Ten-year-old Rex Fleming nervously bites his fingernails as he sits among 80 grown men, fully padded and towering over him.
The men stand to their feet, have one final moment in the home team locker room of Shotwell Stadium and turn to the 4’5″ boy to lead them onto the field of play.
Flanked on each side by the Wildcat team, Rex steps foot onto the turf. He turns to the press box to send one final smile to his dad, sports information director Lance Fleming, before setting out to midfield to represent the team in the pre-game coin toss.
But Rex is facing a challenge far greater than any of the offensive linemen and defensive backs the Wildcats have encountered over this year’s bruising season. Rex is two years into a battle against brain cancer that has included two cranial surgeries, countless chemotherapy treatments and rounds of radiation.
Through it all, said his parents, he has showed the lively spirit of an average pre-teen kid and the bravery of someone far older.
“We’ve just tried to keep on living, try to stay as normal as possible,” said his mother, Jill Fleming. “He goes out and plays every night with his friends in the street. He goes to school. We’ve just wanted to keep things normal.”
His journey began when he was just 8 years old, when his parents discovered the source of his severe headaches and vomiting. It was a golf ball-sized tumor in the center of Rex’s brain.
For weeks, the family attributed the symptoms to a sinus infection or the flu, treating the cancer as an everyday illness. But an MRI in November of 2010 began a season of Rex’s young life that would not soon end.
“Life keeps going,” Lance said. “You either get in a boat and go with it or you stand on the side and watch as it passes and we’ve tried not to let that happen. He’s lived a lot of life in two years.”
But during that time Jill said the family has refused to remain in crisis mode.
“He gets up, gets ready for school, takes his medicine, goes to school, goes to his grandparents, plays with his friends in the yard. He rarely does his homework,” she said.
Rex’s first brain surgery, shortly after his diagnosis, showed that while 85 percent of the tumor was benign, the remainder was malignant, and doctors gave him a four-to-five-year survival rate.
“He knows that his tumor is back, he knows that it’s serious,” said Lance. “But he also knows that he’s taking medicine for it and we hope that works. He knows that he could lose his life because of this.”
Lance and Jill have wrestled to keep Rex’s childhood as normal as possible. They maintain responsibilities and activities for Rex – baseball, helping with his younger brother Ryan and attending a few Texas Rangers baseball games along the way.
“In times like this you discover that you can’t let yourself curl up in a corner and just watch your son try to do this by himself. That’s something that we talked about early on, two years ago. We can’t let him do this by himself. He can’t.” Lance said.
Rex’s most recent MRI did not provide the hope the family had anticipated. The tumor he has fought for two years has shown a frustrating persistence.
But in addition to relying on routine and their son’s doctors, Lance and Jill also leaned fully into their faith. Members of their home church at Pioneer Drive have been a source of encouragement amidst the tidal wave of emotion. And they know other churches around Abilene and elsewhere in the nation continue to pray for Rex daily.
Jill says that even with the help and encouragement offered by those surrounding their family, the reality of Rex’s condition is a battle that exists in all areas of her life.
“Knowing that my son could die, I could lose him, he could die before I do,” said Jill. “Parent’s aren’t supposed to outlive their child.”