As it took the field Saturday in front of its home crowd at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium, Florida’s softball team wasn’t focused on just wins and losses. The Gators had something else on their minds.
Nearly every player on UF’s roster sported a sunflower in her hair, a weekly tribute to an eternal and honorary member of the team, Heather Braswell, and the disease that took her life: cancer.
“The sunflower was her favorite flower,” senior first baseman Kayli Kvistad said. “And so we wear it as a remembrance of her.”
The Friends of Jaclyn Foundation — a non-profit organization that aims to improve the quality of life for children with brain tumors — connected 12-year-old Heather with UF softball in 2009 shortly after she was cleared of cancer and underwent radiation treatment.
The Apopka, Florida, native spent five years as an irreplaceable part of Florida’s dugout, but passed away in 2014 during another battle with brain cancer at the age of 17.
Now, for the first time since Heather’s opening season in 2009, no athletes remain on Gators’ roster dating back to when she was still a part of team. But every member of the UF locker room continues to honor her memory and her legacy.
In fact, Heather’s locker still remains in the home dressing room at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium, her name permanently engraved with a “Team Heather” shirt hanging below it.
The players also vote on an annual award called the “Heather Way Award,” presented to the person that goes above and beyond exhibiting a cheerful attitude and leading her teammates through positive examples. Kvistad received the award during the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
But while “Sunflower Saturdays” began as a way to remember Heather, as Kvistad stated, many of her teammates see it as a unique opportunity to bring awareness to the fight against pediatric cancer and positivity to the countless lives the disease affects.
“When people ask us about it, we’re able to share that message of how important it is for people to keep fighting for that (cause),” junior pitcher Kelly Barnhill said.
Sophomore shortstop Sophia Reynoso said that she wears the sunflower as a symbol of playing for those that are unable to, while junior outfielder Amanda Lorenz said she wears it to show those afflicted with pediatric cancer that she is inspired by their fight.
“Maybe if they’re watching us on TV, they just know that we’re with them and that they inspire us a lot more than we could ever do for them,” Lorenz said.
Lorenz also expressed the team’s interests in adopting another pediatric cancer crusader. The cause has been present on all the players’ minds since representatives from the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation visited before the start of the season to express their appreciation for the attention UF softball has brought the cause.
While such a sponsorship hasn’t been set yet, coach Tim Walton — who always wears a yellow bracelet in support of pediatric cancer — and his players continue to support children with brain tumors, as they have for the last nine seasons.
“It’s one of those things where our players have taken the role of a positive image,” Walton said. “And for somebody who has something negative happen to them in their life, there’s a smile someone’s bringing and an awareness to that cause, but especially on Saturdays and especially with the sunflower.”
The Gators softball team will face Georgia at 7 p.m. on Thursday.