I walked into the hospital room, and I’ll never forget the sadness. You could just feel it in the air. The kid in the bed, hooked up to all of these tubes, his name was Milton Wright. Athletic, light-skinned African-American kid. Heck, he was taller than me. He just looked so healthy, you know?
Milton played football in high school. Then he became a model. One day, he woke up and could barely move. He went to the hospital for some tests, and the results weren’t good. Milton had an advanced form of leukemia.
At 19 years old. This amazing kid. This kid straight from a TV commercial.
He was lying there in the bed, waiting for death.
When I walked into the Cancer Unit, his family was all around him. Milton was silent, just crying. I could tell he was scared. Everyone in the room was in tears. I was in tears. His mom told me that it wasn’t his first battle with leukemia. He beat it at 8. Then he beat it again at 14.
And now it was back again.
It’s not fair. That was all I could think in that moment. The thought overwhelmed me. It’s such a helpless thought. It’s just not fair. I tried to find something to say — anything — but I was at a loss. The fear in that room, the sadness, was simply too much.
There was only one option left for Milton. A team of doctors from Seattle Children’s Hospital were in the middle of attempting an experimental treatment called T-cell therapy through a clinical trial supported by Strong Against Cancer. This is the final option, when there are absolutely no other options left. The doctors told me it had only been tried once before at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
I’m just a football player, so I’m not going to attempt to explain in scientific detail how it works. But basically, the doctors sent an army of T-cells into Milton’s blood to do battle with the cancer cells.
The treatment was going well at first, but all of a sudden Milton’s condition got really bad. The battle had spiked his fever so much that he was close to death in the Cancer Unit. When this happens, the doctors have a “kill switch” option that calls back the T-cells. It’s like hitting the reset button.
Milton and his family had to decide whether to call back the T-cells or not. The thing was, it was his last chance at a cure.
When I sat by his bed and looked into his eyes, I could tell he had accepted the possibility of death. But he was really scared.
What can you possibly say in that moment? There are no words.
So I did the only thing I could. I told him about my father. Normally I like to keep my father’s story private, but I told Milton about his long battle with diabetes. I told him how my father had lost his ability to walk. Then lost his sight. I told him how the doctors had basically given up and told us he had only a few days left to live when he slipped into a coma.
They said maybe 24 hours.
But he kept fighting and came out of his coma. And he kept on fighting for two more years.
The doctors didn’t expect him to have any motor function in those years. But he kept on smiling, even when he couldn’t speak. He kept rooting me on when I took the field in college.
He was still my dad. His spirit was still there.
And it’s still here with me to this day.
So I told Milton to keep fighting like my dad did.
That night, Milton told the doctors not to use the kill switch on the T-cells just yet. He was going to hang on and fight to the end.
Three days later, his fever broke. He got moved out of the ICU and back to a regular room. A few weeks later, the moment of truth came. The doctors tested his bone marrow to see if the T-cells had won their battle against the cancer cells.
They checked the scoreboard.
Zero cancer cells in his bone marrow.
He was in remission.
Milton was eight years old when he got cancer for the first time. When I was eight years old, I used to stand in front of the mirror in my bedroom before my baseball games. I’d grab a Wiffle Ball bat and try to swing just like Ken Griffey Jr.
I’d stand there in the mirror trying to be Junior until my dad yelled up the stairs, “Come on, Russell, we’re gonna be late!”
Junior was one of my inspirations. When you’re a kid, you want to be the people you see on TV, or read about in history class. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates, Neil Armstrong, Derek Jeter, Michael Jordan. Those were the names scribbled on my notebook.
You want to be like these huge, inspiring people. You dream of being remembered for these big accomplishments. You want to be famous. You want to have your own “I Have a Dream” moment. You want to walk in space. You want to have a your own shoe. You want to cross up Byron Russell for the last-second shot. You want big things when you’re in the mirror.
At least I did, when I was 8.
I didn’t become Ken Griffey Junior. Nobody can be Junior. There’s only one. We can’t be like him no matter how hard we try. But maybe we can try to be like Milton Wright.
I saw him two months ago. He was back in the hospital again.
He was back in the ICU. And you could feel the sadness and the fear.
But Milton wasn’t in the bed. He was standing next to it, visiting a cancer patient. He was telling him to fight. He was giving him hope.
How do we lead? How do we inspire? How should we live? What’s the bigger point of this life? These are the really big questions that my mind wanders to whenever a season ends. Questions that are way bigger than sports.
When I stand in front of the mirror now, I know I’ll never be Junior. But I can try to be more like Milton Wright.