Drive 20 miles northwest from Minneapolis on a Friday night in autumn, and you can hear them on the bench and in the field. These are the fans of the Anoka High School Tornadoes football team who sit in the student section. In the last seven minutes of the fourth quarter, they are calling their lost player's name:
Ask for a show of hands, and many of the students will say they never met him, but they chant his name anyway because they knew what he stood for: compassion and giving, strength and leadership. Each year, it’s considered an honor to be awarded the number 7 jersey, Dylan Witschen’s old number. Dylan teaches them something about football and life — even now, more than nine years after he passed away at age 16 from a brain tumor.
In 2009, a dying Dylan asked his parents, Debbie and Ed, to support St. Jude until every child had a cure. Since then, this part of Minnesota has come together for St. Jude as a community of promise keepers — and home to one of the nation’s most successful St. Jude Walk/Run teams. Dylan’s team — Dylan Witschen # 7 — last year raised more than $80,000, leading Minnesota, as it does every year, and finishing fourth in the nation. Over the years, the team has raised more than $600,000 for St. Jude.
"We get so much support from so many people, so many companies,” says Ed. “It’s surreal. You know, sometimes I think I’m asking too much, but nobody ever says ‘no.’ And they just keep it going, all the time.”
On Monday, Aug. 19, 2008, Dylan went to football practice at Anoka High School — two weeks before the start of the school year.
“The story goes that he made this really good hit, but he came up from it, and he felt like he had a stinger in his shoulder, and his arm went numb,” says Debbie.
His teammate Chase Baumgartner was there and thought Dylan was joking.
“Suck it up, Sally,” Chase told him. “You got this.”
Chase didn’t mean anything by it. They’d started out as enemies in their third and fourth grade youth league. “We were quarterbacks for different teams, so we would always go toe-to-toe,” says Chase. “Even then, he was one hell of an athlete. He knew how to motivate friends and teammates. They rallied around him, to be honest.”
Eventually, the two boys joined the same team, practiced together, played together, became best friends. Now they were on the brink of their first year of high school football together — if not the kings of the school, then the heirs apparent.
In the locker room at lunch, Dylan was quiet. “He had a chit chat mouth on him,” says Chase, “and you could usually hear him across the locker room, talking to all the guys, but he was really quiet, so I asked him what was wrong.”
“I still can’t feel my hand, and now it’s going up my arm,” said Dylan.
Chase told the coach, who called Dylan’s parents.
Minutes later, Dylan had a seizure in the locker room.
How Sick and Dangerous
That day in 2008, Ed and Debbie suspected a concussion, but at the emergency room, a CT scan revealed far worse: a golf ball-sized mass on Dylan’s brain.
Dylan underwent surgery in Minnesota to remove the tumor, which was typed as a supratentorial primitive neuroectodermal tumor, a rare and aggressive brain cancer.
At a first consultation, their Minnesota oncologist warned Debbie and Ed to “Get ready for financial hardship.”
"That didn't sit well with me," says Debbie, who had worked hard all her life. Insurance had covered Dylan’s care so far, but what if he needed an experimental drug? In the world of pediatric cancer, many promising treatments are still in the research stages. Their insurance company could refuse to pay. Her family could go bankrupt.
She knew that would never be a concern at St. Jude. The St. Jude treatment plan offered radiation therapy combined with a more intense course of chemotherapy than at their local hospital. Dylan’s healthy stem cells — harvested before his chemotherapy began — would be transplanted back into his body after every chemotherapy round, speeding the repair process. Should Dylan’s needs dictate a new course of treatment, the family would still never receive a bill.
They’d looked into several hospitals, but all signs pointed to St. Jude.
Ed quit his job as a forklift salesperson to be with Dylan full time in Memphis during his treatment, and Debbie came back and forth as much as possible — still maintaining her job at Target back home.
At St. Jude, “I had my first meal since him being diagnosed,” says Debbie. “I felt like the stress, some of it, had been lifted. This was the place that was going to take care of us. Dylan felt it, too.”
But his treatment would be especially hard.
“Dylan really struggled through radiation,” says Debbie. By day 17, he had already lost 17 pounds. “I think everything just starts to sink in more and more just how sick and how dangerous this all is.”
Between rounds of chemotherapy, Dylan would have a few days of feeling good, periods of grace, where his appetite came back and he’d send his dad out for broccoli and steak. That’s when his parents would schedule visits from people back home.
Like his sister Megan, who came down at Christmas and Spring Break. And the friends who made the 26-hour round trip by car from Anoka to Memphis, just to be with Dylan for a couple of days.
“And we always told the scheduler, ‘We don’t get up before noon, so we don’t want an appointment until 1,’ so we always had the last appointment,” laughs Ed. “We loved it. Because we’d stay up late watching Letterman.” If their apartment at Target House began to resemble a dorm room, who cared?
After Dylan completed treatment and flew back to Minnesota in April 2009, his friends were at the airport to surprise him and welcome him home.
'We’re going to get big again'
“After a year of treatment, he was skinny, and he didn’t like it,” says Chase. “He joked, ‘I’m smaller than you now, Chase. That’s not good.’”
That summer of 2009, it was hard to keep food in the house because Dylan was bulking up, intent on getting strong for his sophomore year of football.
“Dylan lets me know, ‘This summer, we’re going to bust our butt. We’re going to be at the gym every day, and we’re going to get big again,’” says Chase. “We would stop eating, and then we’d eat some more.”
Dylan was picked as the cornerback, first string. He worried it was a pity pick because of the cancer and confronted his coach about it.
His coach assured him he'd earned the spot.
For those first two months of play with Dylan on the field, the Tornadoes were undefeated.
'We knew that it wasn’t good'
In November 2009, Dylan was on the way to a University of Minnesota football game with Ed and a family friend when Dylan called out, “Dad, my left arm is numb.”
“I think in hindsight, we just knew that it wasn’t good,” says Ed.
Dylan had glioblastoma, a different type of brain cancer than before — and even more dangerous.
At the outside, his doctor told him, he probably had around six months.
Six months for Dylan to create a bucket list and tick the items off, and to reflect on what he wanted his life to mean.
Dylan called a family meeting, asking his parents and Megan to help him start a scholarship fund to honor college-bound Anoka and Blaine High School football players who best embodied seven virtues: compassion, giving, team player, determination, strength, leadership and confidence (swagger). Dylan gave out the first set of scholarships in 2010.
He also wanted his family to create a way to support St. Jude in its efforts to find a cure for pediatric cancer — something that could continue after he died.
The only problem was a big one: “We had no clue how to raise money or do anything,” says Ed.
But they had Ed’s gift for making pretty much anything seem like a party, and Debbie and Megan’s type-A organizational abilities and determination to get things done. And they had Dylan’s leadership.
The owner of a local pizza franchise gave his company’s yearly charity golf tournament to the Dylan fundraising effort. That was the jumpstart they needed.
“And it just kept growing and growing,” says Debbie.
In the days when Dylan and his family knew he was dying but he still felt good, they packed his life with experiences.
“We traveled,” says Ed. “My buddy’s like, ‘We’ve got to bring Dylan to Vegas. Dylan, you want to go to Vegas this weekend?’” Dylan played the tables and even won some money before the pit boss got wise and kindly, but insistently, kicked Dylan out because he was underage. There were trips to Hawaii, Anaheim (for a Bon Jovi concert), and Boston.
School became a place to hang out with his friends and talk to Coach Hale.
In addition to being the assistant football coach, Hale was also a youth pastor. “So Dylan would go and literally talk with him about heaven and God,” says Debbie.
By May 2010, Dylan had a severe seizure. His health was in decline. He passed away on June 8, 2010, surrounded by love.
'You are not alone'
For the rest of the time Dylan would have been in high school, his teammates carried out his jersey at every game and laid it on the bench.
Chase’s brother, Riley, started high school in 2012, the autumn after Dylan would have graduated, and got permission to wear Dylan’s #7 jersey throughout his high school football career. “Dylan was essentially like a brother,” says Riley. “You could talk to him for hours and feel like a better person for it.” When it was time for him to graduate in 2016, Riley began a new tradition: to pass on the jersey each year to an incoming senior football player who embodied what Dylan had represented.
“I wrote a handwritten note about what the #7 meant to me and my family and Dylan’s family,” says Riley. “To me, it meant that you are not alone on the field, and there is always something greater than themselves.”
So he passed along the letter and a photo of Dylan and asked the new boy to write his own letter about Dylan when it came time to pass on the jersey.
“Who I am today is based on his life,” says Chase, who is 25 now and a student in dental school at the University of Minnesota. Dylan asked Chase to promise: “Never ever let a kid go through what I’m going through now.” So Chase does his best. Each year, Chase attends the St. Jude Walk/Run as part of team Dylan Witschen #7. As an undergraduate, he participated in the Up ‘til Dawn program, a collegiate fundraising program for St. Jude.
Megan became a pharmacist because of Dylan’s experience and her desire to have a career that helped people. She got married and has a baby boy now, Jude Dylan.
'The effect he had on people'
Ed had worked for most of his adult life as a forklift salesman but had always nurtured a dream of opening a bar and grill someday. Once Debbie retired from her job as a manager at Target, he had the perfect partner.
In 2017, they opened Riversbend Bar & Grill in Ramsey, Minnesota, just around the corner from Anoka High School and close to the meandering Rum River. Dylan’s original #7 football jersey is here, framed on the wall.
Riversbend Bar & Grill has become the home base and heart of Dylan Witschen #7 fundraising operations. “Up here at the restaurant, I say, ‘Let’s get a big team. Throw me 20 bucks for the St. Jude Walk/Run,’” says Ed.
He keeps a sign-up sheet at the bar.
“I think Dylan would have thought this place was the biggest hoot,” says Debbie. “He’d be in love with this place.”
If Dylan were here, Ed and Debbie agree, the conversation would flow like the drinks on tap.
“Dylan could relate to anybody,” remembers his mom. “At our house on New Year’s, he could go over to the adult table and play poker with Ed and his buddies” before moving to the kid's table for a spirited rap session with the preschoolers.
“He loved to chit chat,” says Debbie.
“A friend of mine told me about how Dylan saw him one day and called out, ‘Hey Phil, what’s going on? Phil, get over here and talk to me!’” says Ed.
So different from most teenagers.
“In the cafeteria, he would look for the kid sitting by himself who might not be the most popular, and he would make him popular, just by being friends with him,” says Chase. “I don’t know if you call that ‘moxie.' I don’t know if there’s really a word that exists to describe the effect he had on people.”
Would Dylan be proud of his parents and Megan today?
“Oh yeah,” says Debbie.
“I hope so,” says Ed.
“He was so, I don’t know if you want to use the word ‘considerate.’ He did not want us to hurt,” says Debbie. “He had done research, and he said, ‘Parents divorce after children die, and you are not divorcing.’ And it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, kid.’ He was amazing.”
By all appearances — Ed and Debbie’s habit of completing each other’s sentences or the way they say “Yep” to affirm what the other has said — they are doing just fine. But it must have been hard for the laid back dad and the type-A mom to grieve in their own ways and still come together.
“We get a lot of people who say, ‘Gosh, you guys are so strong,’ but I know I don’t feel that way,” says Debbie.
She looks over at Ed.
“Do you feel strong?”
“The best time I feel is when I’m mowing the lawn because I’ve got his playlist, and it gives me a couple of hours to talk to him for a while,” says Ed.
Dylan’s playlist reflects a strong Ed influence — the music Ed played for Dylan in the car on the way to all those team practices: a little Billy Joel, a little Bon Jovi, a whole lot of dad rock.
But Ed’s favorite is a song he never would’ve known, had it not been for Dylan: the Jay-Z version of “Young Forever.” Dylan played it for Ed during an epic game of basketball one afternoon after Dylan’s cancer came back.
Ed had been preoccupied, but Dylan insisted. C’mon, Dad, let’s play.
Of course, Ed thought, I should.
Dylan jumped up, took his shot, and it was nothing but net.
You had to seize the moment — Dylan taught him that.
“His song will come on, and I’ll cry, then I’ll be good,” says Ed.
In his backyard in Anoka, Minnesota, the sweat of Ed’s labor mixes with his tears.
And Ed keeps going — they all do — because that’s what Dylan would want.