On Nov. 7, 2016, Darran Dunlap was diagnosed with leukemia. A doctor’s visit for hip pain culminated in something much scarier.
One year later, Darran is doing well, but is still undergoing treatment and dealing with the radiation effects of chemotherapy. On Tuesday, she spent the night inside PPG Paints Arena with her favorite sports team as part of the Penguins’ “Hockey Fights Cancer” Awareness Night, watching as Pittsburgh beat Arizona, 3-1, her smile glowing throughout her entire night.
Penguins vice president of communications Tom McMillan called to invite the family to the game, and as Darran’s father Colin said, it’s something you can’t say no to.
“We’ve never been one to do something to try to get public recognition for her,” said Colin, who is a sports media personality in Pittsburgh. “But we knew it was a sense of visibility to raise awareness and raise funds for pediatric cancer, so that’s why she did it and why we elected to do it. People see a little girl like this, and it’s very real, a person that a lot of parents can relate to a, a real face and a real person.”
The star of the night arrived around an hour before puck drop. Darran mingled with Dan Potash, and was pretending to be interviewed, as he showed her where the players stand and where he conducts his interviews before they tell him to “get out of here Dan,” to which Darran replied, “get out of here Dan!’
Darran then greeted the Penguins players as they entered the ice for warmups wearing their commemorative purple jerseys. The jerseys, to be autographed and auctioned off online will benefit research at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center and the Mario Lemieux Foundation.
With the clock running down and the players stretching close enough to the hallway to be heard, Darran exclaimed, “Wow, here they come!”
Goaltender Matt Murray was positioned at the opening of the locker room, and was enthusiastically welcomed by Darran. Murray waved back, prompting a trek of hockey players past the youngster, who extended her hand for fist pumps while marveling at their size.
It was one of the many highlights of the night that helped lift Darran’s spirits, literally.
After exchanging fist pumps with the Penguins lineup, her favorite players Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin finally emerged from the back of the line. After they proceeded down the runway, Darran exclaimed “Yay! So cool!” and jumped up and down in excitement, gaining some airtime in the process.
Darran watched part of warmups being held up by her father along the glass, before heading back inside to try to stay warm. Darran was relaxing in the media room when she was greeted by her next guest, Iceburgh. Darran quickly rose from her seat and exchanged a handful of hugs and high fives with the Penguins mascot. Iceburgh air-kissed Darran good-bye, making a ‘mwah’ smacking noise each time, a noise that Darran echoed throughout the hallways after their interaction.
The 6-year-old then made her way down to the Zamboni ramp to stand alongside Jeff Jimerson for his rendition of the national anthem, tapping her feet along to the music of the Penguins opening video before being introduced.
Darran is a big fan of Jimerson and the anthem, consistently standing and holding her hand over her heart at home when she watches it on TV.
Tonight, surrounded by 18,498 fans, Darran took her familiar stance, hand over her heart, still as can be, alongside one of her idols, displaying a certain amount of poise uncanny for someone of her age. She sported a smile and took in the atmosphere as the crowd cheered during her introduction, which provided a much different scene than just watching from home. Darran pointed out to the near blueline, lined with the Penguins starting lineup, and waved.
Jimerson wrapped up the final notes of the anthem with his hand atop Darran’s head, and the two fist pumped at the end of the performance. It was truly a heartwarming feeling that enveloped the building, to see the pure joy on Darran’s face, realizing just how cool the moment was, how special Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night was.
“She stands with her hand over her heart before every single game,” Colin said. “It’s like the game begins when the anthem starts for her. She sees it on TV so much, so for her to actually be in that moment, she was like ‘wow, this is really special.’”
Darran’s connection with the Penguins started shortly after her diagnosis. Colin hosts the morning show on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh, and when he mentioned what his daughter was going through, the outreach of support overwhelmed. The Penguins were one of the many who answered the bell, and gave their support when Darran needed it most.
One of the key catalysts of the Penguins’ involvement was Mario Lemieux, who battled and overcame Hodgkins-Lymphoma during his playing days. Lemieux sent a letter to Darran in the hospital, along with an autographed puck in hopes of lifting her spirits and to encourage her to keep fighting.
The Penguins have two players who have faced cancer themselves. Phil Kessel was diagnosed with testicular cancer when he was 19 years old, while Olli Maatta was diagnosed with a tumor in his thyroid, also at 19 years old. Both had surgery and were declared cancer-free shortly after, aided by early discoveries.
“It’s inspiring, it’s crazy how mentally strong these kids are,” Maatta said. “Especially with what they are going through.”
Darran has been incredibly inspiring, through her determination to stay strong through this trying ordeal. A video posted by Colin on his Twitter account depicted his daughter refusing to be carried up to bed, instead walking up the stairs each night to her room. Despite the chemotherapy impacting her strength to do so, she would accomplish her task.
This summer, Darran received a big boost when she opened the front door of the house for a special guest. Penguins equipment manager Danny Kroll brought the Stanley Cup to the Dunlap’s house, surprising Darran and her twin brother, Declan. Darran went crazy, exclaiming her disbelief at the surprise appearance, and hugging the trophy. The gesture by Kroll, and seeing his daughter’s happiness, brought Colin to tears.
“Danny Kroll could’ve done anything he wanted with the Stanley Cup,” Colin said. “And he did, later that day. Danny came to our house in the morning with the Cup. Here’s a guy that’s a regular Pittsburgh guy that decided to use part of his day with the Cup to come to our house. That really melted our heart and touched our heart. There’s a lot of people that are going through a lot of different things, and for him to take the time out when he could have been with his family was really super.”
Today, Kroll emerged in the arena’s hallway to see Colin, who he’s friends with, and was immediately greeted with a hug from Darran.
It’s been an emotional ride for the entire Dunlap family, but especially for Darran, as treatment continues. She’s remained strong throughout, and her courage has led to ESPN directing an E-60 segment on Darran, highlighted by how each of Pittsburgh’s three professional teams have reached out to her during her battle with leukemia.
Pittsburgh, with each of its professional sports teams cladded in black and yellow, is unique.
It’s not uncommon for a team to support a young child who is battling a life-threating disease. However, for each professional sports team in the city to reach out and make a worthwhile impact in supporting a child who needs it most is something that is unique.
It’s one of the many things that makes Pittsburgh special. As her battle with defeating leukemia continues, Darran has the whole city behind her, supporting her, and a glimpse of that was shown tonight when she was audaciously cheered for by the standing room only sell-out crowd prior to the anthem.
While the city of Pittsburgh can unite over its sports teams collectively sharing black and yellow, it’s great to see them uniting for something worth much more, in providing support for a young girl who needs it most, while she continues to fight her battle with cancer.
Tonight, the Penguins helped provide a memorable night for Darran, with a game that culminated in a Penguins win.
“It says, I think, a lot about the class of the organization,” Colin said. “From the top on down, to the players, all the way to the equipment guy.”
When Darran was asked about her favorite moment, it was hard to choose.
“Everything,” Darran said.