Then-13-year-old Ross Schulman was told he had 15 minutes to grab whatever he could from his house in San Diego, hop in a car with his mom, Sharon , and drive far away.
The two didn’t make it far down Interstate 15 before they saw fire trucks, were notified that the highway was closed, and ordered to turn around as the land burned, with wildfires scorching more than 500,000 acres and destroying at least 1,500 homes.
Ross had a right to be scared.
Instead, he clutched the American flag given to him at the funeral of his grandfather, Morris Schulman , a military man who died when Ross was young, but not before beating a battle with melanoma.
All four of Ross’s grandparents battled cancer. All four of them beat it.
Ross clutched his grandpa’s flag and sat bravely as his mom drove them to safety.
“My grandparents just never gave up,” said Schulman, who moved from California in 2008 and is now a senior defender on the Acton-Boxborough Regional High soccer team.
“They had the will to live. It’s just really inspirational to me as a person to keep fighting through everything. If they could fight through something as hard as cancer, I can fight through everyday problems.”
On Saturday, Concord-Carlisle Regional High hosted the sixth annual Kicks for Cancer soccer tournament, and every athlete on each of the 12 teams involved, including Acton-Boxborough, picked someone to play for, someone who had been affected by cancer, and had their name on the back of their uniform.
The event has grown each year; last year, a record $27,000 was raised, boosting the total to $71,000 for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Concord-Carlisle coach Ray Pavlik said the community gears up for Kicks for Cancer weeks in advance. The crowds for the games have been in the thousands.
But the athletes are playing for something other than prestige.
They huddle in locker rooms or sticky seats on a school bus for long moments of silence, remembering those affected by the deadly disease.
These are easily the biggest games of the season, the players all say, because they inspire hope. “During the rest of the season you play for yourself,” said Acton-Boxborough junior keeper Andrew Hoang . “That one night you wear a different jersey. It’s not your number on the back anymore, it’s someone else’s.”
Guidance from above
Logan Hicks, who plays for Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High, never met either of his grandmothers — both died before he was born. As a child, he didn’t understand the bond that some of his friends had with their grandmas. He now admits he was jealous.
In last year’s Kicks for Cancer match against Concord-Carlisle — the biggest rivalry game of the season — with the score tied 1-1, Hicks found the ball outside of the 18-yard box, turned, and fired a shot.
It may sound silly, but he swears a grandmother that he never met, Carroll Drabing , who died of ovarian cancer before Hicks was born, was with him for a moment. His shot was brilliant — a laser that dipped at the last second and caught the bottom left corner of the net to give the Warriors a lead they would not surrender.
“There’s this sense that there’s that extra presence,” said the high school senior. “You feel like you’re playing for something bigger.”
Sidelined a second time
Three days before Elizabeth Williams died of brain cancer, her nephew, Carter Reed, went to visit her. She could hardly communicate at that point, but Reed noticed the same thing he always did about Aunt Beth: She was still giving 110 percent to show her love for him.
The hardest part about dealing with cancer, sometimes, is that death is expected. It’s coming eventually, and everyone can deal with that differently.
Williams, though, never changed, Reed said. If anything, she became happier, or at least that’s how Reed saw her.
“She knew she was dying,” said Reed, a junior goalie at Concord-Carlisle. “And she was always there to cheer us up.”
His Aunt Beth died on Sept. 26, 2011.
On Sept. 28, 2011, one day before the Patriots were to face archrival Lincoln-Sudbury in their Kicks for Cancer showdown with Reed starting in goal, he broke his hand in practice.
“It’s OK,” Reed thought. “Be there to support your teammates, and there’s always next year.”
On Wednesday, Reed went after a loose ball in practice, and a teammate’s knee made contact with his head. That’s all he remembers. The trainer told him he had a concussion, and again, he’d have to sit on the bench for the most important match of the season.
He wasn’t too upset about it as the weekend approached.
“Aunt Beth always looked for the happy or the humor in any situation,” he said. “Stuff happens, but you have to get past it and move on. There’s always something happy to take out of something, whether it’s good or bad. There’s always a bright side.”
Still an inspiration
For Acton-Boxborough’s Hoang, his inspiration is drawn from someone he met through soccer.
He remembers hardly recognizing Rich Filippetti when the coordinator for youth soccer referees approached Hoang to deliver a routine assessment of his performance in the role. Filippetti had been dealing with esophageal cancer for about a month. He looked like he had aged 10 years and badly needed some rest. He just wanted to tell Hoang he was doing a great job.
Hoang didn’t realize what he had gotten himself into. He was just 13 at the time, and yet there he was, wearing the black-and-white stripes and running up and down a soccer field in Manchester-by-the-Sea, blowing the whistle when he thought he saw a foul.
The kids playing in the game were his age, some maybe even older. But parents yell at the referee regardless.
“Being a ref is very hard, especially as a young kid with all the pressure,” Hoang said.
Filippetti made sure Hoang never felt that.
Cancer took Filippetti’s life in December 2010, at age 59. Hoang is still refereeing soccer games.
“He was just a teacher almost,” Hoang said. “A teacher of refereeing, and what it takes to be a good person and a good leader.”
The wig comes off
Tommy Wilson was too young to understand why his Aunt Hendy was always wearing a wig. He kept asking her to take it off. Finally, she did. The chemotherapy for her breast cancer had left her bald.
“It’s just a lot to go through,” said Wilson, a senior midfielder for Acton-Boxborough. “Not only for the person, but for everyone involved. Mentally, it’s a lot. It’s really heavy.”
Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.