When everyone left, Collin Wilder stayed.
Before a game against New Mexico on Sept. 8, 2018, then-10-year-old Aubrey Wayman was introduced to University of Wisconsin football players as the Badgers’ special guest for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Aubrey met with players, shook their hands, held brief conversations. She was hugged and encouraged. She took pictures, beaming as she wore her Badgers jersey.
But when all the other players departed, Wilder, then a redshirt player due to NCAA transfer rules after coming to Wisconsin from the University of Houston, lingered around.
“It kind of meant more for me to get to know them on a more personal level than just meeting them on the field,” said Wilder, the former Katy High great and four-year starter at safety for the Tigers, winning state championships in 2012 and 2015. “They’re big Badger fans, so for them to look up to a football player and have an actual relationship … something genuine is something I really wanted to show that family, especially Aubrey.”
Aubrey, diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma a few weeks earlier, was immediately enamored.
“She gave him one of her bracelets, and I think having him stick around when everyone else had left really meant a lot to her,” said Aubrey’s mother, Nicole. “I don’t think we would’ve made it as far as we did and as well as we did without the support of family, friends, and then someone like Collin, who isn’t tied to us in any way but found a connection with our family to give the support we need.”
Since that meeting a little more than a year ago, Wilder and Aubrey have maintained a friendly relationship. Now a year into her 2 ½-year treatment plan, Aubrey, who turns 12 on Sept. 22, recently earned her brown belt in karate. Earlier this summer, she moved into maintenance therapy, which is a lighter chemotherapy regimen. Her body is considerably healthier and stronger after her immune system was suppressed last year.
Aubrey will not finish her treatment until December 2020. That can seem like a lifetime to a young child. But Wilder’s text messages of support and inspiration have done wonders, Nicole said.
Wilder gifted Aubrey his red Wisconsin No. 18 jersey. He sends pictures of him and his dog. There were times when Aubrey would be sitting on the couch, sad from not being with her friends at school, and would suddenly smile or laugh after receiving a funny gif from Wilder.
Nicole often tells a story about when Aubrey first had to get painful shots in her legs. She was scared. Nicole texted Collin to see if he might be able to offer some words of encouragement, and he texted Aubrey right away.
“It’s like he was waiting for the text,” Nicole said. “He responded immediately. ‘You can do this.’ ‘You’ve got this.’ ‘I believe in you.’ That meant a lot. It gave her enough courage to get through those shots, and I don’t know if he knows it but that paved the way because the more she’s had those shots, it’s gotten easier.”
Aubrey has had 60 of those shots.
“She’s 11-years-old and has gone through probably a lot more than anyone else has in their lifetime so far,” Wilder said. “Honestly, I probably look up to her more than she does to me. For her to fight every single day and to still have a smile on her face, that’s so much inspiration and something I’ve never had the strength to show.”
It's people like Aubrey, kids who see athletes as role models, that is why Wilder loves giving back to others. He always has. He remembers when Katy High greats like Aundre Dean and Trent Hunter visited his youth football practice and the influence that had.
“It meant the world to me,” Wilder said. “For people I looked up to, and for them to show they care by spending their time with us? You can make more of an impact being there for kids than just being on the field itself.”
When Wilder got to Wisconsin, one of the first things he did was join the Badgers Give Back program, which Wisconsin student-athletes participate in to volunteer in the community.
Wilder visits hospitals to offer a smile and friendly face to in-patients. He has clearly resonated with Aubrey. He has plans to visit one of her karate practices in the next few weeks, and Nicole and Aubrey have invited him to her birthday party coming up.
People like Aubrey, he said, offer perspective.
“Being homesick or having a bad day or practice or being tired from going to practice from class … you can’t complain about those things,” Wilder said. “There’s so much more going on in other peoples’ lives and we need to be grateful for every opportunity we have. When it comes to the big things like cancer or life-threatening sicknesses, those are the types of adversities we need to look up to, not just the adversity of having to sit out a season for football.”
Wilder returned to the field two weeks ago for the first time since Sept. 16, 2017. In the Badgers’ 49-0 season-opening win against South Florida, he collected an interception, drawing the screams of joy, clapping and excitement of Aubrey, who was watching at home. Nicole said Aubrey has never been more excited to watch a football game than that one.
After injuries abruptly ended his 2017 season and the transfer forced him to sit out 2018, Wilder has three total tackles with a pass breakup and the pick in two games for Wisconsin. His No. 1 fan has been there every step of the way.
“He’s a friend to talk to,” Aubrey said. “He supports me through everything I go through, and now I get a chance to support him and cheer him on like he cheered me on.”