Baseball has always been my favorite sport. My dad is a baseball coach so I grew up playing with him all the time.
But over the past two years, soccer also became one of my favorites. I never thought it would, to be honest, but I’m learning that life doesn’t always happen like you expect it to. Sometimes, just like in baseball, life throws you a curve ball.
My name is Alex VanHolder. I’m 12 years old, and spent the past 24 months alongside the Oakland Golden Grizzlies men’s soccer team.
You may be wondering how I got to join a college team as a 12-year-old kid.
Well, let me tell you…
A few years ago, I was a pretty good baseball player. I could hit really well. My dad and I worked on fielding all the time. But one day, when we got on the field, things were different. I couldn’t hit as well as usual. And I felt confused.
Every time I tried to take a swing, I saw two baseballs. I couldn’t tell which one was the real one. It was weird.
My dad took me to the emergency room. The doctors and nurses put me in a big tube and ran some tests. Next thing I knew, I was put in an ambulance and rushed to the children’s hospital in Ann Arbor.
They found a “Medulloblastoma tumor” on my brain stem. When I first heard that, I had no idea what it meant. Later, I found out it was brain cancer and that I had to have surgery on my brain.
That sounded pretty scary, to be honest.
But I made it through the surgery and began radiation right after. I had to go to radiation five days a week for six weeks. We lived so far away from the hospital that it felt like we were always driving.
And radiation itself was also pretty scary. I was basically strapped to a table and couldn’t move.
The doctors let me listen to music during radiation though, and that kinda helped. I always had them play Toby Mac because he’s my favorite singer. It made things a little easier.
Still, despite Toby Mac, I hated coming in for treatments. There was nothing fun about it.
But the people I was with made it much better.
The nurses, for example, were all incredibly kind and great to me. Andrew, in particular, will be a friend of mine for the rest of my life. He was just the best.
My best friend inside the hospital was Austin. We went through the same six weeks of radiation together. He was like my brother.
We did whatever we could to make the time inside the hospital as fun as possible.
After we were done with radiation, we continued to stay in touch and visited each other whenever we could.
But unfortunately, Austin passed away a few months ago. It was one of the saddest moments of my life. Attending his funeral was heartbreaking. He didn’t deserve it.
Just a few months ago, we were playing soccer in the hallways of the hospital. Now, he is gone. It’s really hard to even talk about it.
To this day, I think a lot about him.
But luckily, the Oakland men’s soccer team was also around during this difficult time.
I got to hang out with the team through a program called Team IMPACT. My mom was the one who first told me about it. I think she found a flyer at the hospital during one of my treatments. She called Team IMPACT to find out how everything worked. The group helps kids like me find new friends by pairing them up with sports teams.
And I was paired up with the Oakland men’s soccer team.
I was nervous to meet all the soccer players at first. It definitely took me some time to feel comfortable. But once I did, I just loved being a part of their team.
Wilfred Williams, who was a defender for Oakland when I joined Team IMPACT, was the first friend I made on the team. Wilfred and I became best friends.
I really felt like I was a part of the team. They even held a press conference for me when I first joined. They said I was an honorary team member and even gave me my own uniform. It felt pretty legit.
My favorite part though is that I got to travel with them. My family and I went to Chicago, Nashville, and so many other new places. We even got to eat with the team before all the games. It was pretty cool. Really, the only thing I didn’t do was play in a game.
During these two years with Oakland and Team IMPACT, I never wanted to miss anything the team did. My parents worked with the hospital to make sure treatments didn’t collide with game days so I could be with my team.
During my time with the team, I was still battling cancer. But, with everyone’s support, radiation treatments, and eight rounds of chemotherapy, I finally did it.
I kicked cancer’s butt!
Everyone was so excited for me. On my last day at the hospital, there was a big celebration. Everyone who helped me get better was there. All the doctors and nurses took pictures with me. I felt like a celebrity.
After we left the hospital, we went to the bowling alley. My family, all my friends, and the entire Oakland men’s soccer team were there. It was so much fun having everyone there to celebrate with me. And it felt good to beat a few of the soccer players in bowling that day!
I’m now going on almost two years of being cancer-free! I’m in seventh grade and still love sports more than ever.
Now that I spent so much time around soccer players, I want to play myself. So, in the spring of 2020, I’ll be kicking the ball myself.
I could’ve started in the fall of 2019 as well, but I knew it would force me to miss a lot of Oakland’s soccer games, so I figured it could wait. They were there to support me and I wanted to be there to cheer them on.
Soccer will always play an important role for the rest of my life. But when I get older, I actually don’t want to be a professional soccer player. Or any professional athlete really.
No, when I grow up, I want to be a child life specialist.
I had a lot of fun playing around or having nerf wars with the other kids at the hospital. I knew what the other kids were going through and I loved making them feel better.
I want to help others like others have helped me.
Recently, my dad and I were at the mall, and we saw a girl who looked like me. She didn’t have a lot of hair, and I knew she was going through something like I did. I remember how hard this time was for me so I imagined she was struggling too. So, when we walked by her, I took off my hat to show her she wasn’t alone. And that just felt like the right thing to do.
One of the hardest things about cancer was that not many people could relate to what I was going through. Although I never met her, I wanted her to know that she had my support. I understood her.
That’s why when I grow up, I want to help change people’s lives like the Oakland men’s soccer team changed mine.