BARNESVILLE - Upon meeting Grayson Willis for the first time last week, I was greeted with a hearty handshake and a message.
''You know, that stuff last Friday wasn't about me, it was for the American Cancer Society,'' he stated.
I had covered the Shenandoah's football game at Barnesville the week before and Willis, a senior student manager/equipment manager for the Shamrocks and a cancer survivor, was recognized throughout the evening's activities recognizing National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
T-L Photo/RICK THORP
Grayson Willis watches football practice at Barnesville’s Shamrock Stadium last week. Willis, a senior, has been the team’s student manager/equipment manager the past three seasons. A cancer survivor, he has been an inspiration to the team and head coach Matt Johnson.
He flipped the coin, was recognized over the public address and was given the game ball after Barnesville picked up its first victory of the season.
But the Shamrocks and head coach Matt Johnson had already won just for knowing Willis, who has been with the program for three years.
''He's taught me so much in the two years I've been (head coach) just about life,'' Johnson said. ''How to look at things and have your priorities straight.
''He's been a blessing to me.''
And to Barnesville and Belmont County.
Grayon was diagnosed at 9 months with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer of the scar tissue.
The son of Angie and Mike Willis, Grayson spent the next year going through chemo and radiation.
Neurological difficulties followed. After a brief period of remission, the cancer returned prompting full brain radiation treatments. Ten to be exact.
Doctors gave Grayson virtually no chance to survive, but he had other ideas. He said that through his faith in God and prayer he's been able to be cancer free since he was 3.
Still, he's dealing with the side effects of the radiation and that left him unable to play football, which was his dream.
But while he couldn't play football, former head coach Luke Johnson invited Grayson to become part of the team prior to his sophomore year as a student manager. And when Johnson took over, Grayson and the new coach forged a bond.
''He's just a resilient individual who has a great outlook on life,'' Johnson said. ''I wish everyone could be like that.''
Grayson is a mainstay at practice, organizing equipment, etc. But more than anything else, he's a friend and Johnson cherishes that relationship more than anything else.
''It's been a pretty rough year for us so far record-wise,'' Johnson said. ''And, as far as keeping things in perspective, all I have to do is look at him and I think 'Man, I've got it pretty dang good.'''
It's easy in today's fast-paced society to lose perspective of what's important. That's why knowing someone like Grayson is imperative. Not because he had cancer or is suffering from the effects of it. But because of his work ethic, his desire and his drive to help others.
''Very few times has he not shown up and that says a lot about him,'' Johnson said. ''His motor just keeps going. I don't know how he does it.''
And when it comes to helping organizations like the Belmont County Relay for Life, Grayson is always up for the task. He designed the group's 2012 holiday cards and is active in a variety of fundraising endeavors.
''We're making a difference,'' Grayson, who plans to study exercise physiology at Ohio University Eastern, said. ''It's small, but it helps.''
No one knows this more than Johnson.
''He's definitely going to be missed.''