The text message was sent to Florida coach Mike White last week, on his 41st birthday.
In the form of a video, 11-year-old William Collett passed along best wishes and some advice through his dad, Tom Collett’s cellphone.
“Happy Birthday, Coach White,” William said. “Tell KeVaughn (Allen) to keep shooting.”
Young William has been sending quite a few texts to Coach White lately, offering words of encouragement through UF’s up-and-down 2017-18 season. At an early age, William has learned about adversity. Last May, William was healthy fourth-grader at Queen of Peace Academy, looking forward to going to White’s basketball camp for the second straight year the following month. Over Mother’s Day weekend, William complained of headaches and felt run down. To be sure, Tom and Ann Collett sent their son the following Monday to the family pediatrician, who saw something in William’s bloodwork she didn’t like.
Then came the trip to UF Health Shands Hospital. Then came the diagnosis — childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
The 10 months since have produced a mix of tears, smiles, hugs, long hospital stays, grueling chemotherapy treatments and head shaving parties. The Florida basketball team, preparing for its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance Thursday in Dallas, has been supportive through William’s journey. Junior guard KeVaughn Allen and junior center Kevarrius Hayes first visited William in his fourth floor hospital room at Shands last summer. White has invited William to practices and shoot-arounds. Last November, on William’s 11th birthday, Florida senior point guard Chris Chiozza sent a signed poster to him. The poster was of Chiozza rising up to take the eventual game-winning, 3-pointer in overtime in UF’s Sweet 16 win over Wisconsin last year.
“It kind of lifts me up knowing that they are here for me, knowing that they share the love of basketball like I do,” William said.
That spirit goes both ways.
“It just shows you not to take anything for granted,” Chiozza said. “I get to play the game that I love. He’s just a little kid and he’s battling every day. That’s something a lot of people don’t get to overcome. It just puts things in perspective, it just humbles you. I’m just hoping that he beats it. We’re all pulling for him. We’re all behind him. We’re just hoping he gets over it.”
A family fight
Florida fans know Tom Collett as the booming voice over the PA system during UF basketball games, a labor of love he’s toiled since after UF’s first-ever Final Four run in 1994. Collett helps broadcast a number of other UF events, including serving as the voice for the UF women’s volleyball team.
For Tom and Ann, the news of William’s diagnosis was met with a range of emotions. William is the oldest of their two children. The couple also have a 9-year-old daughter, Magen.
“You never really think what the diagnosis is going to be, so complete shock,” Ann said. “But in that instant I just said to myself and Tom and I both agreed that God was going to heal him completely and we had that belief and that we were going to, we don’t like this diagnosis, but we were going to make the most of it along the way.”
Tom recalled pacing the hallways of the fourth floor at Shands for hours that night. The drive home to gather William’s belongings for the first of many hospital stays was difficult.
“It was a mixture of praying and crying and just the whole gamut of emotions,” Tom said.
“But I think the one thing that anchored us is our faith that with God anything is possible so we will place our trust in God and asked him to direct the people at Shands and we’ve always asked for folks, for the best thing to do for William and for our family is to pray and that he’s going to be OK.”
William was told he couldn’t go to school for the rest of the fourth-grade year and wouldn’t be able to participate in White’s summer camp. However, William did summon the strength to take part in the Knight’s of Columbus Free Throw contest. Wearing a surgical mask to prevent infection, William made 22 of 25 to advance to the regional round. Last month, weakened by chemotherapy treatments, William took part in the regional event. Running up to the line to attempt the shots, William made just 7 of 25 attempts, but still finished runner up.
“William told me he would have felt bad if he didn’t at least try,” Tom said.
As kids do, William found the bright side of his diagnosis. Not going to school meant William could watch his favorite sport, basketball, deep into the night instead of having to wake up early for class. So William and Tom have spent their share of nights in hospital rooms watching 10:30 p.m. tips of William’s two favorite teams — the Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder (because of former Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan). The Thunder, care of Donovan, have sent gift packages to William’s hospital room as well.
In a sign of solidarity, Tom shaved his head over the summer to match William’s bald look. So did William’s two best friends at Queen of Peace, Ethan Walsh and Jackson Islam.
Ann has served as William’s primary caregiver and has witnessed strength and wisdom from her son that belies his age.
“The name William, the meaning of the name is warrior and I think that has certainly come through,” Ann said. “Through the course of this process. He’s very inspirational. He doesn’t get really, what’s the right word, he doesn’t get upset necessarily. He almost has an innate ability to re-direct his focus of other things so he’s not focused on the ugliness of what he’s going through.
“He is very positive and joyful every day and we find laughter and joy and fun in every single day regardless of how the treatment may be that day or how bad it makes him feel.”
Back to school, camp
The latest medical reports on William’s condition are promising. After an intense round of chemotherapy in which William was spending five days a week at Shands, the latest tests show that William’s white blood cell counts are up. He’s beginning what is termed as the maintenance phase of his treatment this week, which includes oral chemotherapy.
This week, William was cleared by doctors to return to school at Queen of Peace next month with his fifth-grade classmates (he’s been taking classes remotely). More good news came when William received a letter from physicians that he can return to White’s basketball camp in June.
“He’s a fighter and he’s a tough kid,” White said. “He’s got a magnetic personality and he’s become a friend. We’re anxious to get him back into camp.”
In recent games, White has worn a yellow wristband that reads “Pray for William,” the same wristband that William’s classmates at Queen of Peace have worn during the school year. William exchanged his own “Pray for William” wristband with Florida freshman soccer player Lauren Evans, who like William, was diagnosed with leukemia. That wristband reads “#HE-LO-FASTORY” with the LO standing for Lauren’s nickname.
Other UF athletic programs have reached out to William as well. First-year Florida women’s basketball coach Cam Newbauer invited William to speak at a practice. William also received visits from UF women’s volleyball coach Mary Wise and several players last May.
Tom took in the scene at shoot-around last month for UF’s home game against Alabama. William posed for pictures with Chiozza and Florida junior guard Jalen Hudson, in his surgical mask. Then, William shot the ball at the far end of the O’Connell Center court, with White and the rest of UF’s coaching staff rebounding for him.
“It makes you appreciate all of the little moments,” Tom said. “Every day is a gift and you can’t spend enough time with your kids. Know where your priorities are. And it’s shed new light on the importance of family and you can’t get time back and it’s raised that level of knowing that you need to do everything you can with your family with the time you’ve got.”
What: NCAA Tournament
Who: No. 23 Florida plays St. Bonaventure, which beat UCLA 65-58 in Tuesday night’s play-in game in Dayton.
When: 10:10 p.m. Thursday