NATAL, Brazil — When 17-year-old Hannah Smith, a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor, boarded a plane in Pittsburgh and headed to Brazil last week, she had no idea of the surprises in store for her with the U.S. national team. What Smith knew was this: She had been named an honoree of the Craig Willinger Fund, a Baltimore-based organization that sends young soccer lovers who’ve dealt with cancer on the trip of a lifetime.
For Hannah, a high school senior who will play soccer at Division I St. Francis University, that meant attending the U.S.-Ghana World Cup game with her mom, Rori, on her first trip outside the United States. Soccer had been a driving force for Hannah during her chemotherapy, with her goal of returning to the playing field giving her strength. Now it was happening again: At the World Cup Fan Fest in Natal, she celebrated two years of being cancer-free. But Hannah still didn’t know what was coming next.
The Craig Willinger Fund started in 2009 after a bunch of Liverpool fans in Baltimore collected money to send Willinger, who had a high-risk cancer diagnosis, on a trip to see his beloved Bayern Munich. Willinger returned energized from the experience and helped organize other trips for people like him. The Fund has now had nine honorees, sending them on expenses-paid trips to meet Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Frank Lampard, Javier Hernández and the 2010 U.S. World Cup team, among others.
Thanks to $20,000 in donations, Hannah and Rori flew to Natal last week. And on Saturday, two days before the U.S.-Ghana game, U.S. Soccer administrator Tom King made sure she had a surprise unlike anything she had ever experienced. Visiting the U.S. team hotel, Hannah got to meet every member of the U.S. team. They all posed for pictures and signed a U.S. jersey for her. When he found out she was a cancer survivor, U.S. defender DaMarcus Beasley gave her a big hug. And when captain Clint Dempsey came by, he literally gave her the soccer cleats off his feet and signed them.
By the time the U.S. game started on Monday night, Hannah didn’t think it could get any better. But then it did: John Brooks’s 86th-minute header gave the U.S. one of the biggest wins in team history, and SI’s camera was there for Hannah’s reaction. Watch it all above.