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'A goal without a plan is just a dream': Dawson County siblings journey through football and leukemia treatments
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Riley reminisces about his time as a safety for the Dawson County Tigers while embracing his sister Natalie. - photo by Jacob Smith

Local senior Riley Herndon used to wake up every morning, scramble two eggs, make some toast and head to Dawson County High School. After the school day was over, he would go to football practice where he has played safety for the Tigers the last three seasons.

Herndon would then have to go home and cross his fingers that a parent would be home.

“If I was lucky, they would get to stay the night,” Herndon said. “If not, I’d get to see one parent every other day for about two hours.”

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Riley and Natalie Herndon in front of the painted tiger rock at the Dawson County High School football field. - photo by Jacob Smith

Both of Herndon’s parents were taking shifts at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where Riley’s eleven-year-old sister, Natalie, stayed overnight due to her chemotherapy treatments for leukemia.

“We were all sitting at the dinner table one night and Natalie was looking really pale and white and sick,” he said. “We thought ‘Okay, maybe she just has low iron.’ Dad took her to get some blood work done and when she came back, she had leukemia.”

Two years later and Natalie is just about four months away from being cleared of leukemia and Herndon is heading to Kentucky over the summer to play football on scholarship with Union College, a private four-year school in Barbourville, Ky. Throughout this time, both Riley and Natalie kept their family motto in mind: A goal without a plan is just a dream.

 

Leave everything on the field

During the summer of 2018, Herndon had just finished his sophomore year of high school and woke up at 6:30 a.m. to get to summer workouts while spending his afternoons at the Habersham Marina in Cumming, where he still works.

“I didn’t want to have to ask my parents for $40 every week so I could fill my truck up,” Herndon said. “They had bigger things to worry about. I took it on myself that I need to start providing some to take a little bit of the pressure off of them.”

Sometimes he would show up an hour early. Sometimes he would stay an hour late or stay up all night watching film. The football field became an escape for him to get all of his stress and worries out.

And his goal every practice — leave everything on the field.

“Throughout the week I’m a pretty happy, easy-going guy,” Herndon said. “I try to let most of the things that irritate me go. But it’s something like 30 minutes before kickoff, everything that happened that week comes back and puts me in a different mindset that I can’t explain.”

As Herndon became more and more frustrated with the news of his sister’s leukemia, he learned to channel that anger and that energy into his performance on the field.

“At first, it really pissed me off,” he said. “Questions like ‘why my little sister? Why not me?’ were coming to my head all of the time. I got this mindset that if she’s going to bust her butt to do what it takes to achieve her goal and beat this, then there’s no way I can let anything stop me from achieving my goals.”

 Nothing to do but wait

Natalie Herndon would sit in his hospital bed and think about riding horses at her grandparent’s ranch. She hoped that one day she would feel good enough to ride once she got out of the hospital.

“We’d wake up and order some breakfast from the cafeteria,” Natalie said. “The doctors would come in and tell you what chemo you’re going to have for that day. After that, we’d go to the garden area and play some games.”

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Natalie Herndon throws the football to her brother Riley Herndon. - photo by Jacob Smith

Since Natalie wasn’t allowed to be around other people, she stayed overnight, which put a hiatus on Herndon family game nights. No nightly Rummikub or B.S. or Go-fish. No pool tournaments and no movie nights where she and Herndon would compete to see who would get to pick the movie.

Natalie would try and spend as much time out of her hospital room as she could, but due to the lack of there being much fun things to do within the walls of the hospital, she’d find herself back in her room to watch TV.

“Whichever parent just switched out would bring me Taco Bell for lunch because they knew how much I hated the hospital food,” Natalie said. “Sometimes, the three of us would get to stay together for only about an hour and then the other would have to go handle something or get some sleep back at home.”

 

A goal without a plan is just a dream

 “Usually when I walk into the fieldhouse and a college coach is there, I don’t want them to see me because I’m undersized,” Herndon said. “I want them to see my film and my stats because the stats don’t lie.  When he told me I was who he was here to see, I was overjoyed.”

Herndon texted into his family group chat that he had gotten his first collegiate offer. Being the big Mexican food eaters that the Herndon’s are, they went to El Campesino that night.

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Riley Herndon hikes the ball to his sister, Natalie Herndon, who is currently battling Leukemia. - photo by Jacob Smith

Herndon said he was lucky enough to sit next to Natalie that night, due to her getting healthy enough to stay at the house again.

However, he said that night he remembered a conversation that he and his father had when Natalie was still staying overnight at the hospital. That first offer was from Birmingham Southern College. The university wanted him to come play as a ‘preferred walk-on,’ meaning that they wanted him to play for the school but they were not going to offer him any scholarship money.

“I knew in that moment that my dream was going to become a reality, but I didn’t need to settle,” he said. “I wanted the best that I could get because I knew I was giving the best I could give.”

There was one thing that his dad said that stuck with him from that moment and will stick with him for the rest of his life.

What did he say? A goal without a plan is just a dream.

 

He could hear me from the stands

Natalie, now in the seventh grade, found out last Thursday that she made the JV cheer team again this year again. She’s been cheering since she was five years old, and said that although she wasn’t able to cheer while she was sick, she silently cheered her friends on from her hospital bed.

“Honestly, I was really proud of myself,” Natalie said. “It was so hard last year because there was one point I could barely get off the floor by myself, but when tryouts happened, I did a whole dance.”

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Natalie Herndon watches her brother play football in the midst of undergoing Leukemia treatment. - photo by Photo submitted

July 20, 2020, is the date that Natalie should be cleared. With that date being so late into the summer, Herndon plans on being in Kentucky with Union College for summer practice before his freshman season starts.

“We used to not get along very well, but once I stopped being a tattle-tale, it got better,” Natalie said. “It’s nice when Riley’s home because we eat dinner together almost every night and his commentary is what makes it fun. Now he won’t be there and we may just sit in silence. I don’t like to think about it.”

During her overnight treatment, Natalie was cleared to get to do the one thing she looked forward to the most throughout the week: watching Riley play on Friday nights.

“I knew he’d achieve his goal and play in college,” Natalie said. “Sometimes it was really hard because I didn’t feel good whatsoever, but I know that he could still hear me from the stands.”

 

There’s a bigger picture

All three years that Riley played with the Tigers football team, they made it to the second round of the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) state tournament.

“I had a talk with the football team one day saying ‘Guys, how can a 13-year-old girl go through chemo for two years and we can’t bust it for two hours in the weight room’” Herndon said. “Guys told me it gave them the mindset of not just playing for yourself, but that we bring joy to people in the low parts of their life.”

Herndon said he hopes that his family can come to as many games while he is playing for the Union College Bulldogs as they possibly can, but understands that it won’t be as often as he is used to.

His biggest worry is that he might forget to stay true to himself. However, he knows that he will remember all the lessons that his sister taught him over the past two years.

“I’ve never really told her, because I didn’t want her to think she had to prove anything to anybody during her time in the hospital, but she’s proven to me that it what kind of person you are,” Riley said. “My whole life I thought ‘If you’re an athlete you’re successful,’ but there’s a bigger picture. There’s 13-year-old girls who ride horses and color and watch Netflix, but are getting woken up at 4 a.m. so a needle can get stuck inside you. My sister did that and my sister is getting cleared this summer.”

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