Athens Cancer Survivor Honored As ‘Hero’ By NHL’s Blue Jackets

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John Wills strutted down the runway in a stylish, gray sweater vest alongside a hockey defenseman twice his size, dishing out high fives in the town he knows as the place he was treated for cancer.

But the Athens 7-year-old harbors no ill feelings toward Columbus, especially not on this night.

He is a child who knows how to keep his cool — diagnosed with cancer two years ago, John always reacted calmly at home to news of his illness. He did not want to upset his little sister and make her worried.
For a full year, John made weekly trips to Columbus for his rhabdomyosarcoma treatment. His mother, Ali, accompanied him and father, Steve, a retired military officer working toward a Ph.D in Military History at Ohio University, would go when he could.

At one point, John underwent daily radiation treatments for five straight weeks at the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, a red patch forming on his eye where Ali said the radiation started “changing his face.” Through it all, John never missed any time from school and continued playing in the Athens youth soccer league.

“It really happened fast for us,” Ali said. “He was amazing through all of it.”

Week after week, John carried his trademark smile to and from the capital. For him, Columbus was always a place to get better. And he did — now a year removed from regular treatments, John travels north just once every three months for check-ups to make sure his illness has not resurfaced.

Moved by his determination and spirit, John’s oncology team nominated his story to the Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation. Throughout this hockey season, he has been one of the team’s 11 Heroes recognized as going through or having survived pediatric cancer.

John has spent considerable time with the Blue Jackets, having lunch with players in the locker room and being invited onto the ice at Nationwide Arena before a game.

Back again at Nationwide this past Tuesday for the foundation’s annual Black Tie Blue Jackets Style Show, he and the other recognized heroes took center stage. The 11 children were each paired with a Blue Jackets player as they walked the runway under a chorus of applause.

“It’s a tangible way to make the kids feel special and under the spotlight,” said Jen Bowden, director of the Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation. “They get to dress up and have a great time.”

This year’s event drew 700 guests and raised a record $517,000 for pediatric cancer, Bowden said.

Between appearances on the stage, John set his eyes on a wooden bench made out of broken hockey sticks being auctioned off. Never one to be shy, his bid comprised of placing two sticky notes with his name on them — one on the bench, the other on the woman presenting it.

Shortly after, Blue Jackets player Nathan Horton and his wife Tammy were prepared to place a bid to get the bench for their two sons. Upon seeing John’s notes, the two decided to purchase it for him instead.

“That touched me as a mom,” Ali said afterward. “The players were just so generous with their time with the kids … it was a pretty amazing night, it really was.”

When the season ends, John and his parents hope to continue their relationship with the Blue Jackets Foundation and some of the players.

In the aftermath of John’s illness, Ali advises the Chi Omega sorority for OU, which works with the Make a Wish Foundation. As for John, he wants to devote his time to helping out other children and families fighting cancer, advising those who are to “be brave.”

For the players of a sport known for its ruthless nature, their involvement with the Blue Jackets Foundation helps them be reminded of that lesson. Athletes hailed for their toughness spending time off the ice with cancer survivors and fighters are offered a chance to hang out with bravery, to build friendships with heroes.

Illness recedes and sometimes unexpectedly returns; the anxiety for families often carries beyond the final treatment. Likewise, their connection with the Blue Jackets are kept long after the season’s last puck is dropped, even as players get traded or leave the sport and a new season brings forth a new class of heroes.

On the ice earlier this season as Blue Jackets singer Leo Welsh belted out the American and Canadian national anthems, John Wills stayed mindful of his father’s military service.

In the section above him sat the team’s Goal Cannon, for cancer is itself a battle, and the survivor kept his right hand over his heart.