Hayden Smallwood was inspired by football at a young age, watching his brother win a state championship at Gainesville. And when Smallwood was diagnosed with bone cancer in March, he refused to fall victim to the disease.
He applied the lessons and attitude he learned from football to fight off the cancer, and in many ways it was football that helped save his life.
On Jan. 29, as Hayden, a 15-year-old Denton sophomore, was heading out of the locker room for offseason practice, he broke his right arm in a freak accident. It was while undergoing treatment, he said, that doctors discovered he had osteosarcoma. The rare, aggressive bone cancer has the potential to spread to the rest of the body.
“I was coming out in a rush because we were a little late and the door was propped open by a dumbbell,” Hayden said. “I went to push it open, my arm went back and it cracked my arm.”
Hayden, his father, Bryan, his mother, Heather, and his sister, Hailey, didn’t know it at the time, but the broken arm would be the beginning of a long, grueling struggle.
“When we went to the orthopedist, it hurt really bad and it was getting worse,” Hayden said. “Day after day it was getting worse. We went in, got the first X-ray — you could see the break. It was clear as day. The bone was white and pretty.”
Two weeks later, Hayden and his family went back for a checkup, and he and his parents found out he had cancer.
“It was still hurting and it didn’t get any better,” the teen said. “It was still really swollen. My arm was really big and puffy. We went and got another X-ray and it was all foggy. The whole thing was messed up and it looked like the camera had a smudge on it. That’s when we got the MRI and went to the oncologist in Fort Worth, and we found out March 14 that I definitely had cancer.”
Hayden went in for surgery to have the tumor removed.
“There was a period until the surgery that we didn’t know if they were going to be able to save his arm or not,” Bryan Smallwood said. “We had to wait and see until he got in there, and that was hard not knowing. That waiting thing is hard on everybody. It’s been bad, but we’ve had a lot of good turns in this. We had somebody watching out for us.”
During surgery, doctors removed a portion of the bone in his arm and replaced it with a titanium rod and connector. Since Hayden’s cancer was found early, doctors said, the threat of it spreading was limited.
“It’s solid titanium and screwed in,” Hayden said. “It’s pretty crazy how they did it. They put a metal ball as the joint. It’s mind-blowing how they can put that together and put that in your body.”
Hayden began chemotherapy as a precautionary measure, and Hayden said that’s when he struggled the most.
“I think a lot of people think it’s not as rough,” he said. “Obviously when you hear cancer, that’s terrible. But it’s more than that. You go and get chemo, but once you get home and you feel better, then it’s kind of depressing because you can’t go anywhere. That’s been the hardest part, because you do get really susceptible to being sick. That’s why I have had to stay home. It knocks your A and C [blood] counts down, and that’s what fights off your infections.”
Having to travel to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth for treatments while fighting off infections and sickness put a strain on his family and tested his resiliency.
When he went home, Hayden began the mental grind, and his dad came up with a phrase that helps him prepare for the hurdles ahead.
“You get home and you feel kind of helpless because you can’t do anything about it,” Hayden said. “You just have to go through it. Me and my dad have a saying that ‘every damn day to push through it and fight.’ When I wake up in the morning, I think, ‘What am I going to do to get through it? What chemo are they going to give me today? What am I going to have to put forward to get through the next day?’
“It’s been an experience,” he said. “It’s made me a lot stronger as a person mentally and physically.”
Hayden has drawn on several sources for inspiration and encouragement. But to him, it started at home with his family.
“My dad is disabled, so he stays at home and he’s been a really big part,” Hayden said. “He was there every day when I was sick and when I felt good. He’s just been a really big part in all of this, and I love him for it. I don’t know where I would be or how I would have a perspective on life without him helping me get through it.”
Hayden and his dad found things to keep his body and mind engaged.
“Me and my dad started to walk because I did put a little bit of weight on,” Hayden said with a smile. “We’d go fishing a lot, because even though I was out there and outside, I wasn’t around people, so I couldn’t have gotten germs. I had to wash my hands a lot. When you’re used to waking up at 7:30 [a.m.] and being athletic to going to sleeping almost all day and not doing anything, it really takes a toll on your body and your mind.”
Although he will not be able to play football again, Hayden said his time with the sport and its teachings gave him hope and strength he is still leaning on.
Before Hayden’s freshman year at Denton, his passion for football began on the fields of Calhoun Middle School.
“In middle school, I would work out a lot,” he said. “At first I played safety, and coach [Troy] Thompson played a really big part in my passion for football and pushing myself. We would do suicides and run up and down the field all day, and he really pushed me to keep on going when there’s nothing left. [Without] what he taught me, I wouldn’t be where I am today. He really influenced my life and played a big part.”
Thompson and several Calhoun and Denton coaches visited Hayden in the hospital, and Thompson said he could tell the teen was a fighter.
“He was always a feisty, tough-nosed kid,” Thompson said. “He always had a smile on his face and always gave 100 percent all the time. He never shied from contact. He didn’t like to lose. He’s got a burning desire to win. He’s competitive. We went in and visited him and he was in high spirits. You wouldn’t really know that anything was wrong with him.”
Hayden was honored at a recent home game against Azle as the team’s weekly “Wednesday’s Hero” and honorary captain.
“The big reason I do Wednesday’s Heroes is because I want our kids to know that we need to support others and their accomplishments and the adversity that they go through,” Denton head coach Kevin Atkinson said. “A lot of times we can have a pity party about ourselves. But it doesn’t matter where you are in life, there’s somebody that has it better than you, but there’s somebody that has it worse than you, too. You need to be thankful for what you’ve got and work hard.”
Atkinson was excited about Hayden’s future with the football program as a physically aggressive defender. When Atkinson found out the teen had cancer and visited him in the hospital, his parental and football instincts kicked in.
“I found out that he had cancer, and then I kind of went into motivation mode with it,” Atkinson said. “I went down to the hospital and told him flat out that ‘God chose you because he knows you’re strong enough and we’re going to fight this thing together.’”
Hayden said he felt very thankful for God’s presence in his life and that each little victory during his bout with cancer was a blessing.
“God has been a big part of it, too, because everyone that has prayed for me, it has been helping,” Hayden said. “It sounds like a bad situation, but it can go south quick and it can get worse.”
In a way, Hayden said, he was glad he had cancer because he developed an optimistic outlook along several of the steps on his journey back to health.
“That was another blessing in disguise from God,” he said. “I’m just thankful because after I broke my arm, it grew rapidly. It was kind of a freak accident, because if my cancer cells weren’t active, it wouldn’t have broken.”
Hayden mentioned other kids on his floor at Cook Children’s and how their scars became infected.
His procedure required 30 staples, and his healed without any complications.
“I was very thankful that my scar healed so well,” Hayden said. “You have to look at every little thing that you have to be blessed for. I could have been in the [intensive care unit] for a month or two trying to have my scar fixed, so that would have pushed it back even further getting back to school.”
Conscious that every little victory leads to a bigger one, Hayden has his game plan in the works for getting back to high school, where he is in the junior ROTC program, and back to athletics.
“I’m out of doing anything physical, but I will definitely be back on the track,” Hayden said. “My last chemo is a week after Christmas, so my plan is to train for my sophomore year and that whole summer. Then, at the end of my junior year, I want to get into track. That’s my main goal right now — to train for that and get ready to compete.”
As for his plans after high school, his time around others struggling at Cook Children’s has opened his eyes to another passion — motivating others to keep fighting.
“I’ve put a lot of thought into my future and going to physical therapy and learning about all the tendons and the muscles that they did surgery on. I’ve really thought about going to Texas Tech and [becoming] a physical therapist,” Hayden said. “I wanted to make a little bit of difference or help other kids get through what I’ve kind of gone through and the recovery process.”
More than anything, though, Hayden simply wants to get back to his normal life — and be around his friends and out of the hospital — even if that means enduring a few more mental challenges along the way.
“I miss my friends and going to class,” he said. “I would totally pick going into class with the most boring teacher ever than sitting in a hospital with a whole bunch of hot nurses.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.