player for us,” Belleville East football coach Tim Funk recalled.
They had a lot in common — from video games to sports and music. But one common interest tightened their bond.
“I just knew he was an Illinois fan, and we became friends real quick,” Hill said.
They had it all figured out. Hill would go on to Illinois and become the basketball star. Jeremiah would follow the next year and wear the orange and blue on the gridiron.
“He told Malcolm, ‘We’re going to both go to U of I and ball out,’ ” said Jeremiah’s mom, Felicia Radford.
But the dime-sized lump on his wrist that Jeremiah had played through as a freshman grew to the size of a golf ball by December.
“That’s when the pediatrician said we needed to get him to a specialist at Cardinal Glennon in St. Louis and they scheduled him to have a biopsy done in January of 2011,” Felicia Radford said.
Cancer was the diagnosis. Jeremiah had contracted soft-tissue sarcoma.
“I was devastated. I had to walk out of the room,” Felicia Radford said. “I called my best friend at work and I was like, ‘They just told me my baby has cancer.’ ”
Having gone through a series of treatments, including chemotherapy, Jeremiah returned to the Lancers’ football team in time for fall camp with clearance from his doctors.
“They thought the cancer was gone,” Funk said. “He really couldn’t grip the ball and he had a couple fumbles but he was out there trying. He had limited use of his hand because the cancer started in his wrist.”
Unable to play, Radford spent the season around the Lancers’ football team, wearing his No. 21 jersey on the sideline on Friday nights. Though weakened by the cancer, Jeremiah maintained a rigorous workout routine.
“He was a workout fanatic,” Felicia Radford said.
“He wasn’t sure if he was ever going to play football again, but he was working out three times a day,” Hill said. “That goes to show you how much love he had for the sport and how dedicated he was.”
His presence at practices served as a source of inspiration and motivation.
“You look at a situation where you’re not feeling good and you think you’ve got it pretty bad and all of a sudden you look over there at Jeremiah and say, ‘He’s not feeling well, going through chemo and fighting cancer.’ It’s an inspiration to look at someone like that on a daily basis and know you don’t have it as bad as it could be,” Funk said.
Three and a half weeks before his 16th birthday, on Feb. 8, 2012, Jeremiah lost his battle with the disease.
“I got a couple text messages from some friends, that’s how I found out,” Hill said. “Word had spread through school. Everybody was depressed. It was real tough. I’ve never lost anybody close to me, maybe once when I was real young. It had a big impact on me. I’ve never felt like that before. I think I really grew up from that.”
To honor his friend, Hill decided when he got to Illinois he would keep the memory of Jeremiah alive by wearing the same jersey number his friend wore at Belleville East. When Hill and the Illini take the floor today at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in their Big Ten tournament opener against Indiana (11 a.m., BTN) the freshman swingman will be wearing Jeremiah’s No. 21.
“Wearing this number means so much to me, it motivates me,” Hill said.
“It makes me feel like my son will always be here no matter what because his friends keep him alive for me,” Felicia Radford said. “I was so proud of Malcolm for that. You would think he was my own child the way I brag on him. He’s a young man with so much talent. He’s going places.”
At Belleville East, the football team wore No. 21 decals on their helmets the last two years. Jeremiah would have been a senior on the most recent team. T-shirts honoring his memory were made, and when Hill’s mother attended the Lancers’ sectional playoff game earlier this week, members of the community shared their appreciation about Hill’s tribute.
“They all say it’s such a great thing for him to do such a selfless act to honor someone else,” Malcolm Hill’s mom, Machanda, said. “It’s a great way to honor Jeremiah. His dream was to attend U of I and he can somewhat fulfill that dream now through Malcolm.”
Hill keeps regular contact with Felicia Radford, sending a text or a quick phone call to check in on her and Jeremiah’s younger brother and sister, 9-year-old twins Jaden and Jada.
Jaden looks up to Hill. He’s a basketball player. Jeremiah’s Illini-themed bedroom and bathroom have remained unchanged because of Jaden’s love of Hill and all things Illinois.
“He can’t wait to see Malcolm play in person,” Felicia Radford said. “We were supposed to make it up there for a game, but with the weather we weren’t able to make it. We’ll definitely make it up for one next season.”
The Radfords are appreciative of Hill honoring Jeremiah. The community is, too.
“I know most people in the community appreciate what Malcolm is doing, honoring one of our own like that,” Funk said.