By Ryan Bailey

Local soccer player Liam Flynn used his favorite sport as physical therapy during treatment for rare and aggressive cancer

CHARLOTTE—In March 2019, seven-year-old Liam Flynn stepped onto the field to play soccer with his local YMCA team.

For Liam, this was nothing out of the ordinary: the youngster from the Cotswold neighborhood has loved playing soccer since he was three years old.

But this was no ordinary match.

Just one month earlier, Liam was celebrating his “No Mo’ Chemo Day,” after 70 nights in hospital with stage 4 Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare and aggressive type of non-Hodgkin’s.

On the field that day, Liam returned to his passion; and the sport that had helped him bravely battle cancer.

“Liam returned to the soccer pitch to play a game before he returned to school,” says his father Shawn Flynn, a retired broadcaster and part-time soccer coach.. “All the parents on the sidelines clapped when he came on. It was a really special moment.”

“Since he was young, soccer is all he has wanted to do,” adds Shawn. “He hated missing playing when he was going through treatment. So, as soon as he could get back out on the pitch, he did.”

Liam (second left) after a tournament win in January 2021

In October 2018, then-six-year-old Liam complained of sharp pains in his stomach. A week later, after multiple tests, the St. Gabriel Catholic School student was admitted to hospital, at which point he could not walk on his own.

Throughout his six-month treatment, Liam endured a total 71 doses of IV chemo, 12 blood transfusions, 21 scans and X-rays, 13 doses of lumbar chemo under general anesthesia, and two surgeries.

Thanks to expert care and the emotional support of his family, Liam’s grueling chemo treatment started to show signs of working. From that point, he had to do physical therapy to recover his strength.

“In hospital, while he was getting treatment, I had a soccer ball in there,” says Shawn, who now works with the nonprofit Holy Angels. “I would throw it to him and he would kick it back. Then, he started to do toe taps and little skill drills.

“He didn’t want to do traditional physical therapy—no kid really wants to do that—but when we introduced a soccer ball, he absolutely wanted to do that.”

As his recovery continued—and his family used the hashtag #LiamStrong to spread awareness of pediatric cancer—Liam received a visit from Charlotte Independence players Hugh Roberts and Andrew Gutman (the latter of whom now plays with the New York Red Bulls in MLS).

“The visit from the Independence players was great,” says Shawn. “They stayed on for over an hour to play Lego with Liam, it was an incredible gesture. That’s just the way soccer players are.”

The Flynn family at the Charlotte Soccer Awards Gala in January 2020

In January 2020, with Liam in remission and building back his strength, the Flynn family attended the Charlotte Soccer Awards Gala, at which Tepper Sports & Entertainment President Tom Glick gave the keynote speech. In recognition of his incredible return to soccer, Liam was presented with the Comeback of the Year award.

“That was a really special moment,” says Shawn. “Most of those awards were meant for high school students, but he went up and the whole crowd stood and cheered for him. Afterwards, they were treating him like a rockstar, with fist bumps and congratulations.

“That night, he got the award plaque and hung it up right above his bed. We had to hang it up immediately, and it’s still hanging up there today.

“He doesn’t talk much about his experiences, but I could tell that moment really meant a lot to him.”

Liam, now nine years old, is two-and-a-half years post-treatment, and has regained 50% of his weight. He now plays soccer for the CSA-Uptown youth club.

“His favorite position is striker,” chuckles Shawn. “He has a knack for being in the right place and scoring goals. He’ll run people down and find ways to score.”

The Flynn family remain ardent soccer fans, having last watched soccer at Bank of America Stadium when Liverpool faced Borussia Dortmund in the 2018 International Champions Cup.

“Soccer is a sport that really brings people together,” says Shawn. “Last year, the [Charlotte FC Supporters group] Mint City Collective did six blood drives for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

“Soccer fans support each other, and there’s a real community spirit.”

With Liam fighting fit and continuing with passion for the sport that helped him and his family through its darkest hour, the Flynns are looking forward to celebrating at Charlotte FC games in 2022.

“Oh, without a doubt, we’ll be there,” says Shawn.

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Through September, Major League Soccer is supporting Childhood Cancer Awareness Month with the 8th annual “Kick Childhood Cancer” campaign. For every Tweet with the Hashtag #KickChildhoodCancer, MLS donates $1 to The Children’s Oncology Group Foundation.

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This Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, OneBlood are holding blood drives across the greater Charlotte area in honor of Little Heroes Impacted by the disease. OneBlood will donate $10 for every donor to the Isabella Santos Foundation, which seeks to find a cure for rare pediatric cancers.

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Local Charlotte charity Claire’s Army provides support for families fighting childhood cancer—and was an invaluable source of support during Liam’s treatment. Click here to donate.