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"This Princess is Cancer-Free": Minnesota Football’s "Row the Boat" Culture Inspires Young Girl to Beat Cancer

07/30/2019, 9:15pm CDT
By Daniel House

When eight-year-old Megan Wagner approached one of her biggest fans, she was ready to show off her brand new shirt. This time, it wasn’t just an ordinary piece of clothing – it commemorated the end of an eight-month battle.

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck read the glittery words – “this princess is cancer-free.” A young girl’s bright smile radiated as she reached her hand out for a celebratory first-bump.

Fleck let out a joyful victory cry and said, “now that’s a special shirt.” After spending 101 nights in the hospital battling a rare form of osteosarcoma, his friend, Megan, was set to have her port removed on Wednesday. During her eight months at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, Megan underwent extensive cancer treatments. Doctors removed about five inches of her femur, along with parts of her tibia and growth plate. 

When she was going through difficult treatments, Megan was uplifted by the Fleck family and Minnesota football players. Even when she was experiencing her toughest days, Megan knew she had an entire team of people behind her. Coach Fleck and his wife, Heather, made sure of it. 

Megan’s mother, Andrea, still remembers the warm embrace her daughter received from P.J. Fleck in the hospital. 

“He bent down, he rubbed her back and said, ‘you are amazing, you are fighter and you’re going to beat this,’” her mother said. “It was simple, but it was so profound.”

Megan and her family recalled this moment Tuesday while speaking with Fleck during the team’s annual “Row the Boat” Barbecue at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. After talking with her family for a few minutes, Fleck knelt down and looked Megan in the eye, “I’m really glad you’re here and doing great,” he said. Fleck encouraged Megan and her family to enjoy the barbeque. 

While Wagner pushed ahead on her crutches, Fleck patted her mother on the back and said, “I’m so happy for her.” Seconds later, Megan was stopped by P.J. Fleck’s wife, Heather. Every time they see each other, Megan and Heather always get the same tattoo. 

“I’ll meet you at face painting -- whatever you get, I get it,” Heather Fleck said. 

These type of moments mean everything to P.J. and Heather Fleck, who continue to support the Masonic Children’s hospital. When the Fleck family sees young patients fighting these type of battles, it puts everything into perspective.

“Megan was in a wheelchair going through very, very difficult treatment. At one point, it didn’t look very good. Her whole family has all been around her. Eight months they spent here – eight months – think about that,” Fleck said. “Eight months of your life in a room. We take that for granted. If you don’t know, you’ve got to find a way to know, because it puts your whole life into perspective. It makes you feel really good when people come here that we have the best in the world at helping young people with very special diseases. To see them get better – it makes your heart smile.”

This type of community service is part of Minnesota’s “Row the Boat” culture – “a never give up” mantra. Before kicking off fall practices, Fleck and all of his players attended Tuesday’s “Row the Boat Barbeque.” Patients had the chance to knock running back Mohamed Ibrahim into a dunk tank, use inflatables and interact with every Gopher Football player. 

While Megan was at the event, she had to find one of her favorite hospital visitors, linebacker Thomas Barber. During her stay at the children’s hospital, Barber was a player she developed a relationship with. When Megan was faced very difficult emotional and physical challenges, her mother would hand her motivational cards. One day, Megan and her mother decided to give one to Thomas. Thomas Barber saw Megan at Tuesday’s event and instantly pulled the card out of his wallet. A big smile stretched across his face.

“[Thomas] has a little card that we gave him,” Andrea Wagner said. “We wanted to give them to the players that really had impacted us. He has it in his wallet. You open it up and it has a saying. There’s like 500 different sayings and there’s one saying per card. It’s pretty cool that we’ve made an impact and they’ve made one on us.”

While spending time with Barber, Megan was introduced to holder Casey O’Brien, who also won multiple battles with osteosarcoma. O’Brien spent more than 200 nights at the same hospital and met Megan for the first time on Tuesday. He can relate to the battle Megan and many other patients face. 

“I spent quite a bit of time in this hospital myself. I spent over 200 nights on the fifth floor over here battling back and forth with cancer,” O’Brien said at the event. “You just have to remember Row the Boat is about never giving up and if you believe that and you really live it, like [the Fleck] family does, and like our team does, you’ll be just fine.” 

It was a similar happy ending for Megan. Her scans showed she was cancer-free on July 10. Megan’s mother credits Dr. Emily Greengard and staff at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s hospital for their treatment plan. 

“Like six percent of all pediatric cancers are osteosarcoma and two percent of osteosarcoma is what she has, so it’s extremely rare,” Andrea Wagner said. “Without them sending it on further, they could have just removed the tumor and it would have spread to her lungs and taken her life. So we are just beyond grateful for the knowledge and the skill set that is possessed with everyone here.”

Not only is the family thankful for the hospital staff, but they see the difference P.J. Fleck and the Minnesota football program had in their lives. It is the type of support that can lift an entire family through a dark time. 

“[P.J. Fleck] is one of the most genuine people we know. He’s just a super, incredible man,” Andrea Wagner said. “I love what he is teaching the players about being a father and business person – it’s more than just football. There’s bigger things in life and being a good person is the biggest thing. He models that every day by being an amazing leader and being someone that people can look up to. He models for them what it’s like to be a leader.”

Stories like Megan’s continue inspiring the Fleck family to make a difference through the Fleck Family Foundation and Row the Boat Fund. 

“I’m a football coach. I get judged on wins and losses, but there’s so much that goes into winning and losing. So much goes into becoming a winner,” Fleck said. 

“I was told a long time ago, there’s an expiration date on every single coach and they’ll never remember your wins, but they will remember how you made people feel. In reverse, I’ll never forget how these patients and the Masonic Children’s hospital make me, Heather and our family feel.” 

For Megan’s family, Tuesday’s celebration with a football coach’s family and players, created a moment they’ll never forget. 

When asked about her daughter’s interaction with P.J. Fleck on Tuesday, a small tear trickled across her face.

“It took my breath away,” she said.

 

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The Fleck family and Gopher football players pose with Megan Wagner's family at Tuesday's Row the Boat Barbeque.  IMG-5168
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Minnesota linebacker Thomas Barber shows Megan Wagner the motivational card she gave him at the hospital. Barber keeps it in his wallet and carries it with him everywhere.

 

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