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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

By Bethany Bradsher

Riley's Army looking for enlistments

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

Rob Donnenwirth once coached Riley Philpot on a youth soccer team, and he knew her as a great kid who loved soccer. Then he heard about Riley’s cancer, which led to chemotherapy and surgeries.

But he still kept seeing her in a soccer uniform, flying down the field.

“Just seeing her on the soccer field with the bald head and everything else, it’s just amazing to see her keep going,” said Donnenwirth, East Carolina’s head soccer coach.

In the three years since Riley’s diagnosis, several of the Lady Pirates have gotten to know her, too, at ECU soccer camps in the summer or when she has attended their games. A few have even visited Riley at the hospital.

When an opportunity arose to do something for Riley and other children who battle cancer, the soccer players didn’t hesitate.

Previously the team wore pink wristbands to honor Riley during games, because pink is Riley's favorite color. So for Friday’s Conference USA opener against Rice, they will take it a step further and play the game in pink jerseys.

During the game, in a silent auction, those jerseys will be auctioned off to raise money for Riley’s Army, the organization started by Riley’s family to support other victims of childhood cancer.

“I think it’s just the right thing to do,” Donnenwirth said.

Riley’s parents, Greenville physicians Kirk and Kelly Philpot, just heard about the ECU soccer project less than a week ago, but the family will be there in full force on Friday, Kelly Philpot said. She is sure that the game and the excitement surrounding the pink jerseys will be an encouragement for Riley, who just had surgery on August 31 to remove a malignant mass on her lung.

Through a rollercoaster ride that started in 2006 when doctors confirmed a five-pound Wilms tumor on Riley’s right lung, the Philpot family has endured two surgeries, two different chemotherapy regimens and one course of radiation. Riley returned to school about two weeks ago after the latest surgery, and through it all she has played soccer whenever her platelet levels were high enough for her to get a green light.

“Some people think we’re crazy keeping her involved in it, but for her it’s given her something to do that’s normal,” Kelly Philpot said. “It’s helped keep her normal through all this.”

The Philpots founded Riley’s Army after Riley relapsed the first time and the family experienced an outpouring of love and help from friends. Riley has two younger sisters and a younger brother, and the family needed plenty of support to help maintain routine for their younger children and allow them to be with Riley whenever they needed to.

Through that ordeal, the Philpots realized that every family who contends with childhood cancer needed an army like the one they had, so they started an organization devoted to that goal. The group’s website organizes and promotes events like Friday’s soccer game and an upcoming picnic for any family with a current or former pediatric oncology patient.

“We’re thankful that so many others are getting the support that we had,” said Kelly Philpot. “Until it hits home and you experience it, you can’t even explain what it’s like.”

For those who want to come watch the Pirates and support Riley’s Army, the game and the silent auction start at 4 p.m. The bidding for the pink jerseys will close with five minutes remaining in the second half, and the winners will be awarded their jerseys after the game.

Riley hopes to get a pink jersey of her own on Friday, and she will certainly be ready to stand in if the Lady Pirates need a spare player. She went back out and played soccer just two and a half weeks after her last surgery, and between the Pirates and her own team she will spend the fall saturated in her favorite sport.

And the soccer team hopes that when they share Riley’s story with their home crowd, they will strike a blow in the battle against childhood cancer and remind Riley of how special she is to them.

E-mail Bethany Bradsher

Bethany Bradsher Archives

09/23/2009 02:49 AM

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