BEIJING – Stuart Holden has a special place in his home where he hopes to hang an Olympic medal in a couple of weeks. If things go as planned, it will rest alongside one of his MLS Cup championship medals, which he has won with the Houston Dynamo the past two years.
The other MLS medal is missing, though, having been replaced by a little medallion from a junior soccer event.
To understand why the out-of-place medal sits there is to understand Holden and to get a glimpse of the special friendship he struck up with a special young man.
When Holden walked into the cancer ward of Texas Children's Hospital early last year, little could he imagine what an impact the next hour or so would have on his life. It was the day Holden and his Dynamo teammate Craig Waibel met 14-year-old A.J. Piniewski, who had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's Burkitt's lymphoma and had just been admitted for treatment.
"There was just something about him that made you realize you were talking to a special kid," said Holden, speaking ahead of the U.S. men's soccer team's crucial Group B finale against Nigeria on Wednesday. "The way he dealt with the situation he was in kind of inspired you and broke your heart at the same time."
There is no shortage of athletes who perform acts of community goodwill, but few take things as far past the cursory round of autographs and handshakes as Holden and Waibel did.
Over the next few months, they struck up a close bond with Piniewski, making several more visits to the hospital and exchanging text messages with him. It was not a charity case; it was a friendship.
But despite the Dynamo duo being able to alleviate their young friend's suffering in some small way, Piniewski was not getting any better. By the time the Dynamo won their second consecutive MLS Cup in November 2007, doctors had done all they could. Piniewski was nearly ready to leave the hospital and spend his final months at home.
First, though, was a special day when Holden and Waibel brought in the giant trophy to share with the kids in the cancer ward. Piniewski held the Cup, kissed it and his face lit up. And then Holden pulled his winner's medal from around his neck and placed it around Piniewski's.
"I told Stuart, 'We can't accept this,' " said Piniewski's father, Bob. "But he insisted. It was such a special gesture and I will always treasure the look on my son's face at that moment."
A.J. died on Jan. 5, finally losing the battle he had fought with dignity and a calm that belied his tender years.
"When he went, it took a special piece of me," Holden said. "I'm just glad I met him. He was a great kid from a great family. Seeing how close they were and how they dealt with it really touched me."
Bob Piniewski and Holden have stayed in close contact. Holden agreed to be involved in Piniewski's campaign to raise awareness and find a cure for childhood cancer.
At a recent fund-raiser event, Piniewski presented Holden with a soccer medal that A.J. won when he was an 8-year-old.
"He told me that medal means more to him than his MLS medal," Piniewski said.
Holden has looked solid for Peter Nowak's Olympic side so far. He scored the winning goal as the Americans beat Japan 1-0 in their tournament opener. The U.S. then came within a whisker of defeating European Under-21 champions Holland in a 2-2 draw.
Back in the States, Piniewski and his family have been watching nervously.
"Cynicism about sports is easy," wrote Piniewski on the Web site he uses to promote his campaign. "We are used to it being that way.
"(But) we do have some good people there. But much as I love and respect Stu, I wish I didn't know him …"
The U.S. will be without Freddy Adu and Michael Bradley for the clash with Nigeria at Beijing's Worker's Stadium, which means Holden's role from midfield will take on extra importance. A victory would guarantee the Americans the top spot in their group and prevent a quarterfinal date with tournament favorites Argentina.
"I'm going to frame A.J.'s medal next to my MLS medal," Holden said. "And I'd love to have an Olympic medal to take home and put all three of them together."
- Stuart Holden
- Houston Dynamo