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North Tonawanda football players step off the field to support cancer survivor teammate

Before some members of the North Tonawanda football team even step onto the field, they proved they are winners as they rallied in support of a fellow teammate and cancer survivor at the Camp Good Days Fashion Show at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens on Sunday.

Thirty-one members of the high school team, dressed in their jerseys, volunteered their time selling tickets, handing out baskets and escorting models to support team captain Ryan Osborn, 17, a Camp Good Days and Special Times camper and cancer survivor.

Ryan was only 10 when he complained of jaw pain that led to a devastating cancer diagnosis.

“I was very touched. I was speechless at first,” said Ryan’s mother, Colleen Osborn. “Ryan was really pumped up. He, like myself, was blown away by the response from the kids. What amazes me is the character that comes through; not just Ryan, but the entire team.”

She added, “How many high school boys do you know that want to go to a fashion show on a Sunday?”

Teammate and friend Alex Molik, 16, said a conversation began in the school weight room about helping out Ryan, who suffers from a rare blood disorder.

“Everyone was pretty much into it when we first talked to them,” said Alex, an offensive and defensive lineman who’s seen Ryan struggle through tough times. “Anything I can do to help, I’m for it.”

Ryan said some teammates knew a lot about what he’d been through as a cancer survivor and how Camp Good Days helped him. Others knew less but still gave up their Sunday afternoon to help out their team captain.

“This year, we really grew as a team,” Ryan said. “There’s definitely a tighter bond with us as players.”

Last year, Ryan had a few teammates help escort models, but when event planning began this year, that number grew into 14, and then 29 by the time the team walked off the field last Tuesday night.

Sam Kindron, 17, worked the fashion show event last year and was glad more teammates were present Sunday to make the event an even bigger success, given all of Ryan’s struggles.

Before, he said, “I knew I wanted to help him. I just didn’t know how to help him.”

The expansive restaurant ballroom was packed with people Sunday.

Local businesses volunteered to purchase tickets for each team member to have a seat at the event. Sponsors include Arthur Cagney from Vanec Industries, Budwey’s Market and Dave Vielski from Allstate Insurance.

Ryan went through 18 month of cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, in seventh and eighth grade for a very rare blood disorder called Langerhans cell histiocytosis.

He said the first six weeks of cancer treatment were the worst for him. He didn’t have the network of support that he does now.

Sunday, he was flanked by several tables of players, many of whom are still physically sore from Saturday’s game, which ended in a loss.

“Even all beat up, they dragged themselves here,” Ryan said.

Ryan is now doing great, with the disease technically categorized as “not active.”

His mom said his goal in seventh and eighth grade was to play football. He was able to participate on a limited basis on the modified team and was then able to join the high school team, the North Tonawanda Lumberjacks, in his freshman year.

“He went from being physically ill to being captain of the football team,” Osborn said.

She said Ryan also participates every year in the Hospice Walk in honor of good friend Tyaier Jones of Buffalo, whom he met at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Tyaier lost his battle with cancer at age 13, and she said Ryan has recruited friends and football players to join him in that walk, as well.

“He fit into the world of kids with cancer at Camp Good Days. They accepted him like one of their own,” said Osborn. She said he has been a camper for the past five or six years.

She said social interactions outside of camp were hard. He had friends, but they didn’t understand what it was like, she said.

“Even though he had a very good group of friends, but they didn’t know how to take it. They weren’t sure what was OK. Sometimes it’s just plain scary,” Osborn said of those years.

Ryan described his participation in Camp Good Days as “a relief.” At camp, he said, everyone knew what he was going through because they’d been through it, too.

He was only 10 when he first complained of jaw pain.

Osborn, a registered nurse, said they had consulted a number of specialists for weeks, but one night he complained he couldn’t enjoy chicken wings because they were too hard to bite into. He had never turned down wings before.

“That night I woke up in the middle of the night to my 10-year-old crying over the pain in his jaw. The next morning I told my physician, ‘You have to do a CAT scan. There’s something wrong.’  ”

When a jaw specialist saw something on the scan and rushed them to Roswell Park for a biopsy, she said, “My whole world came crashing down.”

Now recovered, Osborn, at 6-foot, 4-inches, 280 pounds, and playing on the offensive line, defensive line and as long snapper, is able to smile more.

“I joke with people and say, ‘I’d really like to know how big he would have been if he hadn’t been on chemo. I’m really glad chemo stunted his growth,’  ” his mother said.

Osborn credited Ryan’s coach, Anthony Truilizio, for promoting character on the team.

Truilizio called Ryan a tremendous leader on and off the field who encouraged the team to do something for a good cause.

“You see some of the guys at the NFL level giving back, and it trickles down to the high school level,” Truilizio said. “Part of being at the top is giving back, and if they learn that at an early age, then maybe good things will happen for them in the future.”

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