BILLINGS — As we come upon Friday’s 10th Legion Against Cancer game, the program has grown in many ways since it’s inception. But maybe the most important addition has been for players to choose specific people to play for.
This year, that was an easy choice for Billings Scarlets junior Jarron Wilcox.
Jennifer Newell knew something wasn’t right.
“He had just finished baseball and I honestly just thought he was exhausted from the heat and being outside and practicing for so many hours and playing so many games,” Newell said.
But Newell figured son Ryan, an avid athlete, would rebound with his favorite sport on the horizon.
“He was really nervous because he was supposed to start football practice the next day,” Newell said, “and he was like, ‘Mom, there’s no way I can do that.'”
“I was, like, getting a lot of bloody noses and a lot of headaches, and I was just real tired,” Ryan remembered. “I’d get dizzy easy, so she thought I had a concussion. She took me in and got my blood drawn.”
“(The doctor) ended up doing some bloodwork and she called me that night and said he had leukemia,” Jennifer said. “We had to go to Denver the next day.”
It’s the kind of call we’ve all heard about but are never ready for.
“I couldn’t believe it, I was in shock,” said the worried mother. “It’s crazy how your life can just change in an instant.”
Ryan went through a round of chemotherapy in Denver, then another one at Billings Clinic. But the cancer didn’t budge, and the family soon found out why.
“The doctor found that he has a genetic mutation,” Newell said, “and he explained it to me that it would be hard for (Ryan’s) body to fight the cancer.”
It also makes it difficult to find a bone marrow donor — the most extreme course of treatment, but the one Ryan was left with — which made the news that his older sister was a perfect match even better.
“It was amazing,” Jennifer said with a gushing smile. “There was only a 22 percent chance that she would be the donor, so it’s awesome. And they’re very close.”
Ryan’s sister didn’t hesitate, but that doesn’t mean she’s not milking it a little.
“She keeps using it to her advantage, telling him that she’s saving his life and he owes her,” Jennifer said.
“If I’m ever mean to her, she’s like, ‘I’m not going to do this for you if you keep being mean,'” said Ryan, laughing.
Ryan and Jennifer are back in Denver now, awaiting the June 12 transplant. When asked what he’ll miss in the meantime, he said two things. The first?
“It’s going to suck being away from my dog that long,” he said.
The second is seeing his name on the Dehler Park field. Wilcox is the older brother of Newell’s best friend and has chosen to play Friday’s Legion Against Cancer game in Ryan’s honor.
“It’s always a special game, but especially when I have my brother’s best friend on my back,” Wilcox said. “It’s going to be a special night and hopefully a lot of memories and money go to Ryan.”
In 10 years, the game has raised more than $70,000 for Kelker’s Kids, which benefits families of children with cancer and other life-altering illnesses. Leukemia has taken baseball away from Ryan, but Wilcox wants to give it back – for at least one night.
“For him to play baseball, I’d give it up for him any chance of the day,” Wilcox said. “But now that he’s on my back, I say that he’s playing with me. I’ll play 110 percent in the game, probably the hardest I’ve ever played.”
It’s how Ryan always does.
First pitch between the Scarlets and Billings Royals is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday. To donate, go to www.legionagainstcancer.org.