Kravitz: Marian football team rallies around cancer-stricken boy

11-year-old Cole became Marian football's biggest fan.
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Bob Kravitz
Carol Winnefeld doesn't want me to write this, not really, but I will anyway, because she deserves to have it written.

She is the mother of 11-year-old Cole Winnefeld, a cancer-stricken child from Bedford, Indiana, who has become a beloved little brother to the Marian Knights football program. The team, which has adopted him and rallied around this little boy with neuroblastoma, hoped the Winnefelds - Carol and husband Michael and Cole - would be able to join them for Friday's NAIA championship game against Southern Oregon, a game that's as important to Cole as it is to any Marian player, coach or fan. But life with a sick child means making financial choices, especially with all those trips to Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York and Grand Rapids, Michigan. And right now, they don't have a thousand dollars or so to fulfill this dream.

Yes, there were spots on the team plane for the family. But the team left Monday. Cole was in Michigan getting treatment for his disease, which he's battled since he was 5-years-old.

So, barring any last-minute miracles – and what the heck, Carol Winnefeld calls her child a "walking miracle," so anything is possible – Cole will be back in Bedford Friday, watching the game on TV while wearing his ever-present Marian sweatshirt, screaming his lungs out for a bunch of guys he calls his "Big Knights," forgetting for a couple of hours that he fighting for his life

"I'm just telling you our situation so you understand why we can't go," Carol said. "But please don't write it like that. People have been very good to us."

Sorry, Carol. I wrote it like that. Because Cole Winnefeld and his family should be on a plane Thursday down to Daytona. What would it cost – a grand, tops? Cole should be in the pre-game and halftime locker room, on the sideline, right there with his loving brothers. How can we make that happen? How?

***

This is the story Carol Winnefeld wants written. She wants to talk about her son's indomitable spirit, wants to talk about the way the Marian Knights have made her son feel like part of their team, their family. She wants to talk about what it's meant to Cole, how it's changed Cole.

"He's missed out on so much from a group standpoint," she said. "Any time he'd go to school, he would go out on the playground and not play with anybody, just walk around by himself. He didn't really know how to play with kids in his class.  He was just so much different from the other kids, had so many different life experiences. I don't know if they were afraid they were going to hurt him or if they were scared of him, I don't know. He's always related a lot better to adults."

He was painfully quiet and shy, and isolated, forced to spend a week out of every month receiving chemotherapy, radiation and antibody therapy. So much illness, so much pain for a little boy, and yet he keeps fighting, keeps smiling.

But nothing made him happier than spending time with his Big Knights, his new heroes, his new best friends. They are the ones who help bring light into his life, light into a life that is a dark series of treatments for this pernicious form of cancer.

"I've never seen him smile so big, being a part of that team," Carol said. "He just feels like he belongs and the boys are doing such a great job including him in everything they do. They're his Big Knights. They're like his big brothers or a bunch of fun uncles. And I don't think they're focusing on his illness and that's what he likes. He wants nothing more than to just be an 11-year-old boy. He wants to be treated the same. I just see a new confidence in him now."

They are playing for themselves, sure, for their school, for a chance to do the same thing they did in 2012, when they last won the NAIA national championship. But they're playing for Cole, too.

Before a recent week that was particularly painful even by Cole's harsh standards, the young man sent Marian head coach Mark Henninger a note: "I need you to win this game because I've had an awful week."

After the game, Marian brought a camera into the locker room and the whole team sent their Little Knight a video message. Convening in the middle of the room, they all looked into the camera and screamed, "Cole! Cole! Cole! Cole!"

Said Carol: "I can't tell you how that brightened his day."

They are all in constant contact. Instagrams. Video messages. E-mails. From the players. From the coaches. Particularly from Henninger, who, the day we talked, was still checking his emails, hoping Cole and his family could make the trip to Daytona.

"Here are my pictures of Cole," Henninger said, scrolling through his camera roll.

He smiled broadly. He might as well have been looking at pictures of his own three children.

He went silent.

"I get choked up just talking about him," he said.

***

Here is how this all came together, how a little boy found comfort and friendship with a bunch of football players, how a bunch of football players found joy and perspective from their relationship with a special little boy.

It began in two places. It began about two years ago, when a player, Marian's Christian Williams, was moved by stories he saw on an organization called Team Impact, which pairs sick children with college teams, mostly on the East Coast.  He wrote to Team Impact, and for two years, heard next to nothing.

Then his grandfather, Eugene, passed away from cancer earlier this year.

Two weeks later, he got an email from Team Impact: We have a match for you.

"If that's not a message from God, I don't know what is," Williams said.

Meanwhile, the Winnefelds were traveling either to Grand Rapids or New York for treatments, and there, heard about Team Impact. Carol wrote to the organization, hoping to bring a little joy into her son's life.

"They asked us, 'What's the closest school to you?' We told them IU-Bloomington, which is only 15 minutes from our home," she said. "We heard back a few weeks later that IU wasn't interested. They didn't want anything to do with us. It was very disappointing."

Shortly thereafter, though, she received another e-mail. Marian, Williams' school, was on board. Ordinarily it takes a month or more to make arrangements, but there were only two games left in Marian's regular season, and everybody hoped to move quickly. Within six days, Cole was in Marian's locker room, enjoying the experience of a lifetime.

"It was incredible," said assistant athletic director/sports information director Geoffre Sherman. "We had a signing ceremony. He signed a scholarship. The whole team was there. The cheerleaders. The coaches. Then we showed him to his locker. Helmet, pads, uniform, the whole bit. You should have seen him smile."

Said Carol: "When he got to his locker and saw all his gear, that really got to me, and I know it got to Cole. He was a part of something. This shy little boy, he was a part of a team for the first time in his life. He belonged."

Said Williams: "He's in receivers' row. We told him he's a receiver."

Henninger had been given a list of talking points from Team Impact in case things were awkward, but Cole, who had always been more comfortable with adults than other children, lit up immediately. The shyness dissipated. He had plenty to say to his new Big Knights.

He got his scholarship. He walked with the team from the locker room to the stadium. He went to midfield for the coin toss in his first game against Concordia. He stood on the sidelines. He's done it for two games now.

The day he signed his scholarship, all the players approached his locker and asked for his autograph. Without missing a beat, the shy little boy blurted out, "Anybody got a Sharpie?"

His greatest education, though, may have come at halftime of that Concordia game.

"We didn't play well in the first half, and I really got after my guys," Henninger said. "I mean, I REALLY got after our guys. The language…"

He shook his head.

"I'm screaming at them, using words I shouldn't use, then I turn around and there's Cole, just standing there," Henninger said, laughing.

Cole was amused.

"Dad, Coach used some bad words," Cole said on the drive home to Bedford.

"Yeah, well, we're not using those words at home," Michael Winnefeld said.

They had a good laugh over that one.

Here's the thing about this relationship: The players have gotten as much from their time with Cole as Cole has gotten from them.

"People look at this as if we're helping Cole, but he's helping us just as much," Williams said. "I'm telling you, he's the strongest kid I've ever met. I can't imagine what he's been through. I've got a herniated disk and I can't play in the championship game and all that sucks, but Cole's fighting for his life. He just lights up our room. I can't imagine not having him with us. He's given us a common cause. He's a unifying force for us."

This has been a long and difficult journey for Cole.

"He seemed like a healthy 5-year old, then we went on a cruise and we noticed he was limping," Carol said. "He fell off a bunk bed and we thought he had broken something. So they did tests, and it turned out his bone marrow was full of disease."

The last six years have been filled with therapies and treatments and unholy medical bills, back and forth, back and forth, sometimes to New York, sometimes to Grand Rapids.

There are roughly 650 cases of neuroblastoma in the United States in a given year. It begins with a neuroendocrine tumor that usually originates in the adrenal gland, as it did with Cole, then often spreads throughout the body. The long-term prognosis is, well…

"I think we have a miracle on our hands to have had him this long," Carol said softly. "We don't really talk about the prognosis. (At Sloan-Kettering in New York) we asked and they said we don't talk about that because every child is different, every treatment is different and we treat every child differently and we aim for curing them."

So now Marian is in Daytona, preparing for one of the biggest games in program history, this time against Southern Oregon. Cole, who finished up treatment Tuesday, is ready to head back to Bedford, where he plans to spend his Friday wearing his Marian shirt, rooting his Big Knights on to victory. He will be there in spirit, if not body.

Unless…

"I pray he can be there with us," Williams said. "He belongs with us. He's part of our team. He's a Knight like all of us."

Somebody can surely make that happen, can't they?