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Band of brothers: Murray football players rally around teammate’s younger brother struggling with cancer

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When things get tough out here on the football field, you get tired, you get hot, and I know a lot of them are saying, this is nothing to what Carson is going through and the battle he has on his hands. – Murray head coach Mike Richmond

MURRAY — Long before Carson Ross lost his hair to radiation treatments, his family talked about ways to ease the 6-year-old’s anxiety.

“He was dreading losing his hair,” said his uncle, Jeff Ross. “He kept asking, ‘When am I going to lose my hair?’ And then, that last week, he really lost all his hair. We’d always talked about just shaving our heads to show him support.”

So the family — uncles, cousins and a few others — planned to gather at Grandpa Sherm Ross’ house a week ago last Sunday to shave their heads in a massive gesture of solidarity. They expected relatives to make the sacrifice, but not young men they’d never even met.

“We intentionally set it up for family members,” said Sherm Ross, who also maintains a Facebook page on Carson’s battle with medulloblastoma, a cancerous brain tumor. “So it was a little bit of a surprise when the football players showed up.”

The head shaving party came several months after a summer that left the family reeling.

Steve and Nikki Ross listened to their 6-year-old complain about his eyesight and decided to take him to an ophthalmologist. The doctor told him to come back if the double vision and headaches persisted.

Instead, the Ross’ decided to take Carson to the emergency room at Primary Children’s Hospital on July 30. The next day, they came back for an MRI.

“There was a strong suspicion it was cancer because of where the tumor was located,” Steve Ross said. “But they confirmed it the next day.”

The father of five isn’t sure it’s possible to adequately describe what it was like to listen to doctors tell him what it will take to rid his youngest son’s body of cancer.

“I don’t even know if it’s describable,” he said. “It’s your worst nightmare. You don’t know at the time what the prognosis is, how long they’re going to be with you, if it will be terminal, it’s just excruciating. It kind of rips your heart out.”

On Aug. 1, Carson underwent surgery to remove the tumor, and doctors believe they got most of it. However, he was one of the 20 to 30 percent who developed cerebella mutism, a side effect that meant learning to walk and talk again. He still suffers some issues with his eyes and paralysis on one side of his face.

He left the hospital on a Friday, but had to come back for radiation treatments the following Monday. The brutal treatments have left him weak, sick and, of course, bald. The experience has also changed his personality.

“He was very outgoing, friendly and happy,” Steve said. “He got an award in kindergarten for basically being the nicest kid. He’s very inclusive. He was just a nice, very outgoing, very rambunctious boy. He is still very funny, tells a lot of jokes. But now he’s just a little shy and not as outgoing. Some of that is a confidence issue. Some of that is just the outcome of having a traumatic brain injury.”

While Carson was obviously suffering, he wasn’t the only one. Devin, a junior at Murray High, was hit hard by the news that his baby brother would spend the next year fighting for his life.

“Devin is a sensitive kid,” Steve Ross said. “He loves his brother, and he’s a good big brother. When he was littler, he’d haul him around, put him on his shoulders. He’s struggled with this too.”

A longtime basketball player, it was Devin’s family and friends who convinced him to try out for the Spartan football team.

“Devin is a really, really shy kid,” said his uncle, Jeff Ross. “This is his first year playing, and some of the kids were boys he’s hung out with, and some are guys he’s just barely gotten to know. ... So it was pretty cool to see this kind of support for Carson — and for Devin.”

The first outward signs of support came when some of the players wrote Carson’s name on their arms during their first region game against Orem. The Spartans are enjoying their best start in 14 years with a 4-1 record, including their first region win in four years.

The players gave Carson Spartan gear and a card, a gift that he immediately put to use wrestling Devin.

Then came that head shaving party at Sherm Ross’ house.

“First there were two or three, then a couple more, then a coach came, and pretty soon there were about 12 or 13,” he said. “I thought it was great. A couple of them had pretty long hair, too. It was a great support, great camaraderie.”

And the boys didn’t just shave their heads and leave.

“They stuck around, and Carson really enjoyed that,” Sherm Ross said. “Everybody kind of handles things a little differently, but I think he got a kick out of that.”

Carson is self-conscious about his bald head and paralyzed face, so he is often reluctant to pose for pictures.

“I think he was kind of overwhelmed,” Sherm said. “It was a great thing though. Devin is kind of shy too, so to see the kids come around, I was just kind of overwhelmed to know Devin has that kind of support.”

Murray head coach Mike Richmond said he believes Carson inspires the boys with the battle he’s fighting. The decision of players and coaches to show support — whether that’s through a shaved head or writing his name on their skin — is part of the changing culture at Murray, in which players try to treat each other like family.

“When things get tough out here on the football field, you get tired, you get hot, and I know a lot of them are saying, this is nothing to what Carson is going through and the battle he has on his hands,” Richmond told KSL.

And while Carson is inspiring the team to care about more than individual accolades or a Friday night victory, Richmond said the team’s top concern is Carson’s recovery.

Steve Ross said the support being offered to his family doesn’t end with the football team’s gesture. A family friend has organized a 5K walk/run to raise money to help the family with the massive medical costs they will face this year. Julie Backus’s son was best friends with the Ross’ oldest son, and while both boys are serving missions, she and another friend, Jen Brown, wanted to do something significant to help the family. They recruited Skyline cross-country coach Tom Porter, who also happens to be an old friend of Steve Ross, to handle the logistics of the race, which is scheduled for Oct. 11 on the Murray Parkway.

“We want people to understand that this is an event that’s inclusive of all ages and abilities,” Backus said. “If you can’t run, walk. Murray City is generously letting us use the parkway, and we are having a huge raffle afterward. Amazingly, the fun run is paid for, so we just need to get people there.”

Murray’s football, volleyball, basketball and drill teams have already committed to being at the race. And as it is the same day as the school’s homecoming dance, Backus hopes the teens will consider the 5K an appropriate and enjoyable “day date.”

Sherm Ross said his family is grateful for all the ways in which the family has felt love and support from both friends and strangers.

“I’m just overwhelmed at the support people have shown,” he said. “I knew family would be there, but I didn’t anticipate this. I created the Facebook page, and I do a post every night. There are 2,000 to 3,000 people who see it. I’m just amazed at how many people have liked it, people we don’t even know.”

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