ROCK HILL To the backdrop of a late afternoon sun and pre-teen football players battling over a pigskin, almost two dozen Saluda Trail Middle School cheerleaders each one wearing a purple bow in her hair lifted pompons, flaunted high kicks and cried out their anthem for the night: "Hey, let's go...Hey, let's go...We love Emily."
It was all for Emily Elkins, a 14-year-old former Saluda Trail Middle School student and Wildcats cheerleader. Purple bows and a large makeshift yellow banner reading, "CHEERING 4 EMILY" hung on the chain-link fence. A chunk of purple Styrofoam, shaped into the cancer symbol, was pinned to the corner of the banner Wednesday evening.
It was all for Emily Elkins, diagnosed in May with a stage 4 cancer known to attack kids, that the people she once cheered alongside took their eyes off a game between Saluda Trails Wildcats and York Middle Schools Cougars just for a little while so they could get the message out.
"We wanted people to be aware," said 14-year-old Madey Yarbrough, an eighth grader who cheered with Emily last school term.
"We want more people to pray for her to get better," said Amanda Price, 13, also an eighth grader who stood on the cheer line with Emily during every game and scrimmage. "I never thought that this would happen to her."
Whats wrong with Emily?
Before the game began, Yarbrough and Price passed out pink fliers encouraging support for Emily as she competes in the toughest battle of her life.
Many people don't know about Emilys condition, Yarbrough said.
Some people didn't take them.
"If you have cancer, you'd want somebody to take your flier," Price said.
Others took them, said, "thank you" and, while walking to the stands, turned back and asked, "Whats wrong with Emily?"
Billie Evans, the mother of a Wildcat football player, spoke with Price and Yarbrough about Emily.
Reeling from the story, she asked the girls if they considered doing what Saluda Trail Middle School cheerleaders did three years ago to support Asja, a 13-year-old cheerleader who was diagnosed with cancer. Those cheerleaders stood on sidewalks and in medians along Dave Lyle Boulevard and cheered to raise $1,500.
"You should do that," Evans said.
The night before the game, Yarbrough and Price made the sign for the chain-link fence. They also made the pink sign that read, "We Love You Emily," in big blue letters that hung outside the canteen's wall.
"We think with us doing this, it will help her be stronger," Price said.
Pink fliers and signs werent the only tools for Emily on display.
Bracelets featuring Emilys name and a Bible verse, Isaiah 53:5, "By his stripes, we are healed," are on sale for $2 at the middle school during lunchtime.
Students and their parents can spend $3 for a necklace with a trinket of a bottle and a mustard seed attached. The message, Yarbrough said, comes straight from the Bible, "If your faith is the size of a mustard seed, it can move mountains."
Emilys father, William Elkins, wearing a button displaying Emilys face on his left shoulder, said his daughter is doing well.
When he found out Emilys former teammates would be dedicating the entire game to her, Elkins said, I cried.
Its wild, he said, fighting back tears. For them to think so much of her doing this its touching. Im speechless. The community is really coming together for my daughter.
Police havent found Johnny Ray Kendricks, the 49-year-old Rock Hill man police say stole Emilys donation jar, filled with $70, from the counter at Scotts Food Store at the corner of Heckle Boulevard and South Cherry Road on July 31.
But Elkins isnt mad.
Its a blessing, he said, insisting that Kendricks decision to steal a sick girls jar has motivated people from as far away as Utah and Vermont to send donations to help the family.
Shes going to be beat this and shes going to be OK, he said.
Is that Emily?
Maybe an hour later, Emily unexpectedly appeared at the game, intent on showing people how OK she would be.
Eyes turned to Emily as she was escorted to the side of the stands in a golf cart. While she sat and watched the game, a procession of classmates worked their way over to her. When the clock stopped in the fourth quarter, cheerleaders ran off the field to her.
Each time someone came, Emily was the first to open her arms and reach out for an embrace.
She gave at least two dozen more hugs before the fourth quarter was finished.
Ask Emily this girl whose voice has been relegated to a faint whisper, whose frame is fragile and whose blonde hair is almost completely gone how she felt about Wednesday nights support and, in a raspy voice that's hard to hear, but still persistent, she'll say: "Loved."
"I never knew I was this noticed or this missed at Saluda Trail," she said.
Chemotherapy has been rough for Emily, said her mother, Annie Brakefield.
Brakefield watched Emily watch the Wildcats cheer. She pointed at them.
Last year, that was her, Brakefield said about her daughter. She was on the field cheering.
Things changed in May when Emilys parents noticed her leg swell. It took five different doctors to determine that Emily was suffering from a cancer that, without haste, spread to her stomach.
We take it day by day, Brakefield said. She keeps us up. Its been a long five months. God has been good to us. Struggles teach us things. This is definitely building us up for something.
Praying keeps her going, Emily said in a weak whisper.
For 14 weeks, Emily had intensive chemotherapy at Levine Childrens Hospital. She was released Wednesday, after five straight days of chemo treatments. It wasnt even a whole hour before she told her mother she wanted to go to the game after receiving photos from her dad on the field.
They didnt even go home. Instead, they walked to the sidelines, where well-wishers flocked to Emily.
This is good for her spirits, Brakefield said.
That much became obvious as Emily sat on the cart and watched the game. She clapped her hands when the cheerleaders clapped theirs. She mimicked their hand gestures and moved to the same rhythm. She even gave a quick kick with gusto.
When Emily first showed up for cheerleader tryouts, it was obvious she was "mild-mannered" and "sometimes soft-spoken" said Lisa Dwyer-Dantzler, a journalism teacher at Saluda Trail Middle School and the Wildcats' cheerleading coach.
Over time, she formed a tight-knit group of friends among the squad. Many of them continue to stand beside Emily in her ordeal, Dwyer-Dantzler said.
Yarbrough and other girls on the squad asked Dwyer-Dantzler if they could do something special and out in the open for Emily. The teacher supported whatever they wanted to do.
"It wasn't something the adults or teachers said 'do,'" she said. "The girls came together and did it."
It started with the hair bows. The momentum caught and soon the bracelets and necklace gave way to mass production. T-shirts may be next.
At the game, teachers brought out a bin of the bracelets. For the people who didnt know about Emilys condition before Wednesday, the pink and white swirled armbands were in high demand.
It doesnt take adults pushing kids into doing something, Dwyer-Dantzler said. Im very proud of them. Something they might have thought was small is making a big difference.
Emily has 40 weeks of chemotherapy left. The combination of radiation and cancer has stolen 30 pounds she probably didnt have to spare.
And, shes tired. Wednesday, she said she planned to go home and sleep until I wake up.
She had a rough night last night, her father said Thursday morning.
Her parents called in a nurse after Emilys blood pressure dropped and she became dehydrated. She was nauseous and struggled with eating.
But on Wednesday night, as the bright sun began to set, Emily continued to glow.
Madey Yarbrough, her friend and supporter, wrapped her arms around Emilys. She sat beside her on the cart and posed for a picture along with the other Wildcats. Then, when the cameras were put away, she and her teammates walked to the fence and faced the field.
Many tears fell on the dirt Wednesday night. They dare not let Emily see it.
Amanda Price was adamant that Emily originally slated to start her high-school career at York Prep Academy would know shes not forgotten at Saluda Trail.
Once youre a Wildcat, youre always a Wildcat, she said, handing out fliers like she didnt have a game to cheer in.
The girls plan to give Emily the signs, Price said, so that she knows...
We love her, Yarbrough finished.
Jonathan McFadden 803 3289-4082.