Wynnie Wahlfeldt ponders this for a second. One word? After two years of torment and tears? Two years of watching the strongest kid she knew wither away? Two years of prayers and anger and false hope?
Two years of the fates shaking your world like a snow globe? Two years of watching her son fight for his life, get knocked to the canvas by a disease she can barely pronounce, then get back up again, gloves at the ready?
One word? One word to describe Bill Snyder, the Kansas State football coach? The Great Rebuilder, the Ageless Wonder?
“There’s a talk that I had with the Denver children’s hospital when I was in Kansas,” Wynnie recalls slowly, in a tone that sparkles in amazement. “And Coach Snyder was researching this type of cancer all this time I was talking with the Denver children’s hospital.
“He’s just a very caring individual, and cares about children. It’s nice to have someone in Collin’s corner. With Coach Snyder there, that’s perfect.”
You ask again. Bill Snyder, in one word.
“Amazing,” she says.
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The cell phone buzzes on Christmas Eve morning. Snyder is on the other end of the line. The “Bear” Bryant National Coach of the Year finalist, knee-deep in Oregon Ducks and Fiesta Bowl prep, is calling to talk for a few minutes about Collin Rowley.
“It’s such a traumatic thing,” Snyder says, “and so sad.”
So very personal, too, on several levels. Two years earlier, Collin, then a freshman at Manhattan High School, was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a malignant brain tumor. A spinal tap in earlier this fall showed that the cancer cells have returned – a recurrent medulloblastoma, with no known cure. It’s awful stuff, made more awful by the fact that Rowley is also one of his granddaughter Sydney’s best friends. They’d crossed paths in seventh grade, lived less than five minutes apart, went to dances together, grew thick as thieves.
Coach Snyder had met the young man a handful of times over the years; when the diagnosis broke her heart, it broke her grandfather’s heart, too. When Sydney made fundraising for Collin’s hospital bills one of her top priorities, it became one of his priorities, too.
“I was just taken aback by her passion for trying to help others,” Snyder says. “In this day and age, that’s not necessarily a common thing that young people think about.”
At the time the tumor had been discovered, Collin was living with his mother, who’d recently split from her husband, in Manhattan. Collin eventually moved to Salt Lake City to undertake more chemotherapy; Wahlfeldt quit her job at Fort Riley to be at his side.
For Snyder, who was raised by a single mom, the story of Wynnie and Collin struck a chord.
“I have a great appreciation for her, having come from a single-parent (household) myself, and what she was willing to do,” the coach says. “She went on medical leave. And I think that ran out, and she moved up there to be with him during that period of time and, after a while, had no income. Just altogether a sad, sad tale.
“So you can just imagine what she has to be going through. And obviously, what he’s going through at such a young age is a tragic thing.”
One minute, Collin’s stealing second base, a hurricane of dirt with a puckish grin.
The next, he’s throwing up bile.
“To have this happen to him – it didn’t seem right,” Wynnie says. “I was in denial. Somebody throwing up bile, what could that be? It couldn’t be a brain tumor. That was the last thing on my mind.”
One minute, there’s this gregarious kid, nuts about the Denver Broncos and Colorado Rockies, cracking wise.
The next, he’s complaining of painful headaches, trying so dang hard not to let you see him cry.
When Collin was 15, he knew something was wrong – very, very wrong. But he didn’t tell anyone. He wanted to keep playing baseball. He loved the game too much. If I say something, he reminded himself, they’re going to make me stop.
When you can run the way Rowley could run – baseball and track came easy – you never want to stop. You’re 15. At 15, you never want to stop. You never think you will.
Medulloblastoma group 4, the doctors called it. The cruelest of a cruel disease, the kind that most often pops up in children between the ages of 3 and 9. The family drove all night to have surgery in Denver, to try and stem the tide as quickly as possible.
The first procedure took eight hours. Sydney waited up through all of it.
“They gave us some options,” Wynnie says of the specialists. “None of them were good.”
So they fought. For six months straight, it was nine hours of chemo a week. Fridays meant an injection to try and increase Collin’s count of white blood cells.
“It’s basically just like running a long ways,” Collin explains. “Once you’re done, you just have no energy and don’t want to do anything.”
“When the shot took effect,” Wynnie recalls, “all he could do was to go to school, come home, and lie on the couch and watch TV … I believe if you or I were to take his regimen of chemotherapy, we might be bed-ridden.”
Before Collin went in for treatment he weighed 145 pounds. A few months after chemo started, he’d dropped as low as 103.
“The first time, it wasn’t that bad,” Rowley says. “But after about two weeks, I just couldn’t eat anything – the only thing I would eat was (to) eat string cheese and drink water.”
He’s been on a break from chemo as of late, so his appetite – and energy – are surging back. His weight is up to 126. He even feels like hitting the gym again.
“Right now, my hair’s started growing back and I have the energy to lift weights again, so I’m gaining muscle back,” Collin says. “And I’m happy about that.”
Wynnie’s happy, too, until she looks at the bank statements. The last time she checked, the bills from Denver totaled close to a half-million dollars. During the holiday season, she’s tried not to peek at the more recent ones from Collin’s treatments in Salt Lake City.
“It’s just overwhelming,” Wynnie says. “I don’t want to check.”
But a mother never quits; a mother keeps pushing, searching. Wynnie read out about clinical trials in Tennessee for medulloblastoma group 4 the other day, ones currently being conducted on mice. It’s probably a Hail Mary, but better to chance the throw, at this point, than punt. If that’s what it takes, that’s where they’re headed next.
“There could be a treatment for group 4 medulloblastoma in India or somewhere overseas, and we’d have to travel there to get it,” she says. “Because at this point, right now, the hospitals don’t know what to do.”
Sydney Snyder knew. Along with her friends at Manhattan’s First Presbyterian Church, she set up a web site – www.giveforward.com/collinscause – to rally dollars and love: Collin’s Cause, a hub of hope.
Strangers pledged. Friends posted words of encouragement.
“Collin, I remember you making me laugh a lot in choir at Anthony Middle School and I am so sorry about your struggle right now. Keep that awesome smile and positive attitude shining through it all 🙂 I’ll keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers.”
“Merry Christmas to you. We wish you joy in the holiday season. Nothing will ever come between the love that is between family and friends. Stay strong and positive and healing will come to you. All our best!”
The goal is to raise $50,000 by January 31. As of Christmas Day, they’d reached $26,375. A fund-raiser at First Presbyterian on November 4 brought in roughly $3,000.
“It’s kind of what I’ve said about K-State people all along,” Coach Snyder says. “It’s people that genuinely care about people.”
But here’s the really amazing part. During one of his weekly news conferences, in the middle of one of the greatest seasons of a storied career, Bill Snyder made a point to stop everything. Stopped everything and spent two minutes talking about Collin and Wynnie, the son and the mom, the pair that wouldn’t quit.
He gave the address for the web site. He asked local media to help spread the word.
Meanwhile, some 1,000 miles away, Collin Rowley’s cell phone started going – well, haywire.
“I had no idea,” he says. “Someone texted me and said, ‘You know you’re on the radio? They’re talking about you on the radio.’ I didn’t even know. I was just speechless.”
No one who knows Collin Rowley doubts Collin Rowley; Bill Snyder, who’s never backed a loser, least of all.
Within 24 hours, Collin’s Cause had raised another $10,000.
“I’ve never had any other contact with him,” Collin says, “but I know he’s a nice guy by the way Sydney describes him.”