For reasons tangible and also reasons less so, 24-year-old Alyssa Crabtree of Platte City long had thought of safety Eric Berry as her favorite Chiefs player.
Partly it was because he’s so good and so fast. She also liked that they were about the same age.
Mostly, though, it was just that instinctive sense of connection we might feel to someone whose way we admire even if it’s hard to quantify, an affinity that’s instinctive as much as it is anything else.
Then in late June she developed a more discernible link to Berry, one she’ll feel forever.
Just as Berry, then 25, had experienced last November, doctors found a mass in her chest that would be diagnosed as lymphoma.
In her particular case, it’s diffuse large b-cell lymphoma, a particularly aggressive form of the disease that she said “took up like two-thirds the size of my left lung” … and who-knows-what percentage of her morale and hope for a normal and natural lifespan.
They wouldn’t and didn’t tell her what stage the disease was in, Crabtree said, because it’s curable and they wanted her to focus on that.
Nonetheless, a woman who remains radiant even amid this crisis was stunned.
“I immediately started crying,” Crabtree remembered.
Her parents, Scott and Jodi, were halfway to the Lake of the Ozarks when they got the call from medical personnel, making for a harrowing ride back to face the new normal.
“I kind of block it out a lot, because every time I start thinking about it I choke up,” Scott Crabtree said, and sure enough he started crying. “At the time it was, ‘Am I going to outlive my child?’ And that’s not right.”
Maybe the hardest part, though, was the wait to engage the fight, which Crabtree is immersed in now.
She’ll start her third of six four-day rounds of chemo Saturday at the University of Kansas Hospital, where she’ll honor the motto on her Alyssa’s Angels wristband: “Time To Cowgirl Up.”
By the end of the few weeks between treatments, she feels like herself and is able to take limited walks twice a day.
That’s why she had it in her to be at Chiefs camp on Wednesday morning, an appearance also enabled by a deeper purpose that was evident from the placard she held:
“FUTURE LYMPHOMA SURVIVOR (JUST LIKE BERRY).”
“That’s what I’m talking about; love that sign,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said as he stopped to speak with Alyssa, who was clad in a Chiefs hat and a Berry T-shirt.
It’s one thing to be told your terrible illness is curable, and it’s another to see encouraging statistics or hear upbeat anecdotal evidence.
But it’s quite another to have a living, breathing example of hope before you.
So much the better that it was someone you already held in esteem.
“He’s just a big inspiration,” said Crabtree, a consultant for Cerner who previously was a rehab tech at KU Hospital after earning her biological sciences degree from the University of Missouri. “The fact that he was only diagnosed like eight months ago and is already back out there is awesome.…
“After seeing how much he’s recovered and the fact that he’s out here practicing (although not hitting yet) when he just finished chemo, I’m very optimistic.”
All the more so after the Chiefs made it a point to connect Berry with Crabtree, her father, her brother, Caleb, and his girlfriend, Lauren Leocardi (who made the poster).
With the group sitting in a VIP tent, Berry walked up with a smile and almost immediately hugged Crabtree.
They talked for some 10 minutes, during which she asked about how he managed to put on a pound by the end of his six phases of chemo.
“He was telling me that his dad cooked for him all the time, and he ate a lot of fish and (had a lot) of apple juice and grape juice. And what he didn’t like (to eat),” said Crabtree, a runner who went from 112 pounds to 94 before since regaining about 15 pounds. “And he told me to take one day at a time.”
Berry, in fact, wrote that on her poster, reinforcing what she’s been gradually learning since being confronted with a condition that started with puzzling problems breathing when she was running.
“I kept thinking I was out of shape,” said Crabtree, who contracted pneumonia as other symptoms arose. “I had left shoulder pain for a couple months, which I just thought was muscular pain, and then I started like hearing crackling in my chest when I’d sleep at night.
“Then I started coughing up blood.”
Managing a smile, she added, “That was kind of the main sign.”
It was a sign that left her father praying that he could somehow absorb the disease away from her and with unanswered questions of “why?” given the health all three of his children (his other daughter, Lindsey, works at Cerner) have enjoyed.
The why, of course, remains unreconciled.
But the focus now has shifted entirely to Crabtree’s return to health, a quest made up of moments and events small and large.
And one now bolstered by a shared sense of mission between her and Berry, who already has embraced his role as a symbol.
“I don’t know whether it’s fair that he’s shouldering that and feeling like he needs to,” said Scott Crabtree, 49, an electrical engineer for the Federal Aviation Administration. “But blessings came on him, and he’s trying to give that positive energy back to other people.”
It’s unclear when Berry will be able to return to full-contact drills, let alone when he’ll be able to play for the Chiefs this season.
But if everything goes as planned for Crabtree, her treatments should be done on her birthday, Oct. 13.
One of the things she looks forward to most after that is going to a Chiefs game when she’s up to it.
“So I’m thinking I could go maybe to a late November/early December game,” she said. “It’s going to be kind of cold, and I’ll still have a bald head, but I’ll figure something out.”
“Hopefully,” she added, “Eric will be playing by the time I can go.”