ST. PETERSBURG — Since his family learned a cancerous tumor had grown on his brain in February, each day for 12-year-old Cole Eicher has been a battle.
To date, he’s completed 30 sessions of radiation, during which time he lost 20 pounds. He has blood drawn regularly, along with his bone marrow, to collect stem cells harvested for his remaining chemotherapy treatments.
He turns 13 in September.
But considering his long road ahead — two more chemotherapy treatments, the fevers and mouth sores following therapy and surgery to correct his double vision caused by the tumor, Eicher remains in high spirits.
And with the help of some of Tampa Bay’s professional sports teams, Eicher isn’t alone on his road toward recovery.
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Through friends and neighbors, Eicher’s story soon reached the front offices of the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League and the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League.
In April, Rowdies general manager Perry Van Der Beck, along with players Georgi Hristov and Shane Hill, surprised Eicher with a one-year contract at Puryear Park, the home field of his club soccer team. The players outfitted Eicher with a game jersey and shorts, polo shirt, warm-up shirt and a team jacket.
“It was emotional for myself, the players and for him too,” Van Der Beck said. “We had him sit down at the picnic table, all of his teammates were around there, and I was right next to him, and I went over the contract, almost paragraph or paragraph, page by page, letting him know what he was signing and you could just see his demeanor change. It was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is happening.’ ”
Eicher and his parents, Scott and Laura, have attended several Rowdies home games, where Eicher has been invited to sit on the bench as an honorary captain.
Then in June, the Storm invited Eicher to a practice and a game. He was given his own locker with practice gear. They even strapped a helmet on him. Days later, when the Storm hosted the Orlando Predators, Eicher ran out to the field with the team and gave the pregame speech. The Storm won, 35-34.
Many of the pro athletes began wearing “Cole Strong” wristbands, made by his classmates and teaching staff at Grace Lutheran Church and School in St. Petersburg, where the Eichers reside.
“What’s really amazing is there are a lot of great organizations locally that have really reached out to him and made him feel better and kind of be a distraction,” Scott Eicher said. “I call it a distraction but I don’t mean it in a derogatory way. It’s all consuming. There’s not a day that goes by that you don’t think about this. You’re either involved in it somehow with a test or appointments. It just doesn’t go away and so to have something like this in the community and to have a sports team like the Tampa Bay Lightning and Storm reach out to him is absolutely amazing.”
The athletes and coaches are moved by Eicher’s positive attitude.
“To be so strong and to keep God first and know that God’s got him through all of this, it’s very humbling for myself and I’m sure it’s humbling for other people,” said Storm receiver Amarri Jackson, the former South Florida star who also played with the Buccaneers and in the CFL. “I’ve had times when I’ve had way less of a tougher route as his and I folded. Seeing somebody his age, being so strong, it makes life a lot easier for when I face trials and tribulations.”
Jackson sat by Cole’s bedside during his first chemo treatment, sharing sports stories and debating the outcome of the World Cup. Prior to Eicher’s second chemo treatment, Jackson was again at the hospital.
“I think he’s going above and beyond with this friendship he’s having with me,” Cole Eicher said. “He’s really funny and has a great sense of humor. He’s just a really great friend.”
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Last year during Thanksgiving, Eicher suffered unexplained vomiting. His parents thought it was something that would last only a few days. In January, the vomiting returned, accompanied by double vision, nausea, dizziness and headaches.
For an above average active child, the symptoms were perplexing. Eicher is a clothing model, plays guitar, sings in a choir and has played on local club soccer teams, his most recent stint as a center-midfielder for the St. Petersburg Raiders, since he was 8. He’s also played soccer internationally in Germany.
But one day during a soccer game, Eicher fell to the ground, unable to keep his balance. The problems persisted for two weeks, though he continued to play. When it appeared more severe than they’d anticipated, his parents took Eicher to an eye specialist, who noticed a nerve was not cooperating.
A few days later, Eicher was given an MRI. The result was the discovery of Medulloblastoma, a malignant brain tumor that sits on the cerebellum, the region of the brain that plays an important role in motor control. It is the second most common cancer in children next to Leukemia. Soon after, Eicher underwent surgery to remove the tumor.
“My parents came crying and they said, ‘You have to go through surgery’ and I was really surprised because I would get the flu one week out of the whole year,” Cole Eicher said. “I was very healthy. It surprised me more than anything else. I never thought it would be this.”
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Being surrounded by pro athletes has also given Eicher a positive outlook on his illness, his mother said.
“Cole kind of looked at (the injured players) and said “we’ve got something in common here, we can both do this, we can both be strong and we’ll get through it,’” she said. “The ones that are playing found a little inspiration with Cole and helped them refocus and think about the gifts they have and put them to action.”
Until he can return to soccer and continue modeling, being an advocate for cancer awareness and research is Eicher’s occupation.
He has sold his wrist bands to raise money and was one of eight children selected to appear in a fund-raising telethon for All Children’s Hospital. He’s also raised more than $13,000 with the American Cancer Society through the organization’s Relay For Life event.
“It helps other people because if they say, ‘Hey my child is having these symptoms and Cole had this symptoms so we should check it out,’ so it doesn’t get bigger like mine did because we didn’t know what it was,” Cole Eicher said. “I want to help people.”
A few weeks ago, Storm players and coaches made a video for Eicher, wishing him good luck during his upcoming treatments. Frequently, Eicher will send personalized emails to Van Der Beck to deliver to each player. Van Der Beck attaches the notes to the players’ locker.
“He’s very inspiring for our players,” Van Der Beck said. “Not just by coming to the games, but also on the road trips because he would send us all personal messages. I know to this day, that throughout the season, the players and the coaching staff and our whole office, including our ownership group, we always think about him. He’s with us. He’s a part of this team. He’s a part of this family.”