Riley's spirit, fight exceptional in cancer battle

In my 13 years with the Daily Post, I can't begin to count how many high school athletes I've written about. Each school year alone, that number is in the thousands.

That sheer volume makes it tough for our staff to spend quality time interviewing more than a select few. But each year our paper features some of Gwinnett's best and brightest, outgoing kids who inspire hope for the future.

Amanda Riley was one of those kids -- a teenager who Brookwood girls basketball coach Scott Terry called "one of the best people I've ever met."

I was fortunate to spend more than an hour with Riley -- who passed away last Friday after a long battle with cancer -- one afternoon earlier this year. For that, I'm lucky. Sure, the time together was brief, but it's easy to see why the Brookwood junior touched so many lives.

A three-sport athlete, she was loved deeply by her friends in basketball, cross country and track. She also was a peer leader, sharing the warm personality and beaming smile with anyone she encountered.

I could sense those traits during our conversation in early February. She openly recapped her painful, tiring battle with cancer up to that point, then shared the joy she felt with the recent news that she was cancer-free.

What hurts is that I never got to tell the story I wanted to tell, the one about her beating cancer. The unrelenting disease reappeared weeks later, forcing more medical treatments for a girl that already had endured 14 rounds of chemotherapy, 30 days of radiation and more than 20 blood transfusions when we spoke. Hopes were that the cancer would be finished off, but within the past few weeks it was discovered on her brain and at the top of her spinal cord.

Cancer eventually took her life way too soon, robbing her family and friends of more time with such a special kid. She had big plans, some that she shared with me a few months ago.

She wanted to go to Georgia, but she was worried about that dream because her grades had slipped slightly, not surprising since she had missed close to 80 days of school and was forced to squeeze in school work between cancer treatments. She wanted to be an elementary school teacher, one who also volunteered her free time to tutor sick children like her who were home- or hospital-bound.

She enjoyed basketball, but truly loved running. She couldn't wait to rejoin her close friends on her three high school teams. She was ready to work on the treadmill and build back the strength, showing the drive and toughness that helped her finish the state cross country race with a severely swollen ankle as a freshman.

Riley also learned plenty during her struggles and was eager to share her newfound perspective with others. And she couldn't even describe how blessed she felt by the outpouring of support she received from her school and church communities.

"Just the little things you don't realize, like (when people say) 'I hope you're feeling good today' or 'How are you feeling today?', that made my day (to hear that)," Riley told me. "So I try to be a nicer person and I think it's made me a better person."

Not just better. One of the best.

Will Hammock can be reached via e-mail at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays.