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A’Niah Butler: Tackling Cancer…And Boys

When A’Niah Butler met Marcus Allen at THON’s Football Adventure last February, the pair bonded instantly. For A’Niah’s mom, Cassidy, the similarities between the two were striking.

“He’s like the grown-up, boy version of her,” she said. “They were like two peas in a pod.”

After hanging out, running drills, and even challenging Marcus to a dance battle (which, for the record, she won), A’Niah got her t-shirt signed by her favorite football player ever. She also told him that she was going to play football, just like him.

Of course, the Nittany Lions safety wasn’t the first person she told about her dream of playing football.

“She wanted to play football for as long as I can remember, but when she was in active chemo, she just wasn’t strong enough to do it. But she kept telling her oncologist, ‘I’m gonna play football. I’m gonna play football’…and then as soon as she was done, she said, ‘I’m playing football,’ and her oncologist was like ‘alright,'” Cassidy said.

That day on the football field seemed so far removed from A’Niah’s treatments for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, which she was diagnosed for in 2014. She’s been in remission for nearly two years now.

After spending two seasons on the sidelines as a cheerleader, A’Niah finally got her chance to strap on the shoulder pads this season. Aside from an extra pad to cover the spot where the port from her chemotherapy was, there were no concerns from her parents about A’Niah playing football.

“From as sick as A’Niah was, football was the least of our concerns. If she can come through 40 minutes of cardiac arrest, then I’m not worried about some little boys,” Cassidy said.

Niether was A’Niah. While being the only girl on an all-boy team can be difficult, it didn’t phase her one bit. Naturally, her new teammates gave her some side-eyed looks the first week, which she shrugged off by marching to her own beat as always. As her mom put it, “She just really didn’t care.”

Besides, it helps “when you get to go [to practice] and say, ‘Marcus Allen is my friend,’” Cassidy said, reflecting on the impact meeting the star safety had on her daughter. “I think it really built not only her enthusiasm, but her confidence in [playing football],” she added. She even wore the shirt he signed for her to every single practice.

After that first week, the boys got over having a girl on their team and A’Niah established herself as a Chambersburg Steeler. She reps her favorite player’s number two and plays center, defensive line, and linebacker for the team. Her favorite part about playing football is tackling boys (although she may be too shy to admit it at times), but she also likes to teach them how to do cartwheels while waiting in line for drills during practice.

Cassidy also applauds her coaches, who have been super supportive since day one. Even they were impressed by A’Niah’s toughness. When she was knocked down hard during the season and diagnosed with a concussion, they were shocked when she didn’t cry. All of the boys cry.

Photo: Cassidy Butler

Despite playing for the Steelers, the Butler family is comprised of die hard Eagles fans — that is, except for A’Niah. She’s not giving her full devotion to any team until the NFL draft in April. Cassidy said A’Niah was straightforward with her father when she broke the news.

“She said, ‘Dad, I just need you to know that if Marcus doesn’t go to the Eagles, I’m not going to like the Eagles anymore.’”

Apparently, she is also refusing to root for the Eagles in the Super Bowl this Sunday — in case her favorite player isn’t on the team next year.

Before the Butlers’ schedule was filled with A’Niah’s practices and games, it was booked with doctors appointments and treatments. That type of routine can be absolutely draining for a family, as they put all of their time and effort into their daughter’s health. To Cassidy, this is a reminder of all of the good that THON does.

“Especially when things were really rough, it has been a break sometimes from the monotony of doctors appointments and chemo,” she said of the organization.

She also spoke very highly of Club Swim, the organization the family was paired with beginning in 2015. Cassidy has welcomed its members into her family, and they have returned the favor by taking full care of the Butlers.

They’ve gone above and beyond for the family, going as far as picking up A’Niah’s older brother and bringing him on campus for his birthday weekend. This gave him a special weekend to remember when almost all of the family’s attention was on A’Niah’s health.

On top of that, THON has given the Butlers the benefit of being around other families in similar situations. For families and parents who are not as fortunate to have the support network that THON provides, Cassidy has this advice.

“Take it one day at a time. Overthinking it and going too far ahead of yourself can really weigh you down. Just focus on the day by day. What needs done today? Okay, we accomplished that — it makes makes you figure out that you’re getting there step by step.”

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About the Author

Anthony Fiset

Anthony is a junior majoring in Economics. He, like many others, is from right outside of Philly, and by right outside of Philly, he means Pittsburgh. His only source of pride is being a lifetime Costco Executive Member. You can call him, beep him if you wanna reach him at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @antnyfst.

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