Players unite to help 10-year-old cancer victim
SAN RAMON, Calif. -- When the final horn sounded at the spring game between defending national champ Stanford and Cal on Saturday, a 1-0 win for the Cardinal, even Cal women's soccer coach Neil McGuire acknowledged the score was "irrelevant."
The players gathered on the field and waited. Brianne "Breezy" Bochenek made her way on to the steamy turf in her wheelchair, pushed by her father Stan, with her mom Debbie two steps behind. The teams played as a fundraiser for Bochenek, 10, who was diagnosed with cancer late last year.
When she arrived at the spot where she would be the centerpiece of a photo opportunity with both teams, she abandoned her chair, standing on her right leg, using the players for balance. The Bears and the Cardinal showed up to this Bay Area suburb on a hot Saturday afternoon to support Bochenek, and they ended up doing it in almost every conceivable way and raised more than $8,000 in the process.
When all the photos were taken, Bochenek went back to her chair, festooned with Mylar balloons and decorated with blue and gold crepe paper on one side, red and white on the other.
The players began signing autographs for some of the 3,500 people who stuck around after the match, but the biggest crowd surrounded the fourth-grader who brought them all here.
Six months ago, Bochenek was a soccer-loving, hard-charging athlete. Perhaps not too long from now she will be again.
"I am just looking forward to getting back to doing things that I love," Bochenek said Saturday as she sat under an awning and watched Cal and Stanford play the game in her honor.
Last October, Bochenek, the youngest of five children, began experiencing pain in her left knee. A competitive soccer player, she and her parents figured it was a sports injury. But the pain persisted and intensified, and after getting an MRI, her mother Debbie got a phone call from the orthopedist.
"We see something," the doctor told Debbie Bochenek.
The next day Debbie went back to the office with her husband, Stan, and Breezy to receive a devastating diagnosis. Breezy had osteosarcoma, a malignant bone tumor in her left thigh, just above the knee.
She immediately began chemotherapy treatment.
Anticipating hair loss from her treatments, she first cut her long brown hair and donated it to Locks of Love, and then when she began to lose her hair in earnest, she shaved her head. Family and friends, including her father, grandfather and brothers, shaved their heads too.
Faced with the decision of whether to amputate her left leg above the knee or face impaired use of the leg, Breezy and her family got a visit from triathlete Sarah Reinertsen, the first female leg amputee to finish the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii.
After that meeting, Breezy knew what she wanted to do. She was willing to lose her leg if it meant getting back her ability to run and play and compete with a prosthetic.
On the day she went to the hospital for her amputation, she wrote on her leg, "Goodbye, my friend. I'll miss you."
Her sister, Brittney, made a short documentary detailing her sister's journey.
Cal soccer player Grace Leer, who grew up in nearby Danville, Calif., heard about Breezy's story and told McGuire, who reached out to his local soccer contacts and called Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe, and the idea for a charity game was born.
Carolyn Bried, a close friend and neighbor of the Bocheneks, wondered why it couldn't be more than that.
"I thought it could be a community event," said Bried, who had been coordinating fundraising efforts on behalf of the family since word began to spread about Breezy's illness.
"People wanted to help, and at first I wasn't sure if we needed help," said Breezy's father, Stan. "As a family, we had gotten over the idea that Breezy had cancer in about a week. We were moving forward. But so many people want to help."
Bried gathered a group of close friends, a veritable village of people that had been supporting the Bocheneks for months, and put together Saturday's event. It included a pregame parade, festival, food from local restaurants, raffles and multiple opportunities to make donations, from bracelets to T-shirts and more. "Team Breezy" included students from the local middle school, who volunteered much of the day, as well as family and friends. All told, about 150 people ran Saturday's event.
"I don't cry about the cancer, but this makes me cry," said Debbie, looking at the full bleachers. "We have been feeling everybody's love for months, but today we are seeing it and it's miraculous."
Bried joked she prayed for weeks that there would be no rain. Instead, there was uncharacteristic heat.
"I think I prayed too hard," she said, laughing.
But the heat didn't stop a large crowd of youth soccer players from the Bay Area, families and even the mayor of San Ramon from attending.
Stan said he was uncomfortable with so much attention directed at his family. He and Debbie heard stories of other children with the same diagnosis as Breezy through contacts at the hospital and invited them to be part of the benefit.
"They want to pay it forward," Bried said.
Ashton Carter, 9, and David Jacobsohn, 9, also have been diagnosed with osteosarcoma. They sat in their own wheelchairs under the awning with Breezy, watching the game. In front of them, draped over a rail, was an autographed Cal soccer jersey that read "Thank You for Being Our Inspiration."
Breezy's chemotherapy treatments will continue into July, when she will be fitted with a prosthetic leg. She is spending three out of every five weeks in the hospital at this point, coming home on the weekends. She wants to be back out on the soccer field.
Saturday's event couldn't have been easy. The 90-degree temperature was oppressive, and Breezy, sporting a bandana on her head and the logo of each team on her cheeks, was the star of the show, leading a parade of youth soccer players, talking to well-wishers and media and handing out water bottles to members of the Stanford and Cal teams during pregame introductions.
"She'll sleep tonight," said her grandmother, Vicki Smith.
McGuire said he hopes this event is the first in an annual series.
"This was all it was supposed to be," McGuire said.
Leer said it was a "great day" for the players.
"I felt like there was a whole lot of heart and passion out here today," Leer said. "We all walked around before the game, talked to people, got our [press-on] tattoos. It was all really cool, incredible to be a part of it."
Stanford senior Mariah Nogueira said the team distributed an email about Breezy's story before the game and talked about it on the bus ride.
"I just hope she had fun today," Nogueira said. "She's such an inspiration to us."
As their granddaughter signed autographs and took photos with supporters, Vicki Smith and her husband Dennis stood off to the side, watching and smiling.
"She got a jersey in the mail from [U.S. team star] Megan Rapinoe; Brandi Chastain came to visit her; Mia Hamm wrote her a letter, and now this," Dennis said. "The women have been spectacular."
"These young women are what Breezy wants to be like," Vicki Smith said. "She has to live up to it. She will."