How an Entire Community Rallied Around Cancer-Stricken High School Footballer

The outpouring of community support has been overwhelming, DeMichele said.

December 29, 2014, 3:10 PM

— -- Dominic DeMichele was having a successful high school football season until he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in September.

The 19-year-old defensive back from Freeport, Illinois, missed the last half of the season because of chemotherapy treatments but said an amazing outpouring of community support helped keep him strong.

“Obviously, getting sick sidetracked many of my plans but also gave me a renewed sense of gratitude,” the Aquin High School senior said.

His teammates and the rest of 120 students at his small Catholic school began holding events to help his family pay for his treatment almost from the moment they learned of his diagnosis, he said. They held fundraisers, sold T-shirts and put on bake sales. At the school’s homecoming, his teammates raised over $8,000 by taking bids from people to shave their heads.

PHOTO: DeMichele plays defense in a recent game.
DeMichele plays defense in a recent game.
Courtesy Jason DeMichele

After he told quarterback Austin Chang about his illness, his best friend ducked into the boy’s bathroom at the school to wipe away his tears. But then Chang took to Twitter to start the hashtag #Domstrong.

The hashtag went viral within hours, Chang said, with thousands of people from all over the world tweeting in words of prayer and encouragement.

What has surprised him the most, DeMichele said, is the support from rival football teams. During the halftime of an especially hard-fought game, the neighboring team from Polo -- one of Aquin’s fiercest opponents -- presented him with a gift basket and the proceeds from the 50/50 raffle. Other teams wore #Domstrong stickers on their helmets.

"Football can be a pretty mean sport and you have to go in with the idea that we don’t like these guys,” DeMichele said. “But you have to be thankful for the other teams and what they’ve done.”

PHOTO: A photo of DeMichele catching a ball was made into a poster for a fund raiser.
A photo of DeMichele catching a ball was made into a poster for a fund raiser.
Courtesy Jason DeMichele

DeMichele’s father, Jason DeMichele, said the various events raised more than $20,000. The funds will be used to help pay for his son’s follow up care.

And some good news: DeMichele is now in remission. If he can remain cancer-free for at least five years, he will be considered cured.

He’s not cleared to play football again but he is able to play on the school’s basketball team. The experience of being sick has changed his outlook, he said.

“Before all this I was coasting through life,” he said. “Now I couldn’t be more thankful for every prayer, every T-shirt sold, every dollar raised to help me.”

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