BUTTE – Max Demarais enjoyed his eighth-grade summer like any other teenager his age. He was hanging out with friends, spending time with family, and conditioning himself for the upcoming 2018 football season, where he would get to play on the freshman team at Butte High School.
Around the time football season approached, Max noticed he was losing vision in his right eye. After he went to a regular school physical to see what was going on, the prognosis prompted a trip to an eye specialist in Bozeman. Max and his family thought it was something that could be fixed with a minor surgery.
“At first we were told he had a hole in his macula, and that’s why he was blind in his right eye, so we were expecting to go to the appointment and have them set up a surgery,” said Melissa Demarais, Max’s mom.
Sadly, it wouldn’t be that easy for Max. He needed to have an emergency MRI after the doctors in Bozeman were worried Max could have a possible tumor causing the vision issues.
“He said it might take a while for the results to get back in, and I just begged him to let us know as soon as possible and just call me, so we didn’t have to wait the weekend,” said Melissa.
As the family was about to go into the Montana State bookstore and pick up some Bobcat apparel to support their favorite college team, the call came. The doctors told the Demarais family that Max had optic nerve glioma, “a slow-growing brain tumor that arises in or around the optic nerve,” according to Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. The optic nerve connects the eye to the brain, which explained Max’s sudden decreasing vision.
Melissa said the doctor told them that they did find a tumor. That’s when the family’s lives would change forever as their oldest child would now have to fight for his health at such a young age.
But in the family’s darkest hour, Max shined a beacon of strength in the toughest time of his young life and assured his mom, dad and two siblings, brother Bo and sister Mylee, that everything was going to be OK.
“I just remember he wrapped his arms around me and said, ‘Mom, stop crying. It’s fine,’” said Melissa.
Max assured the family he was OK and all he wanted to do was just go into the bookstore, get some Bobcat apparel and come back the next day to figure out how he was going to tackle this obstacle in his way.
Max and the Demarais family were then referred to the John A. Moran eye center in Salt Lake City. That’s where they’d learn the next steps in Max’s recovery. They would then work with a team of doctors from the Huntsman Cancer Institute and were told Max needed to start radiation right away.
But the parents wanted Max, Bo, and Mylee to attend their first day of school together as a family, so after about a week, on Sept. 10, Max went to Salt Lake City accompanied by his mom. The pair made the 418-mile drive to Salt Lake City to begin a six-week session of radiation treatments. Max would receive radiation treatments five times a week, then would go home on Fridays because he refused to miss a Butte High football game.
Along with being back in Butte on the weekends to see friends and family and watch football either at Butte High on Fridays or at Montana State on Saturdays, Max always found ways to keep himself in good spirits through it all.
“My PS4 and Fortnite, I really like that game,” he said. “But also the texts I got from my friends, just kind of kept me away, and hanging out with my friends and family, that took my mind off of what was going to happen.”
When Max would return to Salt Lake City during the week to fight, the community back in Butte lended a helping hand to the Demarais family. The community helped start up a GoFundMe page for the family, along with selling “Max Strong” T-shirts at games and around town. They even put together a 3-on-3 basketball tournament that had more than 50 teams entered and would receive entry forms and money from teams who simply just wanted to donate to the cause.
For a moment in time the term “Butte vs. Everybody” never felt more true. When one family was down, the community did so much for one of its own. It was people helping people, not for recognition or notoriety but for the simple reason that it is the right thing to do.
“It was super, super humbling. You just can’t believe the amount of people that were willing to do whatever. It was just amazing,” said Brian Demarais, Max’s dad.
“I’m so thankful. I’m very thankful for everybody that helped me — all my coaches, friends, and family, and people I didn’t even know that reached out to me,” added Max.
Max even got a personal handwritten card from Montana State starting quarterback and Dillon native Troy Andersen. The two have now met a couple times when Max has been in Bozeman for games and again when the Bobcats came to Butte for the “Lunch with the Cats” event at Metals Sports Bar.
Max has since regained 20/70 vision in the top of his right eye, and his prognosis now is heading in the right direction with radiation completed for the time being, and he even offered some advice for anyone fighting a similar battle.
“Just stay positive through the whole thing, and just … fight,” he said.
Max and the Demarais family go back to the doctors on Jan. 15 for another MRI to see if the tumor has shrunk. That still won’t stop Max’s love for Montana State football, J-Cole, and Hair Nation radio with his dad.
Reporting by Dom Tibbetts for Montana Sports