Friday, September 21, 2018
Health

During his fight with cancer, 16-year-old makes a friend: Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper

TAMPA — There was Tony Colton, Monday night's 16-year-old pitchman. He sat in front of a camera in the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, soft smile, confident delivery, flowing brown hair.

Tony told his story to Fox Sports. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and has endured too many surgeries to keep track of. He lost a kidney; the surgical scars, the shooting pain in his abdomen, all remind him of his disease.

Still, during the interview, he kept that smile going and promoted his cause: to raise research money for understudied cancers like his own, undifferentiated sarcoma, a rare childhood affliction that starts in the body's soft tissue.

Elsewhere in the hotel, people chatted and drank. The event was a banquet to kick off the first Coop's Catch for Kids, a fishing tournament organized by Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who is Tony's friend. The event raised money for pediatric cancer research at Moffitt Cancer Center and Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital.

After Tony finished his interview, his physician, Damon Reed, sat for the camera.

"He's been through a lot," Reed said, choking up. "He's won international academic competitions while fighting cancer. He's done interesting science projects. He's got a good girlfriend. He's grown up quite a bit."

Tony, who lives in Sarasota, hung back behind the camera, swaying and holding hands with his girlfriend, Vanessa Sommers, also 16. When the interview ended, the doctor asked the cameraman, half joking, to edit out the tears.

"No, it's great," the cameraman said. "It's real."

• • •

The fundraiser started. Cooper took the stage and told everyone how he came to meet Tony.

In 2015, the coach was at the Tampa Bay Sneaker Soiree. Tony had won an award. Cooper was recognized for making it to the Stanley Cup final.

They showed a film that featured Tony's fight with cancer.

"It was sad," Cooper said, "but it was happy. …"

At the time of the Sneaker Soiree, Tony was in remission. But what the audience didn't know, what Tony didn't know that night, was that his cancer had come back.

After Cooper spoke Monday night, it was Tony's turn. He took the stage and talked about his diagnosis in 2011. He said the treatments for his cancer, and similar pediatric cancers, are mostly still the same as those used in the 1980s. That's because the cancers are rare, Tony said, and that means they lack funding.

"I continue to fight up until this day," Tony said. "When I mean to this day, I came from the hospital today, here, where I saw Dr. Reed four or five hours ago."

What Tony didn't tell the crowd was what he learned at that appointment: He had two new tumors in his abdomen. His condition was getting worse.

Tony also talked about the night he first met Cooper, at the 2015 Sneaker Soiree. He saw the Lightning's playoff run on TV. Now he got to see Cooper in person.

"When I saw this man in person it really hit me that he was a real person and he was being honored just like I was being honored," Tony said. "I don't think he understands how much it meant to me when he came up to me afterwards."

It was the start of a fast friendship. Two months later, they met again, this time while Tony was undergoing chemotherapy. Cooper started inviting Tony to Lightning games and to visit the locker room. Tony, in turn, gets visits from the coach in the hospital. And now players know the 16-year-old by name.

• • •

Tuesday morning at St. Petersburg's Maximo Park, Thunderbug the mascot bounced around as Lightning players towered over the fans before the fishing tournament.

There was an easy breeze and an overcast sky.

"I really like this weather," Tony said, eating a blueberry bagel. "I could live with this every day."

Tony was there to fish. But he was ready to again tell his story to the reporters who asked.

"It was only a matter of time before someone asked," he said.

He told them about the toll the disease has taken, that he's still fighting it, still getting treatment.

How was he feeling?

"I took my meds," Tony said, "so we're good for four hours."

He gets that question a lot.

"That's my number one question," he said, "and, 'I know how you feel' is their number one response.

"No, no one knows how I feel."

Contact Jack Suntrup at [email protected] or (727) 893-8092. Follow @JackSuntrup.

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