LARNED With two heart transplants and ongoing coronary artery problems, 11-year-old Matthew Billy has spent most of his life watching other kids play baseball.
Friday, the boy from Wister, Okla., hit the hunting world's version of a grand slam when he shot a magnificent 12-point buck.
He got his chance thanks to a small Kansas town with a huge heart.
Matthew and Nicholas Santonastasso were the guests at Larned's 10th annual Life Hunt, a deer hunt for children with life-threatening illnesses.
The hunt offers guided trips with all expenses paid and ample small-town hospitality.
"I can't even call it a dream hunt because it's so far past anything we ever dreamed about for Nicholas," Michael Santonastasso said about his son. "It's a thrill just to know there are people out there that care. All they ask is to see the excitement on that child's face."
Nicholas, a 14-year-old from Bayville, N.J., was born without legs and has one finger on his only arm. Friday morning, he shot a heavy-horned nine-point buck with a thick body.
With a huge smile the boy repeatedly said, "He's so big, he's so big," as he touched the antlers.
His father watched with moistened eyes. Their guide, Tim Schaller, watched with a smile of satisfaction.
At his rural Larned home, Schaller has walls covered with big antlers. About 10 years ago he realized there was a better use for such a resource.
With several hunting buddies, he began Larned's Life Hunt.
They've had about two kids a year from about 10 states, most with progressive cancer or serious organ ailments.
To find children for the annual hunts, the Larned group works with national organizations that create opportunities for kids with life-threatening illnesses.
"We do what it takes. We've carried kids into stands and worked around their problems," Schaller said. "We can make it happen. It's worth every minute to see that smile when they get one."
Examples of specialization Life Hunt provides include customized shooting benches and special gun rests within roomy, well-hidden blinds.
With such a setup, Nicholas was able to aim the rifle with shoulder and chin movements until he squeezed the trigger with his finger.
The hunts are on about 2,000 leased acres of rolling sandhills of tall grass and wild plum thickets. The area carries many high-quality deer.
On Friday, both boys and their fathers watched a parade of whitetails pause at food plots about 30 yards away.
"Any of these bucks would be good bucks where we come from in Oklahoma," whispered Simon Billy, Matthew's dad, as he watched an array of four- to eight-pointers pass.
The boys didn't shoot until they saw an amazing buck.
"These kids haven't been sitting at home dreaming about just shooting a deer. They've been dreaming about shooting a trophy," Schaller said. "A lot of people shoot deer, but few people in the country ever shoot bucks like these kids get."
Michael Santonastasso agreed that taking a big buck added to the experience for his son.
"This gives him the chance to have the best of something," he said. "We just don't have these in New Jersey, and people are going to want to see it, they're going to want to hear about it. When we go home Nick will be the man. He'll be the one showing something off and telling the stories."
The hunt's volunteer base is about 75, and is growing annually.
"Once people find out it's for these kids, they can't do enough," said Gordon Schartz, who cooks at a hunt fundraiser. "If you see the looks on these kids' faces one time, it makes all the difference in the world."
Everything is covered: snacks, travel costs, $300 deer permits and taxidermy mounts of the bucks.
When they learned Matthew didn't have a rifle that's legal for Kansas deer, the hunt's organizers bought him a new Browning bolt-action with a scope.
There's a fundraising banquet and auction the night before the hunt. Some of the purchased items are given to the boys.
Schaller said people sometimes walk into his engineering office and hand him checks for up to $500 for the hunt.
After Friday's hunt, Schaller, several guides and his New Jersey guests were celebrating at a crowded restaurant.
Several locals stopped to chat with the boy about his buck.
One reached across the table and placed something in Schaller's hand. It was two folded $50 bills.
"See that, $100 and I don't even know that guy," he said. "That happens all the time. Isn't that great?"