Mike McKinney would not have found out about his brain cancer if it wasn't for a Philadelphia Union billboard posted on Interstate 95.
It was 2008, shortly after the Union was announced as the next expansion team in MLS.
McKinney, a lifelong soccer player, saw that Union billboard and decided to get back into the game. He went online, searched for local teams, and hooked up with "Spruce Goose FC," a club in the Philadelphia-based Casa League.
"The year that the Union got picked to be the next team, I was driving down the highway and I saw the billboard," McKinney told philadelphiaunion.com. "I had played soccer my whole life, and seeing that billboard sort of spurred me to get back into it. I googled soccer, and my zip code, and Casa came up, and (Spruce Goose) were looking for somebody. I went all the way out to Media and started playing with them."
But even before Mike started playing with Spruce Goose, he knew something was wrong. He would wake up feeling sick and nauseous. Vomiting was a regular thing.
The symptoms were exacerbated when he took the field.
"Once I started getting more active, I found it was easier for me to get headaches, and I wasn't feeling so well. The first two seasons I played, it wasn't anything too noticeable. I just figured I was using my head a lot and that's what caused it. I was always having problems with my vision."
It was more than that.
"One day we were at a practice game and my head hit the post, I went down, and went to the hospital with a concussion. I started bleeding profusely out of my nose and my ears. I went unconscious for awhile and they figured it was something more than a concussion."
Doctors found a benign tumor in the back of Mike's brain.
He says it caused constant pressure in his head, almost as if he was walking around with non-stop concussion symptoms. The vomiting and nausea continued, with vertigo and dizziness thrown into the mix.
Mike underwent gamma knife surgery to remove that tumor on Wednesday, April 6, 2011. He needed Thursday and Friday to recover so he could be in the River End for the April 9 home game against the New York Red Bulls.
"They wanted me to do it on a Friday, but I said I've got a game on Saturday, so I can't miss that", laughed McKinney when recalling the days after his surgery.
For the next six months, Mike felt good.
Then the symptoms returned.
He went back to the doctor, and they found another tumor, this time in the front of his brain. It was larger and it was cancerous.
Mike's friend and Casa League teammate Mike Nevinsky remembers that part of the story.
"Last Summer, last Fall, the symptoms were getting a lot worse," Nevinsky said. "He was getting ear bleeds and nose bleeds and he actually fell in his home. He fell down his stairs and broke his TV. He was like, 'I've got to go to the doctor'. He went, was tested again, got a second opinion and found out that he had stage one brain cancer."
Helping a Friend
Mike, a single father of three kids, can't undergo chemotherapy because of the dangerous location of the tumor. He's again looking at gamma knife surgery, which uses radiation beams to treat cancer without opening up the patient's skull.
Doctors told Mike he's got a good shot at winning his battle, as long as he begins treatment by June. He needed to come up with $6,800, or 10% of the $68,000 total cost of all medical expenses.
That's where the Philadelphia soccer community comes into play.
Nevinsky, teaming up with Casa League president Ryan Pine, the Sons of Ben, and other local groups, put together a "Kick Cancer" benefit at Jon's Bar and Grille on South Street in Philadelphia.
Admission covered food and drink, with numerous auction items and raffle prizes up for grabs. Friends and family could bid on Union tickets and jerseys, a flat screen TV, a Kindle, promotions from the Phillies, Sixers, and Wings, and all sorts of other items.
Union winger Danny Cruz took part in the festivities as well.
"I was really surprised at how many people immediately were sending us messages that they wanted to help out," said Nevinsky. "They were donating money, donating items for auction. Mike, he's determined he's going to beat this. I figured we'd get this done as quickly as we can, and raise as much money as we can to help him get started."
By the end of the day, funds for Mike totalled $8,860 dollars. That's more than enough money to get him started with treatment.
Pine says the fundraiser's success is a testament to the close-knit nature of the Casa League, and the entire Philadelphia soccer community.
"If you look at the genesis of the league, casa obviously is a Spanish word for 'house'", Pine explained. "It was started by University of Pennsylvania graduate students. It was a very small league, six to seven teams way back in 2005. It's grown exponentially since then but we've always sort of retained that family feel. When something like this happens to one of our members, we treat it as if they were a family member. We've had referees in the past that have had health scares and concerns and it's been the same reaction. People have rallied around them and it's a beautiful thing. To be able to retain that sense of family, even though we've grown to about 50 teams and almost 2,000 players is really wonderful."
Paying it Forward
There's a strong sense of humility to Mike McKinney. He's a guy who understands the reality of his situation, and he approaches the challenge in a grounded manner.
When I spoke with him at the benefit, he told me he had "mixed feelings" about what was going on.
"It feels great to know that, even if you don't know somebody, there's still enough compassion in the world for people to help out if they can," McKinney said. "But times are hard for everyone. I've never been to a benefit before, and I never thought the first one would be my own benefit. But it's great. I appreciate everything that's going on, but on the other side, I just wish it wasn't happening. I wish I wasn't here, I wish you weren't here. I wish I was working, but those are the cards I was dealt, and I'm going to deal with them. I have great support around me with friends and family. Basically the soccer team is my family. It's just me, my kids, and the soccer team."
Mike still has a long way to go, but he's already planning to turn the fundraiser into an annual event.
"I'm not the only person out there. I know that. I don't want to be one of those guys who says, 'oh you helped me out, now whatever'. It's all about paying it forward. If there's something I can do, I'll do whatever I can. This is about paying it forward when you can."
Nevinsky is on board with that idea.
"Mike came up with the idea of making this an annual thing, and this is just the first one," Nevinsky added. "Next year we're going to pick someone else and help them out. We're going to try to keep it going every year. Mike will be running the show from here on out."
Turns out, getting back into soccer may have saved McKinney's life.
"If it wasn't for that billboard on I-95, I have no idea where I'd be. If it wasn't for that, I wouldn't have joined these guys."
If you'd like to donate to Mike McKinney's cancer treatment fund, please visit (http://www.phillysoccer.org/pages/donations)
Contact Union writer Kevin Kinkead at firstname.lastname@example.org