Morgan Greene assisted as a staff member at a summer speed camp at Stadium Bowl. But she couldn’t stand idle. She followed the players on a loop up the daunting steps.
One by one, she climbed, she pushed and she conquered.
Even the most in-shape athletes succumb to those stairs. Yet, here was Greene, who had only recently finished her final round of chemotherapy.
“Pushing through that, it felt like I was saying, ‘Screw you, cancer,’ ” Greene said. “Like, this isn’t going to stop me.”
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Her shaved head was wrapped as she sat on a bench after completing a recent Wilson High School soccer practice. Greene is finishing her final rounds of radiation treatment, but she has still scored eight goals with nine assists this season as her team prepares to play Capital at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Harry Lang Stadium in Lakewood for the first round of the loser-out 3A district playoffs.
“It’s something that if you don’t have a personal experience with, it seems removed from you,” Greene said. “You know it happens, but it doesn’t happen to you.
“But I just looked at the treatments like it was going through trainings leading up to a game. That helped me out a lot to get back out here.”
To those who know her best, her determination is too familiar.
Before Hodgkin Lymphoma ever entered Greene’s conscious radar, she trained. When she wasn’t practicing with the Washington Premier travel team, she worked with a private trainer, and they’d spend hours together so she could take down Wilson’s school record in the 400-meter dash. She was in the best shape of her life, she said.
Greene is a pillar at Wilson. At the time last year, she was Wilson’s junior class president. She’s the ASB president this year and has a cumulative 3.99 grade-point average.
She was such a standout soccer player that she was earning all-league honors as a freshman and sophomore, including a first-team Pierce County League midfielder last year. She placed seventh in the 400 at the state track and field championships as a sophomore.
But something wasn’t right. She opened her junior track season in March with a 1-minute 4.44-second 400. She didn’t even run that slow in middle school and the year prior she had run a 57.47.
She was feeling more tired than ever, even almost falling asleep while driving to a club training in Puyallup.
“I should have been in way better shape than I ever had been,” Greene said. “So it was just like really puzzling. I just didn’t know why.”
Doctors initially thought she was anemic, but her results were abnormal so she was referred to an oncologist.
“The doctor said, listen, elephant out of the room, I don’t think she has cancer,” Greene’s father, Derek, recalled. “I’m sure it’s not that.”
They ran a CT scan to be safe, and Derek Greene was in his home when he got an afternoon phone call on April 19 no father expects to hear. So he called his wife, Jennifer, and she immediately came home from her job at UW-Tacoma. They sat in their living room together, cried and tried to wrap their minds around what they would tell their daughter when Morgan and her brother Ethan pulled into the driveway.
“I walked by them when I got home and went into the bathroom because I could kind of tell it was coming and I wanted to prepare myself,” Morgan said. “So I just said, ‘Hi’ and walked past them.
“I came out and they told me and it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but at the same time it was a little nice knowing something was going on and we had finally figured it out.”
They told her it was Hodgkin Lymphoma, then made sure to distinguish that it’s a cancer. Though, it’s not as dangerous at non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and they told her it had a 90 percent survival rate.
“She had track practice so she wasn’t sure if she should go to practice,” Derek Greene said. “And we were like, ‘No, you can’t.’ ”
So she thought of school next and if she’d need time off. They met with Wilson principal Dan Besett, who removed from his wallet a four-leaf clover he had bought online after undergoing open-heart surgery in 2005. He gave it to Greene for good luck.
A week after the diagnosis Morgan underwent her first of four rounds of chemotherapy, administered through a port that’s still under her skin. Each round was successively more difficult, but she said this cancer became real to her just before her second dose.
It caused her hair to begin falling out. First a little, then in chunks. This was personal. She was sensitive about her hair, which was about to her waist in length. She remembered in the sixth grade when she cried because her hair was cut by about five inches.
Before losing it all, she had it cut shorter because they were told that prevents it from falling out faster.
“That’s when it really hit me hard,” Morgan said. “It was emotional.”
So she decided to have it all shaved off to accelerate the inevitable. Her father sat beside her and had his head shaved, too.
“He didn’t have much hair to begin with,” Morgan laughed. ‘But he did it, too, so we could be twins.”
“I just hope that it meant she knew we were in it with her, no matter what,” Derek said.
She was able to work her treatments around the state track championships, so she could be at Mount Tahoma Stadium to watch her teammates, even though she wouldn’t be competing there.
And Besett offered to freeze her grades and reschedule an Advanced Placement exam. But Morgan refused and before her second round of chemo she went to school in the morning to take the test.
“We let her go to school because we knew that would make her happy,” Derek said. “She studies like crazy.”
“She’s so tough,” said Besett, who taught in Nigeria with Greene’s grandparents. “Seriously – you’re in the beginnings of cancer treatment and chemo and you come back to school for an exam?”
Besett bellowed in laughter.
“Wow,” he said. “I’m not worthy. I told her to just relax, we can set it up for you later. Nope, I’m coming.”
Before every school year, Besett tries to come up with a theme for himself and Wilson staff. Inspired by Morgan, he came up with, “What inspires you?” and he includes that theme at the end of his weekly staff emails.
“In the last sentence I always say, ‘This week I was inspired by …’” Besett said. “But that first week of school, I said, ‘Morgan Greene inspires me.’ ”
Morgan thought her senior year of soccer was over before it started. But she slowly began to feel better. After the final round of chemotherapy in July all that was left was the radiation therapy – which was still tough, she said, but paled in comparison.
She certainly, though, wasn’t going to be able to participate in a ZeeSpeed camp at Stadium Bowl run by Zach Smalls, a longtime patrol officer with the Tacoma Police Department. But Smalls visited her on her second day of chemotherapy and asked her to be a camp staff member, instead.
And then she ran those Stadium stairs.
“After doing that and running those stairs, I was like, ‘I think I can do it,’ ” Morgan said.
“So I was there for try outs (at Wilson) and I figured I could at least make the JV team,” she laughed.
No, she’s varsity. But she missed the first match of the season, a 4-0 nonleague loss to Kentlake, because she was home throwing up after her latest round of radiation.
Her first match came less than a week later against Spanaway Lake.
She scored a goal in the 4-0 win.
“Leading up to that first whistle being blown, I was just so excited to be able to play again,” Morgan said. “Because I wasn’t sure that was ever going to happen for me again. But once I got out there I was just so focused on playing.”
She’s had to miss some practices for appointments, but they’re hoping to learn next week that her cancer is officially in remission.
Morgan was late to a practice two weeks ago because she spent time visiting with a boys soccer player, Jayson Ray, who recently learned he has Leukemia. She asked Besett if he would mind her passing the four-leaf clover on to Ray.
“I was super impressed,” Besett said. “She’s amazingly sweet. I already gave her another one last week.”
She also recently got a puppy, a Black Lab named Murphy. Morgan remembered at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital how much she enjoyed when people with service dogs would stop by the beds, and she said she hopes she can train her dog to maybe do that for other kids.
“It’s really easy to be like, ‘How does this happen to someone like her?’ ” Derek Greene said. “She’s healthy, does everything right, is a great person, good student, good athlete … our faith really came into focus.
“I was angry. I didn’t understand how it could happen. But, honestly, through that and just watching her life unfold through it and seeing the person she is and the impact she has made and all the people she continues to inspire and how she inspires us – in a weird way it feels like it’s been a blessing. It really brought us closer and helped us to really appreciate her and all the little crazy things in life you take for granted.
“All those things are a little sweeter now.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677