ROTTERDAM — The exercise was meant to be tough, to drain its participants before a well-deserved water break on a hot day.
As one player walked on her hands with her body parallel to the grass, her ankles rested in the hands of a trailing teammate. The aptly-named “wheelbarrow” is an exercise that hits one muscle group after another in an athlete’s body.
Davia Rossi smiled as she readied for her turn at last week’s club soccer practice in Colonie.
Then came the shout of determination.
“I’m made of steel,” Rossi said.
Like usual with her, a laugh followed.
That combination, her personal strength and sense of humor, carried Rossi through this past year. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma this past August, Rossi missed her girls’ soccer season at Schalmont High School, but is now back playing for her Black Watch Premier club team this summer.
“And when she walked on the field for the first time since coming back, her touch on the ball and her ability to make things happen on the field . . . it was like she had not taken any time off,” said Alaina Resue, Rossi’s coach both at Schalmont and this summer with Black Watch Premier. “It was amazing to see.”
That word — amazing — was one of the words Rossi, 15, used to describe the support she received during the past year, as her plight became one that the Capital Region — and beyond — rallied around. The T-shirts with “Rossi Strong” across their backs designed to serve as warmup tops for her high school team became more than that, with nearly 2,000 of the shirts sold in support of her. Rival area teams showed up to games with signs and well-wishes, while Section III’s Marcellus — a team Rossi’s Schalmont squad defeated in the 2015 state playoffs on its way to a state championship — imprinted “Rossi Strong” on the right sleeve of its warmup shirts.
Outside of soccer, more traditional fundraisers and dinners were conducted to help Rossi and her family.
“It was just crazy to see how many people supported me,” said Rossi, who was 14 years old when she received a diagnosis the American Cancer Society estimates 72,000 will receive this year in the United States. “I knew my family and friends would be there for me, but to see people from all over the area come together for me was amazing.”
Rossi, who scored the game-winning goal in Schalmont’s 2015 state-championship win and has taken part in elite U.S. Soccer Training Center sessions, received her diagnosis just as the preseason for last fall’s soccer season had started. Hours after she received the news, she went to her practice to tell her teammates. Her chemotherapy treatments started a couple weeks later.
Through all that, she kept smiling and laughing. Rossi’s teammates leaned on the freshman for support — “Her strength is what’s kept us going,” teammate Alexis Horwedel said at the time — and the same went for her father Al, mother Mary Ann, and older siblings Gino and Julia
“But that’s just her personality,” Rossi’s father said. “She’s a strong kid. A lot stronger than we are, that’s for sure.”
The situation only started to bother Rossi when she started missing one day of school after another.
“I love going to school, seeing my friends,” she explained.
But she stayed strong — Rossi Strong — even as her physical appearance started to change. She lost her hair, her eyebrows and all but a few of her eyelashes.
What stayed was her positive disposition. That’s what Steve Freeman, founder and executive director of Black Watch Premier, found so stunning.
“She made adults feel comfortable about it. That’s how graceful she is. She’s a role model,” said Freeman, who first met Rossi when she was 3 or 4 years old and chasing a soccer ball of her own at her older brother’s club practices. “She’s very giggly and that’s how she disarms you. She had a way of making you feel like everything was going to be OK.
“I know there were bad days. I know that,” Freeman continued. “But she got through them. She didn’t want you to feel bad for her. She didn’t want that. She never asked for that.”
Rossi received her first cancer-free scan in December. Her final chemotherapy treatment at Albany Medical Center was in mid-January. By February, she was back in school, full-time. A trio of tutors had helped her through the school year’s first several months, during which she attended school when she could, often for only part of the day. Her father estimated there were 60 school days Rossi missed in their totality.
Rossi finished her freshman year with an average in the mid-90s, anyways. She made high honor roll each quarter.
“She’s always been an honors student,” Resue said.
Rossi started her soccer comeback in late February with a practice here and there, but was relatively inactive until the start of May, right around her 15th birthday. She played in her first tournament during Memorial Day weekend — she scored, of course — and now has turned her focus to a series of goals for the summer.
“To get fit again. To play soccer. To run,” Rossi said. “To be with my friends and family.”
She’s a bit nervous about this upcoming fall season. Her team will again be one of Section II’s and the state’s best Class B squads, but she’s worried opposing players might view her as something besides a scoring machine.
“I feel like people might take it easy on me. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s one thing I know I don’t want,” Rossi said. “I don’t want that to happen. I want to be treated normally, as if nothing happened this past year.”
“She doesn’t want to be labeled by this. She doesn’t want to be known as the girl who had cancer,” Resue said. “She wants to be Davia Rossi, the soccer player, the funky, fun 15-year-old she is.”
There’s work ahead for Rossi to get to that point on the soccer field. Her talent is as evident as ever, but her conditioning level is poor by her standards after this past fall’s and winter’s treatments took their toll on her body. For Rossi, this summer’s workouts with her club team are more about building up her stamina than anything else.
She’s taking advantage of that chance. Right before her turn in her team’s wheelbarrow exercise at its recent practice, the team went through a drill in which most of its players work on making quick passes as two pinnie-clad players sprint around as defenders. When the drill reached its final turn, only one player had not yet taken a turn as a defender. At first, nobody moved to pick up the second blue pinnie to take the extra sprinting shift.
Then, Rossi stepped forward.
“I’ll go, I’ll go,” Rossi said. “I’ve got this.”