Athletes often select the numbers on the back of their uniforms as a reminder of some sort of significance in their life.
Many influenced by Michael Jordan fight to wear No. 23 on the basketball court, NHL star Sidney Crosby wears No. 87 because it reflects his birthday and NFL quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dons a No. 7 for his idol John Elway on the gridiron.
But for Madison Wood, a freshman forward on the SUU soccer team, the number she wears on her wrist each time sprints onto the field means much more to her than any number on her back of her jersey. The No. 13 — a number worn by Wood’s longtime friend and club teammate on the Utah Avalanche, Alexis “Lexe” Selman.
Lexe is currently battling leukemia: a disease that has prematurely halted her soccer ambitions at the University of Arizona, where she signed to further her game and education. Lexe’s story has drawn media attention throughout Salt Lake City, as well as Tucson, Ariz., where Arizona’s campus is located.
And her story continues to motivate Wood every time she walks onto the soccer pitch.
The No. 13 isn’t a bad omen to Wood, but a message of hope and perseverance; a reminder to never surrender and always give the largest effort possible. A message that can be relayed on and off the soccer field.
“I’m always having her in the back of my mind — knowing that she can’t do this for herself, so I need to do it the best that I can for her,” Wood said, pushing away tears in her eyes. “It’s always in my mind to do the best that I can, so one day she can come back and do the best that she can do.”
Getting to Know Lexe Selman
Wood’s friendship with Lexe Selman began when the two became teammates on the Utah Avalanche club team a little more than five years ago.
By that time Lexe had already made a name for herself in Utah’s thriving soccer club community.
“I came on (to the Avalanche) and she was already like super big and I was like ‘OK cool, you’re already too good for me,’” Wood chuckled.
As Wood’s duration on the Avalanche continued, her admiration for her teammate only strengthened.
“Throughout the years I’ve just known that she has been the nicest person and she’s just so into soccer,” Wood said. “It’s been her one passion in life and you can totally see that on the field.”
However, Wood isn’t the only T-Bird soccer player that had the opportunity to play alongside Lexe. Senior midfielder Morgan Bridge played one season with Lexe, but it was long enough to help Bridge realize that Lexe was different from the rest of the pack.
“When I played with her, she was just the most hardworking person I’ve ever seen,” Bridge said. “She wanted to play and she wanted it more than anyone else.”
Lexe’s hard work and energy eventually paid off when she accepted a full-ride scholarship at Arizona of the Pac-12 Conference, and became one of the top high school prospects for the incoming collegiate freshman class of 2012 in the country, according to topdrawersoccer.com.
But everything changed on April 20.
April 20: The Day that Changed Everything
All Wood remembers of April 20 is that it was a Friday and nothing more — that is, of course, before the news broke.
It was a typical afternoon after school when her parents took her aside with concerned faces.
“I’m always having (Lexe) in the back of my mind — knowing that she can’t do this for herself, so I need to do it the best that I can for her. It’s always in my mind to do the best that I can, so one day she can come back and do the best that she can do.” - SUU forward Madison Wood
Instantly Wood thought she was in trouble, but that wasn’t the case.
“They just told me that (Lexe) was diagnosed with leukemia,” Wood said, trying to fight back the tears welling up in her eyes. “I didn’t believe it and it didn’t feel real. They were really understanding and helped out a lot. It was just surreal.”
The news travelled across the Utah soccer community quickly.
Bridge said she found out what was happening a couple of days later through posts on Facebook.
“I didn’t believe it,” Bridge said. “I couldn’t believe that someone I had just watched in a game be diagnosed with leukemia. It was crazy.”
Lexe was admitted into the hospital for treatment almost immediately, leaving many wondering if her soccer career and possibly more was now in limbo. Then Lexe showed everyone why she wasn’t ready to give up.
The Golden Goal
Shortly after Lexe went through a round of chemotherapy around June, she felt healthy enough to support her Avalanche club team.
That was the original plan, at least.
“She was going to come and just watch our game and then decided she wanted to warm up with us,” Wood said.
The original plan continued to morph until Lexe found a way to start the game.
“We kind of made a plan without anyone knowing that she was going to play two minutes and see what’s going to happen,” Wood said.
“It was seriously one of the best moments of my life. Just for her to experience that and get that moment of happiness for her is just more than anything we could ask for. It just fits her personality that, that would happen because she’s just like that.” - SUU forward Madison Wood
What happened next would go on to be described as something out of a Disney movie, from those who were in attendance during the game.
Lexe was now in the starting lineup for the Avalanche, which happened to have opening possession to start the game.
“We started playing and she went really hard for a ball and got hit, and everyone was freaking out,” Wood said, recalling the game. “Her mom was like ‘pull her out, I don’t know why we’re doing this.’ And then 20 seconds later, (Lexe) turns this player and rips this shot, and it just goes in. Everyone just starts crying and screaming and just freaking out.”
The goal, which occurred less than two minutes after the game started, captured the attention of news outlets around Salt Lake City like KSL, which featured the goal and Lexe’s story.
Despite the chemotherapy, Lexe showed everyone she hadn’t lost a step in her game.
“It was seriously one of the best moments of my life,” Wood said. “Just for her to experience that and get that moment of happiness for her is just more than anything we could ask for. It just fits her personality that, that would happen because she’s just like that.”
Playing For a Greater Cause
Before each SUU game, Wood writes down Lexe’s No. 13 on the inside of her wrist as a reminder of who she’s also playing for.
That’s a tradition that was set by Wood and her teammates at the first Avalanche game after Lexe’s surprising diagnosis, which Wood said happened to be the next day.
“We just all decided to write it down on our wrists and honor her number,” Wood said. “It just started from that and I just kept it on to remind me that I can get through hard things, embrace her and work hard every moment, because you never knew when your last day is.”
But Lexe’s goal to beat cancer automatically transcended past just her teammates like Wood, as well as her future teammates at Arizona.
An initiative started by Lexe’s parents called “Lexe Kicks Leukemia” began, documenting Lexe’s fight and updating everyone about Lexe’s condition online.
Several of SUU’s players, like Bridge, adopted the “Lexe Kicks Leukemia” logo — a simple orange circle outlined in the Avalanche's powder blue and her number in the center — as their Facebook profile photo to help raise awareness, and even Major League Soccer club Real Salt Lake stepped in to help Lexe’s fight.
Bridge said she also saw the Avalanche’s rivals help in Lexe’s cause, which she said proved the level of impact Lexe has in the soccer community.
“I saw two rivalries in the state of Utah: Avalanche and Sparta and they played the same game with the same armbands and had a picture together,” Bridge said. “That doesn’t happen and it was all for her.”
In one of the most impressive SUU debuts to date, Madison Wood made an immediate impact when she first stepped onto the soccer pitch for the T-Birds on Aug. 19, in a 2-1 double overtime loss to UC-Riverside.
"I imagine that still carries her through the season and through every game and practice. I know she’s always getting updates on how things are going up north and how Lexe is doing, so I’m sure it’s always on her mind.” - SUU head coach Becky Hogan
Shortly after checking into her first collegiate game, Wood grabbed a rebound from a collision ahead of her. With the opposing goalkeeper down, Wood belted a shot perfectly placed into the net — instantly becoming one of the quickest players to score in her career in school history.
Though Wood says there wasn’t much thought once the ball left her foot other than disbelief, the goal had meaning for Wood, and a good portion of the moment was dedicated to Lexe.
After that game, SUU head coach Becky Hogan said Wood is on a mission this year. She added that Wood has a fiery personality on the field, but knows Lexe still plays a factor.
“(Madison) is just an energetic kid no matter what, so you don’t know what motivates her” Hogan said. “But I imagine that still carries her through the season and through every game and practice. I know she’s always getting updates on how things are going up north and how Lexe is doing, so I’m sure it’s always on her mind.”
Lexe finished her fourth and final round of chemotherapy on Sept. 2, according to the “Lexe Kicks Leukemia” blog updating her battle with cancer. However, she suffered some setbacks after the round.
Regardless, Bridge said she knows Lexe will win her battle and when she does, she will dominate at Arizona.
“I know if she was playing right now, she would be starting and doing amazing things,” Bridge said. “What she can do right now instead is help other people. So, every game, I play my hardest because I know it can happen to anybody.”
That sentiment was the first thing in Wood’s mind when she learned of Lexe’s illness on April 20.
“The first thing my mom said is ‘she’s going to beat it,’” Wood said. “I was like ‘well yeah, because she’s Lexe Selman.’ Her attitude in life is just so amazing and she can do anything she puts her mind to.”