TAMPA, Fla. — Seven-year-old Ryan Bowling is constantly in motion.
“He’s a firecracker,” Jason Silbert said. “That’s what I always call him.”
Watching him dancing and playing with his sister, you would have no idea what he’s going through.
“Ryan was diagnosed in February,” his mom, Lauren Bowling, said. “42 weeks of chemo were ahead of us.”
At six-years-old, Ryan developed a rare soft muscle tissue cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma.
Silbert is Ryan’s P.E. teacher at Mary Bryant Elementary School, he’s also an assistant coach for the Gaither High School football team.
“I happened to look down on my calendar and counting the days and knew, we were getting into the kickoff of our off-season workouts,” Silbert said. “I went it’s 42 weeks from the state title game. It kind of matches up.”
Silbert took Ryan’s story to his team during off-season workouts.
“Coach Silbert stops the workout and says you guys are looking lazy, you’re capable of doing this stuff,” Gaither quarterback Kiael Kelly said. “We’re not working as hard as we can when there is a kid Ryan that is fighting for his life. He would love to be in our shoes. That really clicked for everybody.”
“We’re always looking for a way to motivate these guys,” Silbert said. “You know, 42 weeks from the state title, he’s got 42 weeks of chemo.”
The Cowboys decided that every rep, every practice, every game they would “Do It For Ryan.” Senior cornerback/wide receiver Jordan Oladokun took it a step further.
“I asked Coach Silbert when I went to his house to give out presents for his birthday, what’s his favorite number?” Oladokun said. “It was number 12. We had 12 open. I decided I wanted to wear 12 for him.”
“The more they won, the more invested we became because they continued to reach out and support us while they were having an exciting season,” Lauren said.
42 weeks had passed and 57 sessions of chemotherapy. Ryan finally rang the bell that his chemo was over. Ryan was winning and so was Gaither.
The Cowboy were 11-0 heading into the FHSAA Class 6A State Quarterfinals. Three wins away from a state championship.
But, they ran into a Lake Minneola team that jumped out fast and held off Gaither, 35-14.
“It is disappointing,” Gaither offensive tackle Andrew Kilfoyl said. “We dedicated our season to Ryan. We wanted to win it for him. We came up short and let him down.”
“I feel a bit bad for them,” Ryan said. “They just lost in the last game to win their trophy.”
“Just because we lost, it doesn’t mean our relationship with him stops or the hope we have for him to keep fighting,” Silbert said. “That doesn’t end because we lost a football game.”
On the day of the Class 6A state championship, the day these players had worked toward all season, there was no football. But there was something bigger.
The four team captains and three coaches made a special delivery. With Ryan and his sister playing the driveway, a caravan of cars rolled up.
“They bring me Christmas presents,” Ryan said. “They are very special.”
They first handed Ryan’s sister a few gifts. Then Ryan got his presents to open — video games, a football signed by the Cowboys, and a personal gift from Jordan, his number 12 jersey.
“I like the jersey Jordan gave me the best,” Ryan said.
“It’s really special. You can’t describe the feeling,” Jordan said. “Giving him your jersey that you wore for him and him loving it. That’s the best feeling in the world.”
The next best feeling would have been a state championship. but Ryan has some advice for his friends.
“I would like to say cheer up, and don’t be sad.”