The path that South Jordan’s Riley Culley had mapped out for himself took an unexpected detour last March when the Bingham High all-state offensive lineman’s lower back pain led to a diagnosis of Ewings’ Sarcoma. A football scholarship to Dixie State University in the fall was suddenly on hold and the least of his or his family’s concerns or priorities. Culley was now facing months of chemotherapy and radiation to fight this cancer.
“My first thought was, ‘What do I do now? How do I beat this?’” he said.
Riley Culley (on far right) poses with his younger brother, Levi, who shaved his head to share hairstyles during Riley’s battle with cancer. Riley’s mom Jackie is on the left.
Riley’s mother, Jackie Culley, who was trying to balance her family and business, had a perspective shift with a heart full of gratitude the evening before discovering that Riley had cancer, writing to her missionary daughter [who is serving in Brazil] that ‘problems are only problems.”
When the Culleys were confronted with the reality of Riley’s situation, Jackie said her initial gut feeling wasn’t one of panic.
“It was more that this happened for a reason, and there are lessons to be learned from this,” she said. “I had been blessed to have put life into perspective just the day before, and that was where my mindset was.”
So, Riley used the lessons he learned on the football field as a two-time all-state center to tackle cancer.
“I just had to attack this knowing that I wasn’t going to let this stop me and that I just had to get through it, just like football,” he said. “I listened to my doctors, tried to get used to everything and stayed prepared.”
“Riley was a great leader in our program,” recently-retired Bingham head football coach Dave Peck said.
Former Bingham High football player Riley Culley helped coach the Miners offensive line this past season.
“It was neat to see the team and community support him with amazing fundraisers.”
With those teammates, the community and his family rallying around him, Riley went through months of chemotherapy and radiation while experiencing a range of emotions from positivity, anger and resentment to happiness and laughter.
“Our attitudes have changed, and our whole family has personally benefitted from this,” Jackie said. “Riley was the glue holding us all together, and here he was the one facing cancer.”
This past football season, Riley helped coach Bingham’s offensive line and even traveled with the team to play Bishop Gorman (Nev.) and in the State Champions Bowl Series in Florida.
“I think it took his mind off what he was going through because he didn’t want to have a pity party,” Peck said. “It was great to have him involved, and I think it was good for our other kids to see that going through tough things is life and this is a pretty good way to handle those challenges.”
Riley was able to “ring the bell” at Primary Children’s Hospital in mid-January signaling the end of his treatments. His port was removed Feb. 6.
“It feels good to be back,” Riley said. “I have to really go back to the basics, but I just want to go play football.”
Riley credits his grandpa Jay Culley, who passed away from bladder cancer during his senior year, for much of the strength he received throughout this past year.
“I feel like he’s been right there helping me,” he said. “Through all of this, I learned that everything happens for a reason, and you just have to take what’s given to you and make the best of it.”
Trying to “pick up where I left off,” Riley is back in the gym working out as his daily stamina allows and is also working part-time at a gym while he again prepares to go play college football, the dream he was sidetracked from nearly a year ago.
“One thing I do understand is that every day is a gift, and being able to spend so much quality time this year with Riley has been a blessing,” Jackie said. “Had he taken off for college I would have missed it.”
Riley hopes to reach out and inspire others who are facing cancer or other challenges that have taken their life down a different road.