Ethan Ferguson just wanted to play one soccer game for his school this spring.
The eighth-grader got his wish Thursday, as he was in the starting lineup for South Effingham Middle School’s season opener against rival Effingham County.
It was the only game Ethan, 14, will be able to play before he undergoes surgery Friday for a recurrence of his brain cancer.
“It gave me something to look forward to before going in (for surgery),” he said after the game. “It felt good.”
Ethan’s biggest fans — his parents Jon and Teresa Ferguson — were at the game cheering him on. So were many other people, as family members, friends, classmates and fellow soccer players filled the stands on a chilly night.
The stadium fence was lined with posters with encouraging messages such as “you can do it” and “look up, get up and never give up.” The SEMS soccer booster club presented Ethan with gifts after the game — a shirt, hat, blanket and pillowcase, embroidered with his name.
“It’s really big and important to me that I know that I have this much support and people that care about me,” Ethan said. “I just can’t say ‘thanks’ enough.”
Ethan’s parents were amazed by the amount of people who turned out. What began simply as dedicating the game to Ethan grew into a large show of support and a fundraiser to help with the family’s medical expenses.
“Overwhelming is the word of the day,” Jon said.
“Words cannot describe the feeling,” Teresa said. “I’m holding back the tears.”
Savannah United, the soccer club in which Ethan plays and Jon coaches, canceled all of its team’s practices Thursday so anyone who wanted could attend Ethan’s game. Some of the players barely know Ethan, but came out to support him.
“I don’t really know him that well, but he was a good player when I played with him and he was really nice too,” said Savannah United player Zach Brannen, 12.
“We weren’t going to miss it,” said Zach’s mother Michelle Brannen. “We’re here for Ethan.”
Friends sold “Team Ethan” T-shirts, and South Effingham Middle held a dress-down fundraiser on the day of the game. For a $2 donation, students could wear jeans and a yellow shirt, the color symbolic of the fight against childhood cancers.
“A lot of people dressed in yellow, and knowing that they were dressed in yellow for me, that was cool,” Ethan said.
To show his appreciation, Ethan stuck thank-you notes on the posters displayed around campus promoting the dress-down day.
“He found a post-it pad and took a pen and wrote, ‘Thank you, Ethan,’ on every single poster that was pinned up his school,” his mom said. “I am so glad he is such a grateful kid. He couldn’t tell everybody ‘thank you,’ but he put it on the posters in his way to say ‘thank you.’”
A son of parents who both played soccer, Ethan took up the sport at age 3 and has loved it ever since.
In fact, Jon and Teresa credit soccer with being a vital part of Ethan’s recuperation following his first bout with cancer. Playing soccer helped Ethan build his strength and endurance back up after a tumor was removed from his brain in 2012.
“This right here is what keeps him going,” Teresa said as she watched Thursday’s game from the sidelines. “Soccer is his motivation.”
Ethan was in sixth grade when he was diagnosed with cancer the first time. The surgery and chemotherapy took an incredible toll on his young body.
“Out of a month, three weeks was throwing up, one week was healthy,” Teresa said. “And that week he was getting new chemo.”
Ethan weighed about 90 pounds when he began treatment. His weight dropped to 51 pounds, as a 12-year-old.
“My 3-year-old and 5-year-old are about 40 pounds now, so, yeah, he was bone and skin,” Teresa said. “There was nothing to him.”
Since then, Ethan has had an MRI every three months to check if the cancer has returned. A scan about three weeks ago showed he had a brain tumor.
“It was absolutely devastating to get the news,” Jon said. “But at the same time, he’s one of the strongest-willed kids that I’ve ever met. There’s nothing that seems to faze him.”
Ethan’s initial reaction to the tumor being found, according to his father, was disappointment that he won’t be able to play soccer for a long time. Ethan has tried to keep life as normal as possible, including playing his one game on Thursday.
“He’s a teenager, who wants to do teenager things,” his mother said.
“He is easy to draw inspiration from,” said Paul Richards, Ethan’s soccer coach and one of his teachers at SEMS. “I just like how everything is very steady with him, even when the bad news came.”
Ethan is taking that business-as-usual approach toward his next surgery. The family will head to Children’s at Egleston hospital in Atlanta for Ethan’s pre-op Thursday followed by his craniotomy on Friday.
“I look at it as anything else,” Ethan said. “I just want to get it out and move forward.
“Life goes on.”