There's a decided chill in the air for this Tuesday night football game.
The reserve game between Omaha Central and host Bellevue West is a far cry from the Friday night lights of the varsity. There's no band and about 75 bundled-up fans. Only 23 players have suited up for the visiting Eagles.
But one of them is Olajuwon “OJ” Wilson. The fact he would even be playing football seemed nearly impossible five years ago.
OJ was just starting the sixth grade when he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood cells. The disease had made the 11-year-old so weak he could barely walk into the hospital.
“When OJ was admitted, he was in significant respiratory distress,'' said Dr. Ed Truemper, a specialist in pediatric critical care at Children's Hospital & Medical Center. “This form of cancer is prone to attacking organs, and his lungs were filling up with fluid.”
OJ lapsed into a coma and remained in intensive care for six weeks while undergoing vigorous treatment for the leukemia.
During that time, Truemper spoke with OJ's grandmother, Gloria Jackson, who told him it was OJ's wish to someday play football.
The doctor took those words and ran with them.
Truemper said that if OJ would fight right along with the medical team, he would fulfill his dream. The doctor promised that he would be in the grandstand when it happened.
Despite further medical complications, OJ has persevered.
Now 16 and a high school junior, his cancer is in remission, and he is playing football.
“It felt good to make the team,'' OJ said. “It made me proud that I had accomplished my dream.''
That dream never could have been fulfilled without the help of many, and OJ knows that. Family, friends, a deep faith in God and the medical staff at Children's — Truemper estimates that more than 100 participated in OJ's treatment — all played vital roles in his recovery.
Perhaps most important was the constant presence of his grandmother.
Jackson, who has raised OJ since he was 9 months old, was there for every chemotherapy treatment, every rehabilitation session.
“Without her, I would have been really scared,'' OJ said. “She quit her job to be with me in the hospital, and she was there 24-7.''
OJ, named after former NBA standout Hakeem Olajuwon, vividly remembers how sick he felt five years ago.
“I just didn't have any energy,'' he said. “I didn't know what was wrong.''
Jackson said her grandson hadn't felt particularly well for a few months, but doctors had difficulty making a diagnosis.
“They thought it was mono,'' she said. “On his first day of sixth grade at Walnut Hill (Elementary School), he was really weak and hurting.''
A blood test pinpointed the leukemia, and OJ was admitted to the intensive care unit at Children's. His condition quickly grew worse because of an infection in his lungs.
“It was scary,'' Jackson said. “I was saying a lot of prayers.''
Truemper assisted in OJ's immediate treatment, which included moving him from a ventilator to an oscillator, which uses pressure to keep the lungs permanently open.
Jackson said the additional attention given to her grandson by Truemper, who is now affectionately known by the family as Dr. T, meant everything.
“He was going down the hall when another doctor asked him to come in,'' Jackson said. “I thank God that he was there to help.''
Despite being told that any one of OJ's breaths could be his last, Jackson said she had faith that her grandson would pull through.
“I just knew God wasn't going to take him,'' she said. “It just wasn't his time.''
While OJ remained in a coma, his grandmother spoke to him often. She would also recite Scripture and have gospel music playing.
Truemper told Jackson to mention football, in the hope of giving OJ a goal to attain.
“Here he's talking about OJ playing football, and I'm just hoping that he'll survive,'' Jackson said. “It seemed like that was something so far away.''
After coming out of his coma, OJ suffered two strokes. As a result, he had to relearn how to speak and walk.
During his two-year chemotherapy protocol for the leukemia and his rehab from the strokes, OJ said, he drew strength by reciting the 23rd Psalm.
“It works,'' he said. “God will hear you when you talk to Him.''
Seven months after he was admitted to the hospital, OJ Wilson was able to go home.
“It was a real team effort among the staff at the hospital to get to that day,'' Truemper said. “So many people worked to get OJ better.''
The doctor also credits Jackson for her steadfast support of her grandson.
“She's a force of nature,'' the doctor said. “I've got the highest regard for her.''
Jackson remembers the emotional times, such as the day OJ sat up for the first time in his hospital bed. Several hospital staffers were present, and the ones who couldn't fit in the room poked their heads inside the doorway.
And the time during rehab when her grandson, still in a wheelchair, was able to make a surprise visit to their church, New Light Baptist.
“He was getting hugs from everyone,'' she said. “I'm sure a lot of them didn't know if they'd ever see him again.''
After leaving the hospital, OJ expressed a desire to compete in sports. Though he wore a leg brace because of nerve damage on the left side of his body, a residual effect of the strokes, he tried out for wrestling at Lewis and Clark Middle School.
“He'd take the brace off and go out to the mat,'' Jackson said. “The first pin he got, the place just erupted.''
Jackson added that OJ, who was growing into a strapping young man, next tried out for the swimming team. That didn't go so well.
“He sunk right to the bottom,'' she said with a laugh. “That was it for swimming.''
OJ entered Central in 2010. Jackson said she was concerned that her grandson, who still wore the brace and had some lingering speech difficulties because of the strokes, might be targeted by bullies.
That hasn't happened.
“I was so worried about that because of everything he'd been through,'' she said. “But Central has been a great fit for him.''
By this past summer, OJ was cleared by doctors — and perhaps more significantly his grandmother — to play football.
“I thought that if somebody would hit him out there, I'd go out and kill them,'' Jackson said. “But I knew that was his dream, so I had to let him try.''
Before the first game, Jackson said, there was someone she needed to contact: Dr. T.
“He gave us hope during those tough times,'' she said. “He was a very important person in OJ's life.''
It had been quite a while since Truemper had spoken with Jackson. But when he heard that a woman trying to reach a “Dr. T,” he knew who it was.
“My first thought was that, ‘Oh, my gosh, he's done it,''' the doctor said. “All OJ wanted to do was to play football, like a regular kid.''
Truemper did indeed go watch OJ play, just as he'd promised.
On that chilly night at Bellevue West, the Eagles worked hard in the fourth quarter to preserve a 12-6 lead. OJ — now 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds — was playing right tackle, the same position Truemper played in high school.
Central held on for the win, and OJ headed for the bus with his teammates. The cloth leg brace that he wears during games slowed him down a little, but the smile on his face proved he was enjoying that victorious stroll.
“The fact he is playing football is a wonder of God,'' Jackson said. “I really believe OJ is still here for a reason.''
As for the future, OJ isn't certain whether he'll play again as a senior. He wants to concentrate on his academics — he's getting mostly Bs — with the hope of attending college.
“That young man has been through a lot,'' Truemper said. “He's a one-in-a-million story because he just never, ever gave up.''
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