Warren Central (Ind.) football player battling cancer with support of team, community

Photo: Kyle Neddenriep, Indianapolis Star

Warren Central (Ind.) football player battling cancer with support of team, community

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Warren Central (Ind.) football player battling cancer with support of team, community

INDIANAPOLIS – In a dark hospital room, with the shades pulled and her son napping in a bed 10 feet from her, Gayla Williams pushes play on a YouTube clip and the room comes to life.

It is her son’s voice. He is singing, with passion, in front of a crowded room at a talent competition. He belts out the lines to the Gospel song:

“I give myself away

I give myself away

So You can use me”

Gayla’s eyes are closed, her hands clasped. She is swaying, side to side, as her son’s beautiful voice booms through the screen.

“My life is not my own

To you I belong

I give myself, I give myself to you”

Gayla opens her misty eyes. She is not going to cry. Not in front of her son, even though he remains asleep. She made a vow not to do that anymore. He never did. She owed it to him to quietly step outside the hospital room when she needed to cry.

But there are times she wonders: Why him? Why this kid, so full of life? With her guidance, he had steered clear of drugs, gangs, alcohol, teenage pregnancy. The two loves of his life — singing and football — had kept him on track. And here he was, lying in a hospital bed, with “Get well” footballs signed by the choir and football team at Warren Central.

As much as she tries not to go there, Gayla’s mind returns there often: Why Johnathan Smith? Why cancer?

“I didn’t know our battle would be with this beast,” Gayla said. “I’m mad that I can’t put my hands on it.”

In the same breath, Gayla adds: “He’s going to get up out of here and it’s going to be alright. I didn’t know he had so many friends. We are hopeful.”

***

Johnathan Smith was the first person to open up to Varell Wiley. Wiley transferred from Cathedral to Warren Central last year. They were both sophomores playing on the scout team for football. Wiley did not have any close friends on the team until John started talking to him.

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“He was always so positive,” Wiley said. “I felt like there wasn’t anything I really couldn’t tell him. We became really good friends. My first Saturday (junior varsity) game, he sang a song when we were practicing and got us ready. He’s a great singer.”

But Wiley worried about his friend, too. Johnathan was losing weight. When he asked, he would brush it off. But there was reason to worry. At the beginning of March, Johnathan noticed blood in his urine and alerted his mother.

“I thought it might be some medicine that I’d given him that had caused it,” Gayla said.

Johnathan’s stomach pain persisted. On March 7, his 17th birthday, doctors at Community Hospital North identified a mass on his right kidney. It was cancer.

“It has to be wrong,” Gayla told the doctors.

Another test confirmed it was cancer: Renal medullary carcinoma. It is a rare type of cancer that affects the kidney and is associated with sickle cell trait. It is an aggressive form of cancer and is often not identified in the early stages.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Warren Central star receiver David Bell, a friend of Johnathan’s since their days at Creston Middle School. “He texted me and told me what he was going through. I told him I’d pray for him.”

Doctors were able to remove the mass from his kidney during surgery. Johnathan began to feel stronger. Every three weeks, he would return to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health for chemotherapy infusion.

“Everything looked optimistic,” Gayla said. “Hopeful.”

Johnathan, an elusive running back who wore No. 27, started working out again.

“He came out started working with the running backs,” said Charlie Peterson, a senior. “He was out there. He was going to play again and wanted to be a part of the team. Then it caught up to him again.”

***

Jayson West is regarded as one of the top football coaches in the state. He won a state championship at Lawrence Central in 2012 before moving to Warren Central and winning another one in his first season. The Warriors are again among the top teams in the state, ranked No. 2 in Class 6A after last week’s 27-24 win over Center Grove.

But West is admittedly tired. Warren Central lost one of its brightest and most personable stars when senior Dijon Anderson was wounded in a shooting in May and died 17 days later. Losing Anderson was an emotionally grinding experience for all in the Warren Central program.

Now Johnathan Smith, another shining star, is fighting for his life.

“There’s not a whole lot of good advice or words in these types of situations,” West said. “The kids have constantly been going to visit him. We want to make John smile as much as we can. He’s in constant pain. He’s dealing with something only a few can even imagine or understand. The biggest thing we want them to understand is that this is a family deal. You have each other’s backs.”

Peterson can understand what Gayla is going through. The personable senior tight end, another friend of Johnathan’s since middle school, lost his father, Eric Peterson, to esophagus cancer on July 20. His dad was 57. Charlie spoke at the funeral.

“My dad was always positive,” Charlie said. “That’s what we want to be is positive. That’s how John is too. It’s definitely a struggle for me right now and the whole team. I don’t think any team should go through this. But we can’t let it go to waste. We need to do something for John and have a positive outlook on life. That’s what John would want. That’s what Dijon would want. That’s what my dad would want.”

This past week on the football field, the Warren Central players aligned themselves on the field to form a “27” for a photo that Johnathan could see. He smiled at that picture. On Sunday, the team visited his room at Riley. They ate with him and talked to him. During the visit, Johnathan told Bell that he looked up to him.

A few days later, sitting in that same hospital bed, Johnathan looks up and asks: “What did David Bell say about me?”

***

The cancer has spread to Johnathan’s stomach and back. On Tuesday afternoon, Gayla asks him for his pain level on a scale of one to 10. “Seven,” he says.

There are no easy answers here. On Monday, Gayla said Johnathan began taking a treatment called Votrient. He takes two pills, once a day.

“He told me he hopes God is in that pill and he can make it out,” Peterson said. “I said, ‘John you can. I guarantee you there is a chance.’”

That is what Gayla wants — a chance. When she went back to school to earn her General Education Development (GED) degree several years ago, Johnathan was still in elementary school. He and his older sister Jessica, now a freshman in college at Fort Wayne, would make sure she had everything she needed for class. He has always been there for her, even when Johnathan was told the cancer had returned.

“He never shed a tear,” Gayla said. “He held my hand while I was crying.”

Gayla is not going at it alone. She is thankful every day for the Warren community. A steady stream of visitors, including teachers, principal Rich Shepler and superintendent Dena Cushenberry have strengthened her resolve. Last Friday, Indianapolis native and singer, songwriter and producer Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds spent four hours with Johnathan through a connection with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“All of this support has been remarkable,” Gayla said. “A teacher he hadn’t even had yet said, ‘I want you to know you have a place ready in class.’ It is special to have that support.”

As Johnathan wakes up from his nap, he asks for his phone. He pulls up his seven-minute football highlight montage from Hudl and passes it to a visitor.

“The kid always had a football in his hand and a song in his heart,” Gayla says.

Johnathan asks again what David Bell said about him.

“He always has a smile on his face,” Bell says. “And he loves to sing. That’s the best thing about him is his singing. He sang our national anthem in seventh grade before a football game. He’s energetic. Just a very good person.”

Told this, Johnathan closes his eyes. The visitor pushes play on singing clip again. Jonathan’s voice fills up the room.

“Take my heart

Take my life

As a living sacrifice

All my dreams all my plans

Lord I place them in your hands

I give myself away

So You can use me”

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