How Panthers rookie Christian Miller became bigger than Superman to 11-year-old Jaden

Christian Miller arrived at the Panthers game vs. the Seahawks wearing a Superman t-shirt in...
Christian Miller arrived at the Panthers game vs. the Seahawks wearing a Superman t-shirt in honor of Jaden Smith, who died of cancer this month.(Courtesy of the Carolina Panthers/Christian Miller)
Published: Dec. 25, 2019 at 5:22 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - Jaden Elijah Smith loved Superman.

He loved hunting. He loved the outdoors. He loved the color green. He loved his best friend, Madison, and his family. And he loved his Carolina Panthers blanket.

Jaden was like any other 11-year old boy, except for one burden he carried: Fighting Stage 4 high-risk neuroblastoma.

We set off to write a story on a player’s impact during the NFL’s annual My Cause, My Cleats initiative earlier this month. Because I was curious about his off-the-field work, I asked rookie linebacker Christian Miller why he had selected Children’s of Alabama as his cause.

With almost no prodding, Miller went on to tell me about Jaden. About a boy that he was watching suffer from afar via a Facebook page diligently kept by his mother, Melissa. When we finished our conversation, he realized I had barely even asked specifically about Jaden before he told me about their connection, “I guess he’s just on mind.”

The goal was to publish this story during Week 14, but life doesn’t always go according to plan; Miller’s cleats weren’t even ready for the Dec. 8 game they were designed for. More importantly, Jaden’s condition worsened. On Dec. 13, the family began to prepare for hospice care after they learned the cancer had spread throughout his whole body.

On Dec. 14, Jaden’s life ended, but the affect he had on Miller and so many others won’t soon be forgotten.

Jaden was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare cancer that develops from immature nerve cells found in several areas of the body, in the afternoon of Oct. 15, 2018. Melissa specifically remembers the time of day. He later met Miller, who was then a senior at Alabama, through Miller’s mother, Lisa, who worked with Jaden’s father, Dwayne, at the University of Alabama. When Lisa found out about Jaden, she and her two sons, Christian and CJ, made spending time with him a priority.

While the families didn’t connect until toward the end of Miller’s time in Tuscaloosa, the impression they left was significant.

“Immediately when they found out about Jaden, they wanted to meet him and my family, so they came out and spent the afternoon with us,” Melissa said. “You would think we were all just a family. Jaden has adored Christian and CJ. They’re just great boys.”

Jaden’s impact was felt almost immediately. Miller raised money from his vertical jump at the NFL combine for Children’s of Alabama, the hospital he was at, in honor of his new 10-year-old friend.

The Smiths, who lives just north of Tuscaloosa, aren’t the most traditional family. Melissa and Dwayne Smith, who have a biological daughter named Alason, adopted their nephews Jaden, Ethan and Dontae in 2010 after they were taken away from their mother by the state. The kids’ father never signing away his rights, but it was very important to Melissa that their mother did.

“We decided that when they came to us, we weren’t letting them go back. We fought for them, and that’s what we did,” Melissa said. “The dad never signed us rights over, they just took his rights away from him. But I did talk my sister into signing her rights away, so one day I can tell the kids that she did try to do the right thing.”

Jaden never showed signs of being ill until he got into a bicycle wreck last year. He complained of hip pain and visited multiple doctors to try and figure out what was happening. He was officially diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JRA), his rapid weight loss signaled to his parents that there was something doctors were missing.

They eventually took him to the emergency room at Children’s, a more than 75-minute drive from their home. That’s when they realized the full extent what was happening.

The almost 15 months that followed were “a nightmare.” Receiving bad news became the new normal for the Smiths.

“Every time, we end up getting results back that we don’t want to hear,” Melissa said. “It’s been very hard because we have three other kids besides Jaden, so it’s kind of split our family a lot because we’re away a lot. And then the kids have to see their brother be very sick and that’s very scary and very hard to explain to kids.”

***

NFL rookies are busy people. Even more so when they are going through the process of trying to get drafted. But Christian Miller and the rest of his family made an effort to send him gifts and notes throughout the year.

Visiting Jaden in the hospital was hard, and not because of Christian’s football schedule. Jaden was so busy with hospital visits, he couldn’t often have visitors.

“Not even just me, but him, he was so busy, because a lot of times he couldn’t have visitors because of what he was going through,” Christian said. “It was really tough. Honestly, more so it was me sending messages through my mom to his mom more so like that, even that just meant the world to him.”

Part of why Christian empathized with Jaden is because he saw a lot of himself in the young boy.

“It was inspiring because he reminded me of myself,” Miller said prior to Jaden’s death. “He’s biracial like I am. Physically, he kind of looks like me when I was a kid, but even cooler, he has a great love for the outdoors, he got into it even earlier than I did, I was later —probably middle school. He likes to do all the outdoor stuff, he likes sports … It just kind of just touched me, knowing how tough that situation was, knowing that just my presence or sending him a message, the smallest things meant so much.”

The Millers sent Jaden care packages with Panthers’ gear and a variety of team items that Carolina’s equipment staff helped collect. They would also always include a personal letter, and Melissa remarked on one recent note that ended with Christian calling Jaden “his little brother.”

Jaden took his Panthers blanket with him every time he went to the hospital. It’s in countless pictures. The list of things he went through with it, the different procedures and treatments, is too long to fit in one story.

He went through just about everything a boy could over a nearly 15-month span. This October, he was even hit by a shard of metal when it went through the family’s windshield on the way home from a volleyball tournament and had to have an emergency crainomity and titanium plates and screws were placed in his forehead.

He had support from his best friend Madison, who recently relapsed from B Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma after being originally diagnosed in 2013. When the pair both couldn’t be at school, they had each other.

“I can’t even put into words how much he’s been through, that alone is just like it makes me realize when I have my issues or my things that go on, it just makes me realize those are small things in comparison,” Christian said late last month. “He knocks it out of the park, man, he’s tough. A lot tougher than I am. I get a lot out of it, probably more than he does, he keeps me going.”

***

At Jaden’s funeral, everyone was asked to wear something with a Superman logo, bright colors or camouflage. “We aren’t mourning, we are celebrating,” Melissa wrote on Facebook.

From afar, Miller and his brother showed their support. Christian arrived to the Panthers game vs. the Seahawks that Sunday in a Superman t-shirt; his brother wore a Superman t-shirt to his DJ gig that same weekend. Miller also made sure the cleats got finished, a pair of shoes he had intended to give Jaden.

“My plan was — again, I hate that I didn’t have enough time — but I was going to give him the cleats because I thought he would like those,” Miller said. “The t-shirt I decided to wear because I knew that they take pictures when we come in (to the games). What a way to honor him, with him being such a big Panthers fan now, represent him as I’m coming in, have him with me in spirit. Again, just in his honor, he deserves that and I know he’s smiling down and it meant a lot to him.”

Jaden’s entire journey — the good days, and the far-too-many bad ones — was documented on the Jaden’s Journey Facebook page with more than 5,500 followers. Prayers of support can be found all over the page.

Miller plans to return to Alabama in the offseason and was going to visit with Jaden. He still hopes to visit the family and help in any way he can. But now he’s also figuring out the best plan for how he can help on a larger scale going forward and keep Jaden’s memory alive by extending his legacy.

“Jaden had so much support. So many people that were just keeping up with his story, just seeing how tough he was and I think he just touched a lot of people. One of my teammates at Alabama was his cousin. Two of Jaden’s cousins were at the game yesterday and I got to meet them because they live in Charleston ... Jaden’s a really popular kid. It’s just cool to see how many people were involved and affected. It’s just an awesome story.”

More information on donating and support can be found at https://www.facebook.com/Jadensjourney1/

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