Rachel Woell, a former student at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, and the Totino-Grace football team have been selected as the 2015 Section 5 recipients of the “National High School Spirit of Sport Award” by a national group of state high school leagues.
She was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 8, but beat the cancer and eventually became a student at Totino-Grace and was the manager of the football team.
In the fall of 2013, the cancer returned, according to the story posted on the Minnesota State High School League website By 2014, she needed assistance in all normal life activities, had significant hearing loss, and slurred speech.
There was nothing more doctors could do for her. So the football team took over.
On August 27th, Rachel’s 18th birthday, the TG football team showed up at Rachel’s home bright and early at 7 a.m. in their lime green “I fight for Rachel” t-shirts to sing happy birthday to her. Later that day the family was planning on attending the must-do, end-of-the-summer Minnesota event, the State Fair.
Nope, Rachel wanted to celebrate her birthday by going to football practice and the team pasta dinner in preparation for their first game the next day.
“She’s out there every day when we’re at practice,” explained senior Lance Benick. “She won’t miss a day, she won’t miss a game. It’s her favorite thing, and we just love it.” Similarly, head coach and dean of students Jeff Ferguson later said, “Her devotion and dedication to the team was incredible. She embraced being on our team with great passion. She wasn’t a figurehead; she was not the mascot. The relationship she had with the coaches and players was genuine. She was so loved.”
The team captured memories with Rachel, including a picture taken from a father’s helicopter depicting a giant heart the team made by standing around Rachel on the football field. Another special picture was made by a photographer with little Rachel surrounded in hugs by players with, “I love my boys” inscribed across the bottom.
In early September her mom wrote, “How is Rachel doing? If you were to ask her….she would say she is just fine. She never complains….ever.” This – despite having lost her ability to swallow and speak and move her legs. Our dear Rachel would sing her version of Sound of Music’s song My Favorite Things by inserting the words with “school, football and speech.” Rachel was named her school’s homecoming queen, and one of ‘her boys’ was named king. She wasn’t able to go to school as much as she wanted, but was still attending most football practices and was
down on the field with the team at all the games. She was still doing what she loved the very most, being with ‘her boys.
On Friday, September 26th Rachel was feverish and ill by halftime of the football game. Her mom and dad chose to bring her home. Within a minute or two of arriving home, she passed away in their arms. The Eagles suffered their only regular season loss of the year that night.
Coach Ferguson got the news on the bus ride home and broke the news to his players – Rachel’s boys – in the locker room back at school. He reflected the next day, “The inspiration is boundless. The game last night kind of mirrored Rachel’s life. She fought, in the end she lost, but it was more about how she fought.”
The national sportsmanship award will be announced in June.