“I remember I was just telling myself ‘Don’t mess up. Don’t mess up. Don’t mess up,’” he said. “You need to just stay calm.”
It was the first varsity action the sophomore had seen since joining the Spartans squad, so nerves were to be expected. But the moment was much bigger for Wagner than it would have been for a typical high school player. It was a moment that would have seemed impossible just a few years earlier.
Wagner was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2012 when doctors discovered a non-germinomatous brain cell tumor about the size of a golf ball sitting directly on top of his brain. Along with about a year of radiation therapy, he had to have a medical shunt – a tube designed to drain fluid from the area around the tumor – put into his head, which is still there today. And even when he was declared officially cancer free in 2014, doctors told both he and his father David Wagner that because the shunt was still draining fluid and damage to it could put Will Wagner in danger, he would likely never be cleared to play contact sports.
It was a major blow to Will, who had grown up dreaming of one day playing under the Friday night lights. But in early 2019, as he was just finishing up his eighth grade year, the doctors changed their tune, advising that because the shunt was no longer draining fluid, Will could take the football field like he’d always hoped.
A year and a half later, his dream finally became a reality.
Times Talks | With those diagnosed with cancer
What: Local residents with cancer diagnoses, including Will Wagner, share their stories of how the disease changed them and their perspectives
When: 3 p.m. Oct. 19
Where: Virtual event on Zoom
“I was just excited to be there,” Will said. “The first drive, there was a lot of nerves, but after that first drive, I really just got into my own and just played.”
“It was really awesome,” David said. “I don’t even know what words to describe getting to watch him play. It was just an amazing, amazing feeling, honestly, just because I know how badly he’s wanted it.”
Will’s journey to the varsity football field was one of hard work and patience.
Since he wasn’t able to play on his middle school team, Will’s transition period as a freshman was a difficult one.
“I remember the first practice was just straight out there, full pads, hitting and everything,” he said. “It took me a while to get used to it. I was practicing on scout team against guys that were humungous compared to me.”
He started off playing at H-back on offense and linebacker on defense but was moved to the offensive line, where West Hall coach Krofton Montgomery thought he would be more successful.
Montgomery said Will’s understanding of the game helped him fit in on the offensive line.
“He understands most of the positions on the offensive line, so we’ve been able to kind of mix and match and put him in some different areas,” Montgomery said. “We know that he’ll plan, prepare, in terms of what we need to do.”
Will’s first JV game against North Hall was a whirlwind. From the moment he got off the bus, he said he couldn’t stop shaking and was pacing the locker room before kickoff in eager anticipation.
Once he hit the field, the nerves faded, and he lost himself in playing the game. It was an emotional night for the young Spartan.
“I was crying some tears of joy after the game when I got back,” he said. “I didn’t care about the score. I was just really honestly happy to be out there on the field playing.”
A head injury midway through that year kept Will from finishing out the season, but that did not stop him from continuing to work on his technique and physical fitness. Will was a regular in the weight room and the film room, and he kept up his good habits into the spring semester.
When schools were shut down due to COVID-19 in March, Will didn’t want to lose all the progress he had gained, and David was more than happy to help.
“My dad actually brought home some weight room equipment, a bar, a bench to keep me in shape,” Will said. “After I would eat lunch, I would have a workout, run a mile, jog, then do power clean or bench, get my body in shape.”
When he returned for the start of his sophomore season, the body transformation Will had undergone was noticeable to his coaches.
“He made a huge jump between his freshman and sophomore year strength-wise,” Montgomery said. “A huge jump.”
Long term, Montgomery said he sees Will as a guard, though he has the football IQ to play at virtually any position along the offensive line.
Montgomery, who was an assistant coach under David when Will was first diagnosed with cancer, said he has known the young Spartan for so long, he sees him as part of his own family. Montgomery was focusing on his coaching duties during West Hall’s game against East Hall, but after the final whistle, he took some time to embrace the pride he felt in Will holding his own on a varsity football field.
Looking forward, Montgomery thinks Will has a bright future with the Spartans.
“If he can make the same kind of jump from his sophomore to his junior year, he could be potentially a really good player,” he said. “Not just someone that’s able to spot start or fill in, but potentially a solid starter as a junior. That’s what I would love to see him do.”
It’s what Will hopes for himself, too.
Will has plenty of goals for the remainder of his high school career. He wants to recover from his head injury and get back on the field before the end of this season. He wants to go undefeated against Johnson during his time with the team and make the state playoffs every year.
But more important than all else, after sitting out from playing for a good portion of his life, he simply wants to be able to play.
“I just want to help out and not be the person who just sits on the sideline and just watches,” Will said. “I want to be involved and help our team win and succeed.”