EBEN - Appearances are only skin deep. But insults or even unwanted attention because of appearance can cut a lot deeper.
That can be especially true at the young age of 9, as a family in Skandia can attest.
Mikey Rondeau has a condition known as alopecia, which causes a varying degree of hair loss. In his case, it made the hair on his scalp disappear, though he has his eyebrows and eyelashes. He has dealt with a progressive loss of hair during the past two years.
Mikey Rondeau, at center holding the basketball, is surrounded by friends, from left, Mathew Saberniak, Kyle Frusti, Raymond Robinson and James Maki in Eben. Rondeau has alopecia, which causes hair loss, in Rondeau’s case, on his head. These and other fourth-grade basketball teammates at Superior Central School all shaved their heads in a show of solidarity with their teammate. (Journal photo by Steve Brownlee)
Rondeau follows through on a free throw during basketball practice at the Superior Central Elementary School gym. (Journal photo by Steve Brownlee)
A basketball player in the winter and a baseball player in the summer, Rondeau had to endure taunting by a few opposing players when his Superior Central School fourth-grade basketball team played in weekend tournaments away from home early in the winter.
Family and friends saw the effect it was having on this bright, what many would call precocious, boy and how he was becoming withdrawn and how he even quit the team for several weeks.
That's when his teammates came to his aid.
Inspired by the suggestion of one of their mothers, just about every boy on Mikey's team decided to shave their heads during December in a show of solidarity with their teammate.
Mikey and his parents were touched by the gesture.
"Yeah, that was really nice that they did that," said Mikey, who would much rather talk about his favorite sports, baseball and football, or the ice fishing trip he took with his father and grandfather that day to Grand Island near Munising.
He was proud to say he caught more coho salmon - five - than his father and grandfather combined.
His favorite baseball team is the Milwaukee Brewers, favorite basketball team is Michigan State University, and least surprising, his favorite football team is the Green Bay Packers.
In school, while he says his favorite subject is science - "I like fossils" - he most enjoys recess and lunch, a pretty normal answer coming from any fourth-grader.
Mikey is the second oldest of four children of Mike and Brandi Rondeau of Skandia - with his dad having the same name, they gave their son the nickname "Mikey" to avoid confusion.
One of Mikey's best friends, Kyle Frusti, explained the genesis of the team's shaved heads.
"We've been friends ever since kindergarten," Frusti said during a break in basketball practice recently. "The idea was Nikki's" - she is the mother of another teammate, James Maki - "when we were sitting in church. Nikki asked us what we thought about all shaving our heads to look like Mikey.
"The three of us" - teammate Mathew Saberniak was also part of the initial group - "had a hair-cutting party. Then we were all going to show up at Mikey's house and surprise him."
He said, however, that in the meantime, Mikey came over to Frusti's house when the boys were outside, wearing stocking caps.
So they all came in and took off their caps.
"He had heard us talk about it, but he didn't think we'd do it," Frusti said. "We surprised him when we showed him what we did."
Mike Rondeau, who coaches the fourth-grade basketballers, even said the "clean" look helped the eight boys on the team.
"Nobody could tell any of them apart, so it made it harder to figure out who to guard," he said.
Most of the boys have let at least a little hair grow back since the initial shaved look, but Mikey said Frusti is among several that still gets his head shaved down to the skin regularly.
Alopecia is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body is fighting against the hair follicles on his head and wanting to rid the body of them, according to the website for the I'm A Kid Foundation, www.imakid.org.
It's not a contagious disease, nor does it have a known cause or cure, though the Rondeaus had many tests done on Mikey and tried several treatments, including scalp injections of hair-growing compounds. They caused patches of hair to grow, though not an overall growth that would be considered ideal.
"The new hair was a lot darker than my old hair. My hair before was real light," Mikey said.
Other than the hair loss, Mikey has no other health issues, which is normal for alopecia, according to the I'm A Kid Foundation.
More than 5 million people in the U.S. have some form of alopecia, according to the foundation, and more severe forms cause a loss of all hair on the body, including eyebrows and eyelashes.
One person who has the most severe form, alopecia universalis, is a member of the NBA's Detroit Pistons. Charlie Villanueva, 28, is a 6-foot-11, 232-pound center who joined the team in 2009.
Villanueva, who was born in the Dominican Republic, is a spokesman for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation and was honored with an NBA Cares Community Assist Award from the league in 2006 for his work with the organization.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246.