Wednesday night at EverBank Field, an announced crowd of 5,656 watched the New York Red Bulls defeat the Philadelphia Union 2-1 in an MLS exhibition game. But for one fan, the game offered a memory that will last a lifetime. Here is 16-year old Holden Dillard’s story, told though the words of his father, Paul.
First, I’d like to tell you a little bit about Holden. He’s a typical 16-year old who loves soccer and video games. He has played at Westside Soccer Club for several years, and his favorite player has always been Thierry Henry, the French international player who has won the World Cup with France and became an international star with Arsenal in London. Henry has won just about every team and individual honor that you can think of. During Holden’s first season as a soccer player (when he was about 6 or 7 years old), he insisted that I buy him a pair of Thierry Henry cleats. I can’t count how many Henry replica jerseys he has owned over the years. He still has some of them hanging up on his bedroom wall.
Last year, Holden’s team made it to the Sweet 16 of State Cup, which was a great experience for him. This past season, he “played up” as a 15-year old on a U17 team. He had some pain in his knee, but we thought it was tendinitis and he took Advil and just played through it. He played well in a Labor Day tournament, and then the following week he played what would be his last game. He actually got a red card in that game for a slide tackle from behind. I think he was trying to play a little more aggressively since he was the youngest kid on the team, and I think he earned a little respect from his teammates with that red card.
Since his knee wasn’t getting any better, we figured some downtime would be good. He missed a couple of practices but the pain in his knee started getting worse. We went to his regular physician, who recommended that we see a sports doctor. Within less than two weeks after his last game, I had a doctor telling me that he thought my son had bone cancer. Since we needed to confirm this, Holden’s mother, Robin and I didn’t want to worry him because there were other things that could cause these symptoms (such as a bone infection). Holden and his brother Morgan had gone on a mission to Haiti with their Lee High School soccer team and we thought maybe he had contracted something there. It sounds strange to pray that your son has a bone infection, but that’s what we did because the alternative was so much worse. In the meantime, Holden was just annoyed that his knee wasn’t getting any better and his biggest concern was that maybe he had damaged a ligament and would be off the soccer field for a few months.
Holden was admitted to the Mayo Clinic and has had biopsies, bone scans, PT scans, CT scans, MRIs – you name it and he’s had it. The tests confirmed that he had a high-grade osteosarcoma in his lower left femur – a bone cancer that, while uncommon, typically shows up in teenagers. This cancer also likes to travel through the bloodstream. Since there is a growth plate in the lower femur and there are lots of blood vessels near the growth plates, the cancer spread into his lungs. Since October, Holden has had surgery on both lungs to remove cancerous nodules, half of his femur removed and replaced by a chromium-cobalt rod, and total knee replacement. Through it all he has remained incredibly positive and strong. He is one brave kid. He lifts the spirits of everyone around him and I know that I wouldn’t have been able to make it through this without his great attitude. We’re all trying to be strong for him, but he’s the one who is carrying us.
When he found out his diagnosis, he was upset for about a day, then became very stoic about it. He told me “dad, this is just going to make me into the man I’m supposed to be.” He looks forward to getting the cancer treatments and surgeries behind him so he can come back to the hospital and help children who have cancer.
So now to the Henry meeting. When we found out last month that the New York Red Bulls would be playing the Philadelphia Union in Jacksonville, Holden was thrilled that he might finally get to see his idol Henry play in person. Wheels started turning in my head, and I wondered if it might be possible to arrange a meeting of the two. I asked Helena Gutierrez Richards, our Clinical Social Worker at Nemours Children’s Clinic if she thought there might be a way for Holden to meet Thierry. She took down some notes and jumped up and said “I’m on it!”
Helena contacted Dario Sala, the Founder and President of Sunshine Soccer Group, which he founded with CEO Mark Frisch last year. SSG has promoted several soccer games in Jacksonville, and will operate an NASL franchise in Jacksonville set to take the field in 2015. Dario had a very accomplished career as a professional goalie, competing at the highest levels in Argentina and Spain (among other leagues) before coming to MLS and finishing his playing career in Dallas. Holden and I met Dario shortly after he came to town as Dario has made it his mission to speak with the entire soccer community of Jacksonville, not just the high-level movers and shakers of Jacksonville, but also the grassroots supporters and youth soccer enthusiasts. Dario told me that he would come to one of Morgan and Holden’s indoor games. Since I didn’t know Dario that well, I thought “maybe he’ll come, maybe he won’t.” I tried not to get the kids too excited about a former pro coming to their game, but I really hoped that he would show up.
Before game time, I got a call from Dario explaining that he was stuck at the airport waiting for a delayed flight, but that he would definitely make it to the game. I tried to tell him not to worry about it, and that there would be other games but he insisted and said “I will keep my promise.” Dario showed up a little after kickoff, but he was able to see plenty of action and met with players of both teams after the game and had time to talk with everyone. That told me everything I needed to know about Dario’s character.
I don’t know about all of the inner discussions between Helena and Dario, but I understand that they both spent quite a bit of time and effort setting up the meeting and making sure that Henry knew about Holden. We met with Helena and Kathy Devine, the CFO of SSG, who was instrumental in figuring out the logistics of our meeting. Holden still had no idea what was in store, because we wanted it to be a surprise. Holden thought he was going to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the stadium, and he hoped that maybe he would catch a glimpse of Henry around the locker room. Holden stood next to a Red Bulls logo on the locker room door for a picture, and as he turned around he saw Thierry Henry walking straight toward him.
Holden was star struck and speechless. Henry walked over to him and gave him a hug, and Holden had an enormous smile on his face. The two spoke for a couple of minutes, then Henry shook hands with everyone and took a few pictures with Holden and his brothers. Then Henry asked if Holden could come and meet him later so that Henry could give Holden the jersey he would wear during the game. Holden was thrilled and immediately bear-hugged Henry, just burying his head in his chest, which brought a great smile to Henry’s face. It was very touching and I’m so happy we were able to witness that meeting.
Henry had to go back into the locker room to prepare for the game, but the surprises were not over yet. Alisa Abbott, my wife Katherine’s aunt who is the Executive Assistant to Shad Khan and Mark Lamping of the Jacksonville Jaguars had something else planned. She walked us back to the Jaguars offices where we met Gus Bradley, the Jaguars head coach. Coach Bradley was as effusive and outgoing as he appears on TV and in his radio appearances.
He spoke with all of us for a couple of minutes, then he asked if we minded if he met with Holden one-on-one for a little while. We all left his office and he closed the door and sat with Holden for at least 10 minutes and talked. When they finally emerged, both Holden and Coach Bradley had big smiles on their faces. I asked Coach Bradley “so did you coach him up?” He immediately replied “I didn’t do any coaching – I think I learned quite a bit from Holden!” That just cemented everything that I suspected about Gus Bradley but didn’t know – he is a genuinely good guy who cares about people and just wants to do good things. Holden was excited that he not only got to meet Coach Bradley, but was able to spend time talking to him in a relaxed setting, and Coach Bradley has also said that he would like to stay in touch with Holden and visit with him again over the coming months.
We headed out to the field since the game was about to start. We were fortunate to meet Dave Rowan, the Executive Vice President and Chief Revenue Officer of the Philadelphia Union, who previously worked for the Jaguars, as well as other professional teams. We also met Nick Sakiewicz, the CEO of the Philadelphia Union. We thanked them for bringing the Union to Jacksonville and told them that we hope to see them play more games here in the future, after their initial 3-year deal expires after next year’s game. I even got to meet Mike Sorber, an assistant coach now with the Union, but I told him that I saw him play for the US Men’s National Team when they came to Jacksonville in 1994 and tied Moldova 1-1. Sorber scored the goal for the US that night, and he was happy to relive that experience.
When the game finally started, we were able to watch the game from the sidelines, again thanks to the efforts of Kathy from SSG. We also had the opportunity to go back upstairs and sit in the club seats, but Holden and his brothers didn’t want to miss this opportunity to see a professional game up close. Dave Rowan watched the first half with us, and he teased Holden any time he caught him cheering for New York. We saw goals by New York (Lloyd Sam) and Philadelphia (Jack McInerney), and then finally in the 36th minute, we watched as Thierry Henry scored what would be the game-winning goal.
As the first half came to a close, we stood near the area the players walked through to get to the locker room. We saw Henry take off his shirt and walk toward Holden. I could hear a few people yelling for Henry to throw the shirt to them, but Henry walked straight to Holden, handed him the jersey and give him a big hug, as all of the fans around us cheered.
I know that saying “sports bring us together” sounds like a cliché, but in many cases it’s true. I think of how the Jacksonville Jaguars have impacted us directly and indirectly. Holden gets his chemo treatments in a building that was funded in part by a donation from Wayne and Delores Weaver. We receive help and guidance from Tom Coughlin’s Jay Fund. I have no doubt that Shad Khan, Mark Lamping and Gus Bradley from the Jaguars, as well as Mark Frisch, Dario Sala, Kathy Devine and Steve Livingstone from Sunshine Soccer Group will have the same effect on countless people in our community. They’re business leaders, coaches and sports executives, but they are also good people who care about our community, and I’m grateful they’re here.
Later in the evening, after everything had settled down and everyone had gone home, I think we all had a really hard time falling asleep as we recounted the evening’s events. It has been a rough past few months, and we’ll have tough times ahead, but the memories of this night will certainly help us get through some of those dark times. Given Holden’s strength and courage, and with all of the family and friends who are praying and thinking of him, as well as the great care and support we receive from everyone at Nemours, Wolfson Children’s Hospital and the Mayo Clinic, we know that Holden will come out of this stronger than ever.