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Child cancer survivor gets dream trip to Leicester City


Tim Hackett doesn't necessarily believe in cosmic forces.

He's not sure that there's anything more than coincidence that put his 13-year-old son, Travis, who has battled and beaten leukemia, on the same trajectory as the Leicester City Football Club when it pulled off one of the all-time greatest sporting achievements in 2016

He does know what it has meant to his son.

Everything.

Because Travis is not just a fan living 5,000 miles away from Leicester City now. He is part of the team's lore.

In a surreal setting on April 4, Travis Hackett, an eighth-grader from San Diego, donned the home blue uniform of the Foxes, took his place with the other boy mascots at the front of the line, and marched his heroes on the Leicester City team out of a tunnel and onto the field in front of a packed house of 32,000 fans at King Power Stadium.

Leicester goalie and captain Kasper Schmeichel gently tapped his big gloved hand on Travis' shoulder as they walked, and as the players warmed up, Schmeichel passed the ball around among the boys before they all went to the center circle to meet with the referees.

After that, the Foxes did their part by delivering a 2-0 victory over Sunderland for a sixth straight win.

A week later, Travis sat in the living room of his Carmel Valley home, and the personable, chatty kid was rendered almost speechless by the experience.

"Oh my gosh," he said. "It's hard to explain. Powerful, I guess, would be the word. The vibe there, and all those people cheering make you feel powerful."

The extraordinary opportunity was provided by the Baltimore-based Craig Willinger Fund, which organizes trips for young soccer fans who are suffering from life-threatening diseases. Travis happened to be the 13th recipient — meaningful for those who run the fund because Willinger wore No. 13 as an avid soccer player.

After a five-year battle with leukemia, Willinger died in 2012, but not before a group of Liverpool supporters in Baltimore raised money for him to travel to see his favorite team, Bayern Munich, play in Germany. It was on the flight home from that trip that Willinger said he hoped to orchestrate excursions like his for others.

So began the Willinger Fund, whose efforts now are headed by Willinger's longtime partner, Johanna Agueda, and her sister, Emily.

The sisters, along with other board members, set up a Skype call with Travis in late March, and as he sat on his bed, they told him that he'd be traveling in a week, at their expense, to see his Leicester City team play.

"I'm going to that game? Seriously?" Travis said as he blinked away tears in a video that found its way to YouTube.

Travis, said Johanna Agueda, is exactly the type of person coveted by the Willinger Fund. The San Diego Surf player has loved soccer since starting to play at 6, follows international professional soccer religiously, and would appreciate more than most a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hang out with his beloved team.

"When you meet Travis, he embodies everything that Craig believed in," said Agueda, who accompanied Travis and his dad on the trip. "When it came to soccer, and how he equated Leicester's rise and his own success battling cancer — that is exactly what our message is.

"Even if you're a survivor of cancer, it's difficult because your life gets steered off course. Your life becomes completely consumed by your diagnosis. Our fund gives them an opportunity to do something inspiring, hopeful and fun.

"Our experience with these trips is that they really do heal, and we feel like we're a part of that."

That Travis' cancer journey so well aligns with the rise, fall and rise again of Leicester City FC has endeared him to those in the English city of 340,000 in the East Midlands, about 90 miles northwest of London.

"We were not bandwaggoners," Travis says emphatically.

Late in the summer of 2014, with the English Premier League season just starting, Travis and Tim Hacket turned on the TV one Saturday morning to see a newly promoted team they knew nothing of, Leicester, come back from a 3-1 deficit with less than 30 minutes remaining and beat mighty Manchester United 5-3.

What is a fluke or a sign of something bigger?

"It was a spectacular game, and we instantly fell in love," Tim Hackett said. "We didn't have a Premier League team to follow, and now we did. We thought, 'These guys are awesome. Let's see how they do.' "

Following the Man U triumph, Leicester went into the tank. In an excruciating stretch, it went 13 games without a victory, including 11 losses, and the commentators' talk turned to likely relegation at season's end.

A month into that slide, Travis, already feeling overly tired and bruising easily, went to the school nurse at the urging of a friend, who noticed the swollen nodes on his neck.

Travis eventually landed at Rady Children's Hospital, where doctors delivered the devastating news to his parents, Tim and Jennifer. Their son had T-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia.

"A lot of tears," Tim Hackett said.

"The first thing is you can't believe it. That's for somebody else. And then, you know, Jennifer and I just had the attitude, 'Put your head down and do what we need to do.' You put yourself in the hands of the caregivers."

The family would learn that, though difficult years of treatment awaited, the odds were very high that Travis would make a full recovery.

First told of the diagnosis and his excellent chance for survival, Travis, 11 at the time, said, "I got this. I'm going to beat it."

Travis' chemotherapy treatment began immediately. He lost his hair, and his body ballooned due to the steroids he had to take. Playing soccer was out, but Surf teammates supported him by making and selling "Stay Strong Travis" wristbands. Kids at school wore orange one day to raise money for a GoFundMe page.

Four months later, Travis' oncologist at Rady, Dr. Paula Aristizabal, delivered good news: His body was free of cancer.

"He's clear," Tim Hackett said of the memory, his voice cracking. "I don't think I even realized the significance of that right away. It had to sink in. He doesn't have cancer anymore. We got rid of it, and now we're just keeping it away. The heavy lifting is done."

Since then, Travis has undergone a drug trial, and he is in maintenance mode, which includes daily chemotherapy pills and a procedure every three months that infuses more drugs through a spinal tap. His treatments are scheduled to run through February 2018.

The initial good news came in the midst of another bad spell for Leicester — an eight-game winless streak.

And then something turned for the Foxes. On April 4 — exactly two years before Travis' visit — they beat West Ham United 2-1 at home and went on to win seven of their last nine to avert relegation.

The feat has been dubbed "The Great Escape." Some who are superstitious in England tie Leicester City's resurgence to the burial of Richard III's bones — and the subsequent freeing of his spirit — in Leicester that March after his remains were discovered there under a parking lot.

"That's their story," Tim Hackett said with a grin. "Our story is that it's when Travis was free of cancer.

"That's the movie version."

Of course, Leicester City's wild ride was only beginning. In 2016, the Foxes overcame what are considered to be the longest odds in a major sports league _ 5,000 to 1 _ to win a top-league title for the first time in their 132 years of existence.

Leicester clinched the title on a Monday in May last season, and Travis saw the score on his phone while still in class.

"I had to suffer through a whole period of science," Travis said, rolling his eyes. "When I got out, I ran home like nobody's business. My dad was outside. I was yelling, 'They clinched it! They clinched it!' "

With stories like that and Travis' ability to speak intelligently about the nuances of Leicester's team, Foxes fans took an instant liking to the American kid. He conducted several radio interviews, and many of the major papers wrote about him.

Of the effort Leicester City put out to make the visit special, Johanna Agueda said: "What was endearing about the whole thing was that it wasn't just the whole team; it was the entire town. They all fell in love with him."

Since the trip, Aguenda has been receiving Travis' fan mail at the Willinger Fund. She was touched by one letter from an older couple whose grandson died of cancer. They were traveling to San Diego and hoped to meet Travis.

They likely would be comforted by own youthful wisdom.

Of his cancer experience, Travis said: "I'm taking away how kind people can be. All these organizations, they want to help you, do something for you. It kept my spirit up. It helped me immensely."

And then he said something that made him sound like a true Leicester City supporter.

"I will always have faith," he said. "Don't ever doubt that you're going to survive. I have that faith now that if something's sort of luck of the draw that I could win. The odds were against me before, and I won."


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