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Amy Donaldson: Bingham football player faces his toughest foe — cancer — with help from his community

Published: Sunday, April 6 2014 8:45 p.m. MDT

The Culley family. From left: Riley, Levi, Mallory (on Skype), Jackie and Paul.

Courtesy of the Culley family

SOUTH JORDAN — The pain shattered Jackie Culley’s best defenses, escaping in raw, guttural sobs.

As she watched her hulking football-player-of-a-son follow a doctor down a hallway for tests that she suspected would confirm her worst fears, she didn’t cry.

She wailed.

“Right in the middle of the hallway with everyone in the waiting room watching,” the South Jordan mother of three wrote in her journal. “How is this happening? There goes my baby. God, please take care of him. The next time I see him, it will be with the knowledge that my son has cancer. ... I cannot explain the horror, the fear, the lack of control.”

This is not the way Riley Culley’s senior year was supposed to end.

Until March 24, the tenderhearted 17-year-old enjoyed an almost storybook senior year. It began when the 6-foot-3, 235-pound center was elected a team captain for the Bingham Miners football team last summer. His leadership and hard work helped the Miners to an undefeated season, capped by a 5A state championship in November.

He was honored as a first-team all-state player, and in February, he signed a scholarship to play football for Dixie State University.

He’d recently decided to serve an LDS mission right after high school, following the example of his older sister Mallory, who was called to serve in Santos, Brazil.

The dream began to unravel the night of March 16.

“Riley woke me up in the middle of the night in severe pain on his left side,” Jackie Culley said. “From the description of symptoms, I wondered if he had kidney stones.”

The next day, Jackie took her son to the family physician, who found no evidence of kidney stones. They were told to come back in a week if the pain persisted.

But a day later, the pain was so severe that Jackie mentioned it to a friend. She gave Culley the name of her urologist, and Jackie called him expecting to wait several weeks for an appointment.

In the first of many miracles the family has experienced, Jackie was told the doctor could see them the next morning.

Dr. Matthew Christopher met with the family and, after listening to the symptoms, suggested blood work and a CT scan of the kidneys and bladder. Almost as an afterthought, Jackie decided to mention the fact that one of Riley’s ribs (near the pain) was sticking out a bit farther than its counterpart on his right side. The doctor examined him and suggested it was probably nothing, but then added that he’d make sure the scans included that rib area.

They went to Lone Peak Hospital for the CT scan and blood work, and they were on their way home when Dr. Christopher called and said he needed them to return to the hospital for more tests. Before they’d even arrived back at the hospital, the doctor called a second time and said he’d been discussing Riley’s scans with a radiologist.

“This is where life started to feel like a dream,” she recalled. “He said, 'I’ve been talking with the radiologist and he feels like it is important that Riley gets an entire body bone scan today.'”

They waited at the hospital while Dr. Christopher tried to get them an appointment. While Riley went into the hospital for the additional blood work, Jackie sat outside trying to grasp what was happening to her son.

“I sat in the car and felt my life change,” she said. “Part of me knew it was something bad.”

In her journal that day, she wrote, “Many, many things had been happening in our lives over the past several months. You can ask any of my closest friends and they will tell you, I said it more than once … “I feel like Satan is working harder on us than he ever has, but at the same time, I feel like God is running block! Just when something potentially horrible arises, I feel God at work taking care of the details to change the outcome.”

A series of tests and appointments led her to that waiting room on March 24, where she sat for hours with her son and husband waiting for what she knew would change their lives. After Riley was led away for a tumor biopsy and bone marrow aspiration, she sobbed uncontrollably. She yelled. She prayed.

Then the doctor reappeared and ushered them into a room so they could talk privately. He explained what would happen in the next year — the port that would pump chemicals into his body, the surgery, the hospital stays, the risks of infection, the medical bills that “you’ll never be able to pay” and the “chance that your son will live.”

“That room has witnessed people’s lives changing forever,” she said. “I’m certain there must be angels in there. … This two-hour period is too much to take in or explain. Just pray to God that you never experience it. And pray for those who do.”

Now, instead of planning graduation celebrations and missionary send-offs, the Culleys are researching Ewing's sarcoma (bone cancer) and planning fundraisers to try and cover the medical costs of surgery and six to nine months of chemotherapy so aggressive, it will keep him in the hospital three to five days at a time.

It was during one of her research sessions that she ran across a video of a young girl who’d survived Ewing's sarcoma.

“She said the one thing that got her through her treatment was that her mom was a rock throughout her care,” Jackie said. “And that’s when I decided, I will be Riley’s rock.”

The “big, strong, tough kid that we all look to as a pillar of strength” will now lead his family through a journey that no one wants to take.

“I realized the only options I do have are that I can be positive or I can be negative,” said Jackie, who decided sharing their experiences might help others struggling with their own heartbreaking trials. She is sharing their journey on the Facebook page, Go Team Riley Tackle Cancer.

“Riley likes to come across like he’s a tough guy,” Jackie said. “He’s actually my most sensitive child. He’s always looking out for people. People come to me and tell me things he did, really nice things, that I knew nothing about.”

Jackie said the outpouring of love and support was immediate and healing. Some of the well-wishers are beloved friends and family. Others are people they barely know.

“I cannot imagine having to go through this alone,” she said. “I feel like Riley’s experience is affecting a community, not just a family.”

The first people to rally around Riley, outside of his family, were his Bingham teammates. Miners head coach Dave Peck met with coaches to discuss how they could help the family, while players visited Riley almost constantly.

“For me personally, it’s no different than if it was my own son,” Peck said. “We’ve had a few talks, and he’s going to see it through. Things happen for a reason, and Riley’s grown up trying to battle no matter what confronts you. That’s what he’s going to continue to do.”

Players and coaches decided the way to help would be to raise money to help the family navigate what doctors estimate could end up costing nearly $100,000.

The team has organized a clothing drive where they collect used clothing that a company will pay them for each 33-gallon bag. The clothing can be dropped off at Bingham High (2160 W. 10400 South) in the south parking lot on May 10 from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. The players also organized pick-up routes for any resident in South Jordan and promise to pick up any clothes left curbside.

Teachers have offered to make posters, and opposing coaches have asked how they can help with fundraisers. Peck posted all of the information, including how to donate to an account set up for the family at a Chase Bank on the team’s website, binghamfootball.org.

A group of friends are organizing a 5K run/walk benefit on Saturday, May 31 at 8 a.m. It will be held at the LDS meetinghouse located at 3407 W. 9625 South, with registration at 7:30 a.m., as well as in advance. In addition to the 5K, there will be T-shirts for sale, a silent auction and a bake sale. It’s as much a celebration of friendship and love as it is an effort to help a family pay for cancer treatment.

“It is powerful and overwhelming,” said Jackie.

Riley panicked when he found out that the Dixie State University coaches found out before he could tell them. But any fear dissipated when one of the coaches told him not to worry and remember that, “Tough things don’t last, tough people do.”

Days later, he received a card covered with handwritten, positive, healing sentiments from the coaching staff.

“They told him they’d hold his scholarship and that they’d be there for him throughout this,” Jackie said. “They said, ‘You’re part of our family now.’ … Everything is a miracle.”

The young man who spent his prep career trying to protect his teammates from opposing players will now rely on a much bigger team to help him battle an opponent he can't even see.

"I'm just so humble and full of gratitude," Jackie said of the way her community has made her son's fight their fight. "I can't imagine going through this without the love and support of everyone. It makes the whole thing bearable."

Twitter: adonsports EMAIL: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

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