MORTON, Ill. (AP) — When an ocularist hand-painted Beckham Zobrist’s first prosthetic eye four years ago, he carefully crafted the piece to match his existing blue eye so no one would know that the boy, then only 3 years ago, had lost it to cancer unless Beckham wanted them to.
But now the 7-year-old boldly wears his prosthetic to show to anyone looking his way not just his status as a cancer survivor, but also as a Cubs fan.
Beckham’s right eye was removed in 2012 within weeks of when he was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, an eye cancer that most often affects small children. And while Beckham’s story has never been a secret — his family has agreed to interviews and spoken publicly about his ordeal — it also wasn’t something that the youngster ever drew much attention to.
Until a combination of a Christmas wish fulfilled, some unexpected attention and an overwhelming positive response culminated with a phone call from an ESPN producer to Beckham’s mom, Erin. Their story will be featured on the sports network’s show E:60, slated to air at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
His parents and doctors have tried for the last four years to help him embrace his prosthetic, crafting him novelty eyes with the logos of Superman, Batman or the Green Lantern, but he would wear them only at home around his family.
The last November, Beckham brought his Christmas list to his mom. At the top, Beckham asked for a new eyeball. Not a prosthetic, but a new, working eye, something his parents will never be able to give him.
So his parents asked, “If you can’t have an eyeball, what’s next on your list?”
“A Cubs eye,” he responded.
With only weeks until Christmas, Beckham’s parents weren’t sure they’d be able to get one in time. Each prosthetic eye is handmade by Beckham’s ocularist using the most recent mold of his eye socket. Usually the design, most often a replica of the client’s existing eye, is painted onto what resembles an oversized, opaque contact lens.
But the ocularist came through, and on Christmas morning, Beckham unwrapped his new eye and immediately popped it in.
“I didn’t know that I was gonna get it,” Beckham said. “When I did I was, like, so excited.”
A few months later, ahead of a day when Beckham was slated to lead show and tell in front of his kindergarten class, the moment arrived that his parents knew was coming, but they hadn’t thought would happen for many years.
“I want to take my eye out and show my class how I do it,” Beckham told his mom.
“I was scared. I was more scared than he was,” Erin said during a recent interview at the family’s Morton home.
“I was happy!” Beckham retorted.
At school, Beckham was met with awe. His classmates lined up at recess awaiting their turn to get a closer look and perhaps poke a finger into Beckham’s unfeeling eye
The Cubs logo, emblazoned where his iris should be, had given Beckham the confidence to finally share an important part of who he is with his best friends.
After Erin wrote a letter to a Cubs fan page sharing how his love for the Cubs had given him such a boost, Beckham, his parents, and three older brothers were invited to walk onto Wrigley Field ahead of a game they’d gotten tickets to. Later they were contacted by WGN, which wanted to meet them at the field to do a story.
Beckham and his father, Nick, were surprised by an invitation into the Cubs clubhouse, where a star-struck Beckham got to meet with players, including second baseman Ben Zobrist, a distant cousin.
“He didn’t really talk down there much, even though they asked him questions,” Nick said.
“He showed every single guy. They’d stop and he’d stick his face out. He was so proud.”
Then something even more unexpected happened. Beckham’s story continued to garner attention online.
“We kept getting messages from people throughout that week. ‘Do you know you’re on Yahoo?’ ‘Do you know you’re on SportsCenter?’ We don’t have cable,” Erin said. “We’re really out of the loop, and we had no idea how to respond.”
When the call from ESPN came, Erin was shocked that her son’s experience would be noticed by the television giant.
An ESPN crew spent almost a week with the Zobrist family, even attending one of Beckham’s little league baseball games.
“At least we won,” Beckham said.
And suddenly, the kid who a year before almost never talked about his prosthetic eye, and only a few weeks before had been too shy to speak to Cubs players in the clubhouse was hamming it up in front of ESPN cameras. In less than a year, Beckham had gone from keeping his prosthetic eye totally private to showing the world without hesitation.
“It’s all of those pieces perfectly fitting together for him: his confidence, those friends. He has so surprised us,” Erin said.
During their interviews, the Zobrist family shared their experiences throughout Beckham’s diagnosis, surgery and ongoing treatments. They talked about their faith in God, which they say helped get their family through the toughest times, but they don’t have any idea what of the hours upon hours of footage will make it into E:60’s final cut. That, they will find out with the rest of us when the show airs Wednesday evening on ESPN.
“I just look a this as another opportunity to share his story and share what got us through it,” Nick said.
“There might be another retino kid out there going through some hard times that can see how Beckham took control of it and turned it around.”