PHOENIX – The pain arrived in a blink.
It started as a dull throbbing in Wilson Floyd’s left knee. She didn’t think much of it initially, chalking it up to some leftover soreness from a soccer game with her club, SC del Sol, a few days earlier.
But as she went about her school day in late September at Northwest Christian, the pain – and its intensity – magnified.
“At our school there’s some stairs. I couldn’t walk up the stairs because it just was like, so painful,” Wilson said.
Although the pain escalated throughout the day, preventing the 15-year-old freshman from participating in her P.E. class, she waited until after school to let her family know about her discomfort.
Her mom, Trish, decided Wilson’s swollen knee needed immediate attention, so she drove her to Phoenix Children’s Urgent Care, where health professionals believed a blood clot or some sort of infection caused Wilson’s leg to swell up. A doctor recommended warmly compressing her leg and waiting 24 hours to see how it responded.
“(The doctor) said (we) could go to the hospital, but she said it wasn’t a necessity,” Trish said. “But with COVID, you know, and all these weird symptoms, I just wasn’t going to take any chances.”
To ensure Wilson received a swift and proper diagnosis, Trish checked Wilson into the hospital unit at Phoenix Children’s. An array of exams and tests were ordered – X-rays, MRI, CT and PET – to pinpoint the problem.
The preliminary results the doctor came back with blindsided everyone in the room.
It was cancer.
Specifically, Ewing sarcoma, a type of cancer where tumors commonly develop in bone or soft tissue like knees or femurs. It typically presents itself with localized pain and swelling.
A tumor had been festering in Wilson’s leg, but until she felt that first sting of pain on that Tuesday afternoon last September, it grew unnoticed. A bone marrow biopsy was performed the next day for confirmation. They received the official diagnosis six days later. Fortunately, the cancer was isolated to Wilson’s left femur and hadn’t spread.
Just days earlier she was sprinting, cutting and competing in a soccer game. Now, everything about her and her family’s life changed.
“I definitely cried a lot,” Wilson said. “What was going through my head was … I was scared, for like, what would happen? I didn’t know what would happen, like in the future, I guess?”
Due to COVID-19 protocols, only Trish was allowed to be in the hospital with Wilson. The hospital made an exception, however, and allowed her father, Bill, to join them.
“I just kind of went into a daze,” Trish said. “I was just kind of in a fog. Just not really accepting it or wanting to know because you don’t expect your child to have cancer. You don’t know what to expect with any cancer diagnosis. And when you’re talking about your child, you just don’t know what’s gonna happen.”
Bill calls himself the more analytical of the two, and that’s how he approached the news of the diagnosis.
“It’s nothing that any parent would ever want to hear,” Bill said. “And any child … anybody would really want to hear. So I just tried to absorb what was being said at the moment.”
Bill and Trish were then faced with the task of telling Wilson’s twin sisters, Belle and Beasley, and her older sister, Rachel, the news.
The twins were at a family friend’s house while everything was unfolding at Phoenix Children’s. Bill left the hospital to pick them up, ultimately deciding to share the news there in the car.
“I was just confused, like, what are we going to do?,” Beasley said. “I had never known anyone who had gone through that. Or, you hear stories of it, but you never think that could happen to me? Or to my family?”
Rachel, a freshman at Chapman University in California, received a text from her father in the middle of a class informing her to call him when it was over. Her anxiety and impatience got the best of her, so instead of waiting, she opened the Find My app on her phone to see that her family was at Phoenix Children’s.
Eventually she hopped on the phone with Bill.
“He was telling me everything and it was just a lot of information, so I was trying to keep it together for him,” Rachel said. “As soon as I ended the call, I just started bawling.”
In a matter of hours, Wilson’s routine shifted from school, soccer and friends to constant hospital visits, rounds of chemotherapy and isolation.
Last summer, Northwest Christian girls soccer coach Jeff Penzone was sitting in a pew at his church when two ideas surfaced in his mind: love and self sacrifice. During subsequent church visits, the themes became stronger and more pronounced, leading him to the concept of “Love Does.”
The Bible verse that served as the focal point for the theme was Jeremiah 29:11. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
Around the same time that Penzone approached soccer captain Whitney Wilson and other players about utilizing “Love Does” as the theme for the upcoming season, he learned about Wilson’s diagnosis.
“It just kind of matched up,” Penzone said. “God has a peculiar way of doing that. It was just neat, how it just kind of all blended for our year, that verse really kind of connected with pretty much everything we were trying to do.”
Once Penzone heard the news, he and his players sprung into action, devising a way to keep Wilson involved with the team.
Wilson, a left defensive back with spry athleticism and great anticipation, would’ve received playing time on the varsity squad this season had she not been sick, Penzone said. Belle and Beasley are junior midfielders on the soccer team, and this past season would have marked the first time that Wilson played on the same team as them.
“I think that not having her on the field was a little rough, just thinking about passing the ball back to a defender and thinking that could have been Wilson,” Belle said.
Within a week of finding out, seniors Natalie Oosterhouse, Carly Garberding and Mia Gauharou approached Penzone with the idea to start a bracelet fundraiser, yellow to represent Ewing sarcoma, with the words “Willie’s Fight – Jeremiah 29:11” printed in black across them.
It was a success. They sold all 500 of the bracelets. The entirety of the proceeds went to the Floyds.
The team also set up additional fundraisers, selling T-shirts that read “WilsonStrong” and shoelaces. The team wore the shirts in pregame warmups during the season.
“The cool thing about it was they took ownership of that straight away because it was their teammate,” Penzone said. “Instead of me having to guide and construct and direct, they took ownership of that and I thought that was a big thing for them and their realization of what the family needed.”
Wilson was surprised by the lengths the team went to support her.
“It meant a lot to me just to know that, like, people care, and that they pretty much dedicated their whole season for me,” she said.
A storybook season
While Wilson continued her fight against cancer through winter and into early spring, the Crusaders catapulted out to a historic start in her honor.
Northwest Christian exited the regular season 12-0, atop the 3A power rankings. Through its undefeated regular season, it notched 117 goals, a 9.75 goal average per game, while yielding just four goals.
The dominance didn’t stop in the state playoffs either. The Crusaders won their first three playoff games, 8-1, 4-1 and 5-1.
Prior to Northwest Christian’s playoff game against Pusch Ridge, each player from Pusch Ridge presented hand-written notes to Belle and Beasley for Wilson.
“That was just a neat, neat service for not only the family, but for our team as well,” Penzone said.
The Crusaders’ success set the stage for a showdown against Scottsdale Christian in the state championship game.
Through all of these dominating performances and exhilarating moments for Belle and Beasley, Wilson was unable to attend any of the games in the season due to a combination of her weakened immune system and the COVID-19 pandemic.
But when it came to the championship game? She wouldn’t let anything keep her away from the team.
Wilson showed up to the game at Coronado High School, cheering on her team from the sideline.
“Seeing her (at the game) there’s like more motivation,” Belle said. “Looking over at the bench to see her was something that I definitely needed in that game to keep going, keep running, keep making the plays.”
And almost as if it came out of a Hollywood script, Northwest Christian dismantled the undefeated Eagles, 3-0, to capture its second state title, a perfect season and a win for the toughest, most resilient member of the team.
“As soon as we won I just looked over (at Wilson) and I wanted to run over there and give her a big hug because we couldn’t have done it without her,” Beasley said.
At the trophy ceremony, the Crusaders reaffirmed that this one was Wilson’s. So, it was only fitting that Joe Paddock, the AIA’s assistant executive director, presented the trophy to her as she grinned from ear-to-ear.
“Even when they won the state championship, even at the end, they still said they’re doing it for me,” Wilson said. “It felt really nice.”
The fight ahead
The first thing one should know about Wilson is that she loves to give hugs.
Teachers, friends, family, it doesn’t matter.
“She loves to do it,” Beasley laughed.
Although her condition has limited the plethora of hugs she can dish out, the foundation that supports her upbeat personality has helped her gleam positivity through adversity.
Her Christian faith is the most important thing in her life, she said. She has set her sights on becoming a missionary after she’s finished school.
“My favorite verse is Philippians 4:13,” Wilson said. “That verse just helps me get through every hard time because it’s just showing that God is always by your side, even through like toughest battles.”
In January, Wilson underwent surgery to remove the tumor in her left leg. Since then she visits an orthopedic surgeon every six weeks to make sure the leg heals properly. Recently, however, the surgeon wasn’t satisfied that her leg still had a scab.
So, on an in-patient chemotherapy visit to the hospital, a team of doctors examined her leg and noticed it wasn’t healing under the skin. They found that her wound was higher up than initially thought. After a culture was taken from her leg, she was diagnosed with a coagulase-negative staph infection.
“She’s now on IV antibiotics every eight hours and she has a (wound vacuum) attached to her leg to kind of help in the healing process because she has two open wounds now,” Trish said.
Home health care assistants visit Wilson at home to help manage the wound vac and replenish IVs as necessary.
Wilson has also undergone more than 10 rounds of chemotherapy with three rounds remaining.
Her road to full recovery currently requires beating the current infection, complete healing of the wound, finishing chemotherapy, then physical therapy.
Obstacles along the way exist, however. Chemotherapy limits how quickly the body can heal itself, so the wound will take some time to heal. Also, Wilson is unable to put any weight on her leg. Due to muscle deterioration, she will need to retrain herself to walk.
A few years ago, whenever the Floyds prayed before a meal or as they ended the night, Wilson added a saying to close out each prayer. Something they’re sure to include now each time they bow their heads.
“Thank you for another amazing day of life.”