Eight players kick soccer balls back and forth between them, each of their feet creating a solid thud against the black and white pattern. It’s 30 minutes into the UT Tyler women’s soccer team practice, and despite the sun overhead, the grass is still wet, as dewy as the sweat on their foreheads.
“You said ‘growth’ was your word,” Coach Stefani Webb calls from the other side of the field as she sees a player hesitate on a kick, “So quit being afraid to fail.”
The practice is high-intensity; the players don’t get a break as they switch between their drills. Webb paces behind them, encouraging them to do better. She watches them carefully, but every so often, her eyes shoot to the parking lot to the left.
She waits for Emma.
A small girl appears, walking across the field. She is easily visible, wearing a multi-colored flowered hat pulled low over her eyes, and a sweatshirt, the word PINK emblazoned across it in cheetah print.
“My girl!” Webb yells, her voice whipped away by the wind as she runs toward her, scooping her up in a hug that leaves the girl’s feet dangling as they spin.
This girl, smiling from underneath her hat, is Emma Routh. Emma is 14 years old. She has three pigs and is leaving town the next day to go to a livestock show. She loves anything that is sparkly, blue or has llamas and narwhals. Her favorite food is steak. She knows five boys who like her at school, but she doesn't like any of them back. In fact the boys, she says, are scared of her. This is Emma, and she has a rare genetic disease: Fanconi anemia.
When Emma was younger, her doctor noticed that she wasn’t growing normally for her age. After a chromosomal breakage test, Emma was diagnosed with Fanconi anemia - a disease that causes bone-marrow failure, organ defects and can lead to leukemia and other forms of cancer. Her body has difficulties making both red and white blood cells, making her skin extremely pale, and despite being a teenager, she is as small as a 7-year-old.
The average lifespan for those with Fanconi anemia is 20 to 30 years.
Seven years ago, Team Impact, an organization dedicated to placing children who have chronic and terminal illnesses with college sport teams, contacted Webb. It had a girl who was ill and loved sports, and UT Tyler was the perfect fit for her, if Webb was interested.
Webb instantly agreed.
Emma was officially signed to the team, complete with a press conference and her own jersey. Since then, Emma has been an official UT Tyler Patriot athlete.
“Look what I found!” Coach Webb calls to the team, walking back with Emma.
Each of the women stop kicking the soccer balls, with as much ferocity as they were attacking their drills before, run toward Emma, calling hello. They swarm around her, kneeling to give hugs, each of them talking over the others.
Emma stands in the middle of “her team,” smiling, trying to answer all of their questions.
“I wanna see this hair color she just got dyed,” one of the players says.
Emma pulls off her hat, revealing a wispy blonde ponytail, highlighted with reds and browns. From the top of her ears up, she is bald. The players immediately reach to the hair, exclaiming how beautiful it is.
When Emma was first put with the team, she was completely bald. She was unable to grow hair - not even eyebrows. She underwent growth hormone treatment and was finally able to grow some hair. She has plenty of patterned hats to cover the top of her head.
Practice stalls for 20 minutes as the players catch up with their smaller teammate. For player Taylor Dickens, having Emma at practice is “heartwarming … right away, the energy goes way up.”
Emma’s birthday was a week ago, so the team brings out a handmade card, each signature declaring much love and happy birthday wishes. The team gives her a Target gift card, which Emma promptly says she’ll use in San Antonio at her livestock show.
Emma shows the team pictures of her new dog, a chiweenie named Lola, and talks about the eight classes she’s taking and the pigs she’s going to show. The players hang on every word, asking questions and laughing.
They wanted her to attend a basketball game that night to award her for her seven A’s and one B at halftime, but she has a Valentine’s Day dance at school. She isn’t going to wear a dress - she wants to be comfortable. So she is wearing a shirt with flowers on it, to match her hat.
Emma typically comes to see the team 10 times a year. According to her grandmother, Emma would be at every practice and game if she weren’t interrupted by school or doctor’s appointments in Boston and Dallas.
“We try to be a part of her life as much as we can,” Webb says. The computer screen saver in her office is a picture of a younger Emma kicking a soccer ball. “You take her as you’re gonna do something great in her life, but I promise you she’s changed our life tenfold more than we’ve changed hers.”
Team alumni still comment on Emma’s Instagram and Facebook page, Prayers for Emma. One year, the team hosted a birthday party where an alumnus returned to professionally do Emma’s makeup, and brought her a dress. Emma said it was the most beautiful she’d ever felt.
“[It was] an eye-opening experience,” Dickens says. For her, having Emma only makes playing soccer more fun than it already is.
When player Kiersten Ehler met Emma, she immediately thought that she was “a big ball of joy.”
Player Justice Robinson says, “Just being around her made me feel good. I have little sisters, and I just want them to be able to have that same spirit whenever things are going wrong.”
But Emma draws encouragement from the team as well. Last year, Emma crashed while waiting for a test result on her liver. She was rushed to the hospital, but nearly bled out. Emma was diagnosed with stage 1 cirrhosis and had to spend time in the hospital. The team took a day trip to Dallas to see her.
“It made her day,” Lisa Routh, Emma’s grandmother, says. “Because [the team cared] actually cared enough … to come see her.”
Finally, Coach Webb gets practiced started again, but she is focused more on Emma and their conversation than the team. At one point, she tells a player to hold on, because Emma is first priority. The girls understand. Lisa has said that Emma considers Webb her “secret best friend.” It's obvious though that Emma loves everyone on the team.
“They’re awesome,” Emma says. “They’re my family.”
Assistant Coach Caitlin Petrich played on the team when Emma was signed. Now, Petrich marks a point on a blue clipboard, keeping tally whenever a player earns a “culture point.” It’s awarded whenever a player embodies one of the team’s core values - courage, confidence, bravery, respect, love and unconditional acceptance. At the end of the year, the player with the most culture points receives the “Emma Routh Award.”
“She’s who we are,” Webb says. “I think she’s who this University is.”
Practice ends. The players huddle around Emma and Webb, waiting to be dismissed. The coach asks Emma if there’s anything she wants to say.
Emma looks at her team and says, “Just make sure they win their game.”