For Bear River student-athlete Austin Dowling the first half of his senior year was filled with in-the-classroom and on-the-field tests. The second half presents a much more difficult challenge.
The 17-year-old football and track-and-field standout was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in mid-February and has been battling for his life ever since.
“I was shocked,” Dowling said. “I didn’t really know what to think. I’ve been healthy and fit, and I just thought ‘How could I have something like this?’ It’s crazy.”
Since his diagnosis, Dowling has spent more days in the hospital than at his own home.
“It’s going to be a time-consuming process for the next six years,” said Damon Dowling, Austin’s father. “And, once he beats this, it will still be a long process, week to week, month to month, year to year, until they feel like there is not a chance that this is coming back.”
Austin has already completed the first of three phases of chemotherapy treatment and is currently enduring his second.
“The hardest part is probably waking up and having the feeling like ‘I want to go hang out with friends, or just go for a drive,’” Austin said. “It’s hard to deal with not being able to do anything or even leave the front door without having to put a mask on.”
The recent diagnosis has stolen his final track season and forced him to complete his final stretch of school work from the hospital and his home. Austin ran the 100- and 200-meter dashes, was on the 4-x-400 relay team, as well as the school record-setting 4-x-100 relay team.
As a member of the Bear River football team, Dowling was the third-leading Bruin back in rushing yards (294), fourth in receiving yards (157) and his three interceptions tied for second most for the Bruins
Today, he dreams of the way life used to be — just a few short months ago.
“It’s hard, because I do dream about being at school,” he said. “I dream about hanging with friends, and stuff like that.”
Since the diagnosis, his life has changed greatly, but he is no stranger to adverse medical conditions and long odds, a familiarity that his mother, Michelle, says is nerve-wracking but bodes well for him.
“When he was in sixth grade he was diagnosed with Kawasaki disease, which is a rare blood disorder, and he went through a 24-hour period in the ICU,” she said.
“It’s just amazing to take this kid, that doctors told not to do sports because of this Kawasaki disease and what it can do to you. Plus, he had an Osgood-Schlatter thing, and a specialist told him he would never play sports again in his life because of the pain he would have in his knee. And the kid just pushes through everything and anything that is put up against him.”
While the Dowling family has the utmost confidence Austin will beat leukemia, they have been humbled by the outpouring of support from the South County community.
“The community, in general, has been amazing.” Damon Dowling said. “I never really realized that there are so many people out there that were so caring and generous. You just don’t see it on a regular basis and just the outpouring of generosity and concern is just amazing to me.”
Since the news of Austin’s diagnosis, a well of support has sprung. His football teammates visited him in the hospital and are selling orange bracelets to help offset medical bills.
A 5K “Tackle Leukemia” fundraising run will take place Saturday and more than 30 friends and supporters have shaved their heads in a show of solidarity.
Bear River’s co-head football coaches Scott Savoie and Terry Logue organized the head-shaving show of support.
“He’s one of those kids you love to have,” Logue said of Austin. “He has a good attitude, really loves football, pretty much did everything you asked him to do, (a) two-year varsity guy for us. You just hate to see this happen to any teenage kid, let alone someone you know and coach and really like.”
Zach Winter, a football teammate and close friend of Austin’s since fourth grade, was one of many to walk into the make-shift barber shop on the Bear River campus with a head full of hair and walk out with a clean-shaven scalp.
“When we found out, it was just awful,” Winter said. “I thought it was a joke at first. I got a text that said ‘I got cancer’ and my heart just dropped. As a teenager, you think you are indestructible, but when something like this happens it really opens your eyes to see that anything can happen on any given day.”
Winter along with Cameron Barrios and Chris Beardsley said they make it to the hospital as often as they can.
But it’s not only Austin’s teammates from the 2012 season who have come out to support him.
Dillon Huffman, who played with Austin in 2011 at Bear River and now plays at Humboldt State University, brought Austin a helmet signed by the entire Lumberjack team.
Close friend DeVaughn Lofton has also been a source of strength and support as well, Austin said.
And now, as Austin now traverses his way through chemotherapy — and in time a bone marrow transplant — he said there are a several things that are allowing him to remain strong. Austin said the support of his family, community and school gives him strength.
“I’m a pretty quiet person, but all the attention feels good,” Austin said. “It makes me feel like everybody cares.”
Austin’s love for sports and desire to compete again one day also fuel his fire to overcome leukemia, he said.
“I don’t think I would be able to make it without sports,” he said. “Just growing up with it, whether it’s just going outside and playing basketball or riding dirt bikes or whatever, I’ve always been involved in sports. I wouldn’t be able to make it without sports. I just love sports.”
Until he was diagnosed, Austin had hoped to play football in college after graduation. But now the goal is to get healthy enough to walk at graduation. After that, the goal is to beat the cancer completely and get back to the way things used to be.
“Right now, for me, I’m just trying to get through it,” Austin said, “to come back home healthy and be able to go back to my normal life.”
And while this is the most difficult challenge he has ever faced, he knows he’s not alone.
“I just want to thank everybody for the love and support they have given me,” he said. “It’s really made me stronger as a person and it makes me feel good.”
To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.