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The beautiful game: Soccer helps get teenage survivor through cancer

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

SUWANEE -- Jordyn Farrell knows a little bit about soccer.

"I always get flustered when people say it's boring," the 17-year-old says, beginning to get, well, flustered. "They call it the beautiful game for a reason. It's just so intricate, and it has so many dynamics. And yet it's so simple that you can play it anywhere."

Jordyn is no "football" phenom. The North Gwinnett senior is not a varsity player or a future college athlete. Odds are she won't ever take the pitch during a World Cup match.

Jordyn is merely -- "merely" -- a two-time cancer-surviving rec player. Over the last 20 months or so, through chemotherapy, surgeries, infections and rehab, Jordyn has only missed one of her team's games, and just one of their practices.

Cheering from the sidelines, she became "basically the mascot."

"It helped me get a lot closer to my soccer team, as if we weren't close enough before," she says.

Next week, Jordyn and her father will be off to Barcelona, Spain.

Thanks to a fund specifically set up to fulfill the dreams of young soccer-loving cancer survivors, Jordyn will be seeing her favorite team (FC Barcelona) and her favorite player (Lionel Messi) along with 100,000 footy fanatic Spaniards.

"Reading her application, the one thing she stressed was that there are other kids out there that probably deserve these trips more than me, but if I could go, this is why," said Craig Willinger, the founder and namesake of the foundation sending Jordyn on her trans-Atlantic trip.

"We were like, that's it. She's going. She's an angel."

'Just to feel normal'

Last February, doctors found a 41/2-pound tumor in Jordyn's stomach. It was dysgerminoma, a type of ovarian cancer. Her surgeon told her it was the largest tumor he had ever removed.

It was, naturally, roughly the size and shape of a soccer ball.

"They removed the tumor and they gave me a couple of options on what to do after that," Jordyn says at her home in Suwanee, sporting her favorite Messi jersey. "I could not have chemo, and see what happens, or have chemo just to be sure. I didn't want to have to go through chemo if I didn't have to."

Always her personal barometer for progress, Jordyn was back on the soccer field 38 days after surgery. A few months later though, she would have to go through the treatment she had hoped to avoid.

In August of last year, a CT scan showed half a dozen smaller tumors resurfacing. Chemo it was -- every single day for a week, then two weeks off, then for a week again, four different times.

Aided by frequent torrential downpours that always seemed to come when she was in the hospital being treated, she rarely missed a practice or game.

"I think for the girls, there was some additional energy that you get from it, them understanding how important everything was to her at that particular time," Greg Hayes, her coach with Atlanta Fire United, says.

"It was like, if Jordyn's going to be at practice, we're going to do everything we can to spend some time with her."

For Jordyn, a center midfielder by trade, all that time on the sideline was torture. But at the same time, it was the only time she didn't have to wear a mask to protect her from sickness. It was really the only time she got to go outside. She got to be with her "18 sisters."

For the last two years, each member of her team wore jerseys with her name on the back.

"I didn't feel well at all. I always felt nauseous or really sick," Jordyn says. "But I always wanted to go, just to feel normal for a couple hours."

The team that visited her in the hospital, sent her gifts, rolled her in her wheelchair, helped carry her to the sidelines, was only hers by happenstance. Had she not developed shin splints and made the step down from select soccer, Jordyn would not have found what turned into her biggest support group.

"Her soccer team were really the first people to see her without any hair," Jordyn's father, Nick, says. "They saw the worst of it."

Adds Jordyn: "Everything worked out at the right time to have that team."

'No matter what'

Flash forward to this past September. Fresh from soccer practice and approaching a year since her final chemo treatment, Nick Farrell called Jordyn upstairs, where he had a webcam waiting.

On the other end was Craig Willinger, a cancer survivor himself, with good news.

His foundation had received her application. She would be going to Barcelona to see her favorite soccer team, live.

"When Jordyn gets excited, she starts kind of bouncing," her mother, Cherri, says with a laugh. "And so she's sitting there holding onto the chair so she won't bounce because it's this little camera."

Next Friday, Jordyn and her father will fly to Spain, part of a five-day trip that includes a marquee Nov. 14 matchup between Barcelona and visiting Villarreal, hosted in one of the largest soccer stadiums in the world.

It will be a fitting tribute to the game that has gotten a high school senior -- a fighter who attended her first soccer game at 2 days old -- through the toughest 20 months of her life.

"Soccer has always, always been there," Jordyn says. "No matter what."

Maybe that, after all, is why they call it the beautiful game.