Cancer battles bring together football players from rival West Michigan schools

MUSKEGON — Aside from playing for crosstown rivals, Devin Gibbs and Dametrius Walker didn’t really know each other. They had crossed paths at a local barbershop in the summer, but that was about it.

There’s more in common now, and a special bond between the two high school football players who finally met face to face Saturday. It was at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, where Gibbs, a Mona Shores senior, and Walker, a Muskegon junior, are each battling cancer.

They’ve been supporting each other virtually via texts and other messaging. Over the weekend, they were on opposite ends of the ninth floor.

“Devin said, ‘Mom, Dametrius is on the other side. Want to go see him?’ I said, ‘Come on, let’s go for a walk,’” said Gibbs’ mother, Vanessa Guardiola. “And we went around (to the other side of the floor).

“It was funny because Dametrius, at first, he had to get some help to get up because he had just had surgery the day before they actually met each other. But he got some help up and the first thing he did, he grabbed Devin’s hand to shake his hand and then pulled him into a big hug and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ I didn’t expect that. It was like, ‘Look at this big, giant teddy bear.’”

Walker, 16, underwent surgery Friday for osteosarcoma in his left leg; Gibbs, 18, is battling leukemia and he is scheduled to receive a bone-marrow transplant this Thursday.

The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Walker was diagnosed in October with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer most often found in teenage boys. On Friday, he had a tumor removed from near the bottom of his left leg. He said doctors had to remove the diseased part of his femur and replace it with metal. He noted that areas around his knee and calf muscle also were impacted by surgery.

Walker had dreams of playing college football, but he’s trying to wrap his head around the likelihood that he’ll never suit up again. He had received several Division I scholarship offers as a three-star defensive end prospect.

Walker already is undergoing physical therapy. He was hoping to leave the hospital today. Next up will be outpatient therapy and a return to the hospital March 11 for more chemotherapy treatments.

Walker tends to look on the bright side, believing that things happen for a reason. As tough as it is to understand now, he’s doing his best.

“Me just being here still, me being here with my family still, that helps me move on from it,” he said. “(Football) is over now, though. I’m just going to let it blow in the wind like it was nothing to me – that’s the best way for me to get over it.”

Walker still plans to be alongside his Big Reds football teammates next season, supporting them any way he can.

Despite playing for the archrival Sailors, Gibbs felt compelled to reach out to Walker when he learned about his cancer battle. The hope was connecting with somebody who knows exactly what you’re going through would help.

“When everything started, it was kind of hard to talk to people about it just because I didn’t feel comfortable really talking about my illness. And then, like, later on as (time) went by I saw Dametrius (fighting) his cancer and everything, I thought, ‘Maybe I should just give him a quick message just to help him out and make his day better,’” Gibbs said.

“Nobody really knows what he’s going through. Even I have a whole different cancer, which is like a process and everything. It’s just like, it could probably help somebody (by talking to them) with certain questions – anything to help each other out.”

About a month before Walker’s diagnosis, Gibbs was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. AML is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow with excess immature white blood cells.

It’s been a long battle for Gibbs, but his mother said he underwent his final chemo treatment today. On Thursday, he will receive a bone-marrow transplant from his older sister, Alexius Guardiola, a 2016 Mona Shores alumna.

Gibbs was a 5-11, 150-pound linebacker and H-back for the Sailors. He knew college football probably wasn’t in the cards for him, but another goal still is attainable. He would like to become a child psychologist.

Walker is appreciative of the listening ear from Gibbs and vice versa. Just because somebody plays for that school on the other side of town does not mean he’s a bad person.

“A friend in need,” Walker said about his relationship with Gibbs. “Everyone needs a friend they can talk to and relate to because a lot of people don’t know what you’re going through unless you’re actually going through it yourself.”

Vanessa Guardiola met Walker’s mother, Leona Bell, today for the first time on the hospital elevator. When Guardiola met Walker on Saturday, she found him to be respectful and humble. His bear hug with her son further validated that point.

Guardiola has been trying to encourage Walker just like she does her own son.

“This is just when you’ve got to take a different road, but you’re still down that path,” Guardiola said about her message to Walker. “I had to remind him, too, that just because you’re going through this, there are so many doors that are going to be open for him. It wasn’t over, you know.

“Uplifting him and seeing them get along, it actually is just a really great thing.”

Nos. 45 and 46 were Walker and Gibbs’ jersey numbers this season for the Big Reds and Sailors, respectively. Side by side, much in the way they’re going through this fight together.

“He’s just a good person to talk to. He’s just a humble person, really,” Gibbs said. “We’re both in this and we’re both going to fight our battles. At the end of the day, we both know we’re going to be walking out of this hospital.”

A GoFundMe page has been created for Gibbs. One is in the works for Walker, according to Muskegon football coach Shane Fairfield.

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