When the Grain Valley High School soccer team prepared to play archrival Oak Grove on its annual Pink Out – Fighting Cancer – Kick For The Cure Night, junior goalkeeper David Mullen was playing for more than a catchy slogan and a night of heartfelt memories of cancer victims and survivors.
His mother Angela, who is now cancer free, discovered during a routine mammogram last November that she had breast cancer.
“When my mom told us she had breast cancer, I remember my (14-year-old) brother Brian asking her if she was going to die,” David said, as his mom sat next to him – and a box of Kleenex – in their living room. “I don't think I've ever played in a game that was more important to me than our pink game.
“Mom was in the stands – you can always hear her – and I wanted to give her a win that night.”
He did, as the upstart Eagles blanked the Panthers 3-0 on Oct. 7.
“That was a special night for me, too,” Angela said. “I knew a lot must be going through David's mind. He and his brother went through a lot since I was diagnosed last November. They've handled it really well, and I can't say enough good things about my husband, David.
“When I called him and told him what happened at the doctor's, he met me at the door when I got home and gave me a hug. There are things in your life you can take for granted, and I never knew how much I meant to him or he meant to me as I did during my chemotherapy treatments.
“He did everything at the house – the cleaning, the grocery shopping, watching the boys – so I could get well.”
And his dad's new role in the Mullen family had an impact on David.
“Dad did everything,” David said. “We all wanted mom to get well, and we all did everything we could to help her, but Dad did it all. He had a hard job, and he did it great.”
It's easy to see that David is still not comfortable talking about his mom's illness. What 16-year-old would? But the love he has for his mom is apparent as they laugh and talk about the role soccer played in her healing process.
“When my mom had cancer and I was playing soccer, I just concentrated on the game and never really worried about the stuff that bothered me before,” said Mullen, a big part of the record-shattering Eagles' 12-2 season. “When you're in a shootout, or an overtime game, it's important to do well and do your best to win, but it's not anything like what my mom was going through. Soccer is a sport and I really enjoy it, and now I think I enjoy it even more because I know she's going to be here to watch me play.”
That was definitely a Kleenex-grabbing moment for mom.
“At the pink game, two of David's teammates (juniors William Copenhaver and Austin Gragg) wrote my name down as the cancer survivor they were playing for,” Angela said. “When they had their first pink game two years ago, we didn't have anyone to write down to play for because we didn't know anyone with breast cancer.
“So we wrote down David's grandpa, and he didn't even know his grandpa. This year's game, though – oh, my goodness – it was so emotional …”
David politely interrupted and quipped, “I thought, 'What if my mom wasn't at this game?' I think that was the first time it really happened where I thought about what life would be like without my mom.”
It was then Angela's turn to interrupt her son, as she added, “Well, it would be a lot quieter in the stands.”
They both laughed.
The laughter has replaced the tears, and the strength and courage his mom displays 24 hours a day, seven days a week has inspired a young man and his teammates who are doing great things on the soccer field while all the time knowing that soccer is just a sport.
Cancer is real, and beating it is the biggest win of all.
Follow Bill Althaus on Twitter: @AlthausEJC