Galveston, May 18, 2008
He stands at the lip of the bowl, which looks like a giant, empty swimming pool, and gazes at the brand-new concrete. He plops down his skateboard and sets his left foot on top of it, rolling it back and forth a few times near the edge. Except for his blue jeans, he’s wearing all black—shoes, T-shirt, cap—and looks like any other skinny ten-year-old, except for the hospital band on his right wrist.
The skate park isn’t officially open yet, but his mom has a friend with the city who gave them special permission to get in this Sunday morning. Today he has one goal: to drop in, skate over to the other side, and return, building speed so he can zoom up the side of the bowl, power his board over the edge, slam the front wheels on the concrete, turn, pivot on the back wheels, and cruise back down. It’s a trick called a rock and roll, and he’s never done it in a bowl. Other kids will have all summer to learn how to do it. Johnny Romano, the youngest professional skater in the world, has 45 minutes. This is his last chance.
Johnny Romano first climbed onto a skateboard when he was two years old. It was 2000, and Johnny and his four-year-old brother, Joey, found their dad’s old board in the garage. Joey lay on it as if he were a surfer paddling out to catch a wave. Johnny stood on it as if he were a skater—and didn’t fall off. Their father smiled. Mike Romano had grown up in Houston, skating every day on the half-pipe in his yard; he spent summers in Galveston, where he surfed the waves and rolled down the seawall. Mike had been serious enough about skating that he’d gone to California once and competed in a contest with Tony Hawk, who would one day become the most famous skateboarder of all time. But he had left the sport far behind when he met Julie Batten while both were working at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter at Hobby Airport. They married in 1993 and settled down, first in Phoenix, then Dallas, and eventually Houston.
Mike built his little skaters a huge half-pipe in their north Houston backyard—24 feet long, 16 feet wide, and 4 feet tall. He would pad up the boys’ knees and put helmets on their heads. Johnny was like all kids at first, legs straight, body stiff, nervous. But he skated for hours, rolling back and forth, up and down the wooden slopes, and learned to bend his knees, lean his shoulders forward, and use his arms for balance. He wasn’t a daredevil; he was cautious and methodical, afraid of getting hurt. Mike had to nail a hockey stick onto the ramp a foot off the bottom so Johnny would have a makeshift ledge to drop in from. Then Mike moved it up six inches and Johnny dropped in from there. Eventually he worked his way to the top.
The Romanos—including daughter Sophie, who was born in 2002—took regular trips to Galveston, where they had family and friends, and Mike would take his boys out on the waves. Johnny loved the water (he wore his swimsuit all the time) and stood on his first surfboard at three. He was a remarkably good-looking child. “Joey is handsome,” his mother would say, “but Johnny is pretty—Ashton Kutcher pretty.” Johnny was a natural athlete and free spirit, always moving. His dad and brother would be inside playing a Tony Hawk video game and Johnny would be out on the half-pipe skating. He’d ask them, “Why play a skateboard video game when we can just go outside and skate?”
So it was obvious to Mike and Julie in early May 2005 that something was wrong. The seven-year-old boy who usually leaped out of bed in the morning now slept in. He was lethargic and pale and complained that his gums hurt. Three trips to the dentist solved nothing. On May 26 Johnny was riding his board in the driveway when he had to stop; he told his parents he was dizzy. “I felt wobbly at school today,” he added. They took him to a doctor, who drew blood and told them to go immediately to Texas Children’s Hospital. Johnny had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, the most common form of childhood cancer. If untreated, he would probably die in weeks.
It’s only ten a.m. but it’s already hot, that sticky Galveston hot. Johnny’s not alone at the park. His best friend, Heath, a seventeen-year-old local skating legend, is there too, and so are Joey, Sophie, their grandmother and aunt, and other friends and family. Of course Mike and Julie are there. Mike brings his board. He has close-cropped hair, a holdover from two years ago when he shaved his head in solidarity with Johnny. The two share the same toothy grin. Julie is pretty and tall, with dark hair. She is methodical and driven; although she has never skated a day in her life, she understands her son better than anyone.
Johnny’s cancer had struck him in his marrow, where the blood cells are made. His immature white blood cells were multiplying rapidly; if they weren’t stopped, these “blasts” would crowd out the developing white and red cells and platelets and spill over into the bloodstream, spreading to his other organs. In the early hours of that first morning, Mike and Julie waited at Texas Children’s Hospital in a terrified daze, not knowing what to do. Finally a doctor gave them a piece of good news: Johnny was in the standard risk category, with a 70 percent chance of surviving. Julie broke down in tears. “Seventy percent?” she cried. “That’s barely passing!”
Johnny’s doctors laid out a battle plan: seven months of harsh weekly chemo, then three years of monthly “maintenance” treatment. His first chemo drug, vincristine, was so powerful that a stray drop on the skin or in the muscle would eat it away