Ross MacNeill's favorite color was orange because, he often said, "you just can't be sad and wear orange."
It's been less than a year since the 11-year-old from Wheaton lost his battle with brain cancer. His family is still sad. His friends are still sad. His teachers are still sad.
But on Thursday and Friday, they sported orange shirts that read "Tough" -- a word that defined Ross to the fullest and brought smiles to hundreds of faces at the biggest fundraiser yet for the recently launched Ross K. MacNeill Foundation.
"Just before he passed away, he asked our family to make him a promise that we would do everything we could to make sure that no other child went through what he went through," said Ross' mother, Kim MacNeill. "We promised him and we keep our promises."
The mission of the foundation is to fund and accelerate research for pediatric brain cancer. It also provides help for the homeless, which was important to Ross.
For months, Ross' classmates -- now sixth-graders at Franklin Middle School -- have been helping organize the school's second annual Dodgeball Madness Tournament with the intent of honoring Ross and raising money for his foundation. Last year, proceeds from the event went to diabetes research.
Joe Kish, assistant principal at Franklin Middle School, called Ross a "courageous kid" who lived a short life to the fullest.
"His slogan was 'Life is good' and today exemplifies that," he said Thursday.
Kish said the interest and turnout for the tournament was phenomenal, thanks in part to the tight-knit nature of the Wheaton community.
"His classmates have done a fantastic job of keeping his legacy alive through action like this," he said. "As a school, we talk all the time about doing things where we have fun but help out the community in the process, and I couldn't be prouder of our kids, parents, friends, family and the community at large."
More than 250 people signed up to participate in the tournament, with 53 teams scheduled to play Thursday and 25 on Friday.
The bleachers were packed Thursday afternoon, mostly with students who were waiting their turn to play. Neon green and orange balls flew across the gym floor, which was divided into two courts. Balloons in the shape of the number 33 -- which Ross wore on his hockey jersey -- hung from the two basketball nets.
Despite the removal of a tumor in 2009, four months of radiation that appeared to be effective, a relapse 18 months later, stem cell transplants and several trial treatments, Ross had to be told there was nothing else that could be done.
His father, also named Ross MacNeill, said the fifth-grader was at peace with dying, having had many vivid dreams of his place in heaven.
"He was a lot more prepared for the next chapter than we were," he said. "The sad thing is there's not a lot of new medicines (for pediatric brain cancer). Some of the medicines that he was on were over 20 years old."
There have been several fundraisers for the foundation since it was created last fall. The boy's parents, however, said the tournament was particularly moving because it showed how Ross inspired his peers to work toward something bigger than themselves.
"What I think makes this different, and special, is that it is led by students, children, who own the responsibility to do something," Kim MacNeill said.
"Their lives were changed at a very young age. They had a life experience that some of us have never even had yet," she said. "They lived every great news day that Ross would get and then every horrible news day Ross would get. They never left his side."
Sixth-grader Hayden Cecil said she grew close to Ross when her class did video chats with him while he was receiving treatments at the hospital. For the past few weeks, she helped get the word out about the tournament.
"He'd be really excited and he'd really like this," she said, tears streaming down her face.
Ross' older sister, Rachel, said the tournament was just one of many ways the students and staff at Longfellow and Franklin Elementary School, where her brother finished his fifth grade year, have helped her family cope.
"It's really cool that all these kids have been doing this for us," she said. "All these friends of his, kids he didn't even know, it's really cool that they want to help."