Will Wagner and his father David sat nervously in a waiting room at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center on CHOA’s Scottish Rite campus in early February.
Will, a rising ninth grader at West Hall High, was waiting for news he had been hoping to hear for years.
“Will, if they say no, you can’t flip out,” David said.
“I will lose my mind if they say no,” Will responded.
After about an hour and a half of waiting, Will’s oncologist, Dr. Claire Mazewski, came into the room to address him.
“So,” he remembers her saying, “You want to play football?”
"A NIGHT FROM UTTER HELL"
Will’s memories from the day of his diagnosis are a bit spotty. David’s are as clear as it was yesterday.
Will, a second-grader at the time, was suffering from what he and his family believed to be a severe migraine. David, then a football coach at Winder-Barrow High, took him to see a pediatrician at St. Mary’s Hospital in Athens., Dr. Holly Aldridge.
Aldridge performed a simple eye test, moving her finger left and right in front of Will’s face. When she switched to an up and down motion, she immediately knew something was wrong.
“He had no upward gaze,” David said. “His eyes could not go up. He had to move his head up.”
At first, the doctors believed Will was suffering from a brain lesion affecting his optic nerve. An MRI at Athens Regional Medical Center revealed the real issue — a non-germinomatous brain cell tumor about the size of a golf ball was sitting directly on top of his brain.
“When you hear that diagnosis and life and death are on the table, nothing else matters,” David said. “No sports, no career, no job, no trying to work to get a team together. None of that mattered. It’s hard to even put into words.”
The rest of that night moved quickly for the Wagners.
Will and David returned to Winder to pack him a bag and were off to Scottish Rite. It was nearly midnight, but the staff there was prepared for them.
Within seconds of arrival, someone had already parked their car, taken Will’s bag and wheeled him to his room. After some testing, the doctors concluded Will would need a shunt put into his brain to drain the fluid around his tumor, and it had to be put in immediately.
“In about 36 hours, we go from thinking he needs migraine medicine to all of the sudden you’re going to put a hole in his head and put a tube in,” David said.
Will’s recollection of the night comes back in patches.
“I just remember going in and waking up with a tube in my head,” he said.
David recalls the entire ordeal.
“It was just a night from utter hell was what it was,” he said. “It was just a miserable night.”
A NEW BEGINNING
Everything changed for the Wagners.
Will was pulled from school and began homeschooling with his mother, Amanda, facilitating his lessons. It was the easiest option, as he was dealing with both radiation therapy and an impaired memory that caused him to need extra time on tests and other evaluations.
And while he was declared cancer-free about a year after his original diagnosis, Will’s life did not slide easily back into regularity.
He still had problems with his memory and with anxiety, so the homeschooling continued. Beyond that, the shunt put in his brain was still at work, and any hard contact to it could put him in serious danger.
“They just said that I couldn’t do any contact sports, besides basketball,” he said. “I couldn’t wear any helmets or anything. I couldn’t get hit in the head by anyone, by my brother or anything.”
The news didn’t sit well with Will, who had always dreamed of one day playing for his high school football team.
It was a natural ambition for Will, who grew up around the sport.
David was recently named athletic director at West Hall, but for the majority of Will’s life, he was a football coach, working with Winder-Barrow, Flowery Branch and West Hall. Will and his brother Zac were ball boys on Friday nights. Even though he was told he would probably never play, Will immersed himself in the sport.
Offensive and defensive schemes fascinated him, and over the years he began to understand them. Memory is and probably will always be a weak point for Will, but remembering plays came easier than studying for school.
After a while, he came to dream of someday becoming an offensive coordinator. Will even started to come up with offensive recommendations for his dad, who has always been a more defensive-oriented coach.
“After games, he would come up and he’d be giving me suggestions on plays that I should have called,” David said. “He’s been around the game enough where he’s got a football mind.”
But standing on the sidelines and working as a ball boy is not the same as being on the team, and Will longed to someday play the sport he loved.
“Just that feeling of Friday night football, kickoff and everything, running through the tunnel, it just got me more motivated to try to get cleared (to play),” Will said.
A DREAM REALIZED
“So you want to play football?”
Tears began to fill Will’s eyes as he heard the words he’d been hoping for ever since his diagnosis.
The doctors concluded the shunt in Will’s brain was no longer draining fluid. Donning a football helmet would not be an issue, and he was officially cleared to play in his freshman year.
“At that moment I started getting butterflies and getting really excited,” he said. “My dad started smiling and everything. I was getting a little teary-eyed. I waited for this moment so long and then it finally happened.”
“You could see the joy on his face,” David said. “Just sheer happiness.”
Will has spent the past month and a half preparing physically and mentally for the season. He hopes to play either linebacker or H-back, but “helping out the team as much as (he) can” is his main priority.
No matter how things go, neither Will nor David will be taking the experience for granted.
As a football coach, David used to agonize over every defeat. Since Will’s recovery, wins and losses have started to matter less.
“Seeing him on the sidelines alive and well and cancer-free at the end of a game that we didn’t win, the losing still stings, but it doesn’t haunt me for the next 48 hours like it used to,” David said. “It puts life in perspective, and I think you enjoy it a little bit more.”
Will’s takeaway is in some ways similar, and in others the opposite.
For Will, winning is everything. Whether the current obstacle is a cross-town rival or cancer is largely incidental.
“It’s taught me to be tough and never give up,” he said. “Keep fighting. Don’t stop.”