At 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Kalen Ricketson turned the corner inside a hallway at Children’s Mercy Park, and then he heard the announcement. “Please welcome to the field, your home team, Sporting Kansas City!”
This is when it all felt real, he said. Amidst a line of Sporting KC players marching onto the field for pregame warmups, there was 18-year-old Ricketson, just trying to keep it together.
“I caught myself up on the video board, and I kind of panicked,” he said. “I didn’t know what to think. Just, wow, this was really cool.”
For three years, such moments of pure bliss have been difficult — if not altogether impossible — to find. Ricketson has a form of bone cancer that just won’t seem to go away, tumors popping up on his arm every few months until doctors finally amputated it from the elbow. The cancer recently spread to his lungs.
The chemotherapy treatments are aggressive, requiring week-long stints in a hospital bed. His reprieve? Soccer.
So a couple of months ago, when his mom asked what might boost his spirits — a wish, of sorts — he didn’t hesitate. He wanted to be a Sporting Kansas City player for a day. To meet the team. To drive from his home in Stillwater, Okla., and tour the facilities.
That wish was granted Saturday.
The experience Sunday was a surprise.
Ricketson was told he would be attending Sporting KC’s match against Real Salt Lake. He just didn’t know he would be such a big part of it.
An hour before the game, he was escorted to the home locker room, where his black and silver jersey was hanging in a cubbyhole next to captain Matt Besler’s. He listened to coach Peter Vermes’ pregame speech. His name was introduced as part of the starting lineup. And he had perhaps the best seat in the house for the match.
A spot on the Sporting KC bench.
“It was amazing,” Ricketson said. “Just being able to interact with the players — they’ve made me feel like I’m not just here for the weekend but that I’m actually part of the team.”
Ricketts attended a match last season, as a Victory Project honoree. He sat in the Victory Suite. The Cauldron chanted his name. “They definitely had us hooked after that game,” his mom, Crystal said.
This was different. As Sporting KC players warmed up for a match that could propel them into first place, Ricketson was in the middle of the circle, passing the ball back and forth. His parents, Crystal and Chad, as well as two siblings and his girlfriend, were in the stands. They were in on the surprise, his father calling it “the experience of a lifetime.”
“Hopefully he got a lot out of it, because I know that we did,” Besler said. “Puts things into perspective. He showed up and he had a smile on his face the entire time.”
That’s been a theme throughout his battle, his parents say. In fact, after he was initially diagnosed with osteosarcoma in 2015, news that blindsided the family, he ensured his parents he wasn’t worried. As they walked into an hospital elevator to return to the parking lot shortly after the diagnosis, Crystal asked if he was mentally OK.
“Mom, God’s got this,” he replied.
Ricketson has endured 13 surgeries in all, each of them deemed a success, only to learn the cancer has returned. Earlier this year, a scan revealed it has spread to his lungs, another shocking turn. That required two separate operations, the most recent on his left lung on Aug. 21.
“The unknown is the hardest part,” Crystal said. “But I can’t bring myself to ask, ‘How many years does he have left?’ We don’t ask. It’s just wait and see and appreciate the time we have now.”
Ricketson entered full-time ministry at age 14. He’d hoped to attend Heartland Baptist Bible College this fall, but the most recent lung operation delayed those plans. He will tentatively enroll in January, provided his condition allows him.
Ricketson has a doctor’s appointment Thursday to measure the success of his lungs operations. He will meet with an oncologist Monday.
“It can be hard — because every time it seems like there’s good news, it just comes back,” Ricketson said. “It’s hard to be optimistic sometimes. But you just have to keep going. That’s all you can do.”