Craig Willinger had a pretty average life for a Baltimore student-athlete. He grew up in Baltimore's Highlandtown, kicking a soccer ball. He watched Italian and Greek teams on TV with friends and became a fan of Bayern Munich, a nod to his German heritage.
He went on to play for Mario Scilipoti at Archbishop Curley. And after a college career playing for CCBC, Salisbury and St. Francis, he settled down in Baltimore to start a family and became a real estate agent.
However, when Willinger was diagnosed with terminal leukemia at the age of 37 in 2007, the love of his life, Johanna Agueda, gave him advice.
"I told him to do what he loved and stop worrying about himself," she said. "I knew it would involve soccer."
Agueda was attending an event in Fells Point in 2008 where she met Liverpool supporter and soccer writer Darren Rudham. More than anything, Willinger wished he could see his favorite team play.
"The Ravens, that got the whole thing started," Rudham said. "It was a meet-and-greet in Fells Point with ex-coach Brian Billick. I went back to the Liverpool Supporters Group I was a part of, and after a brief conversation, we decided to put our collective efforts towards getting Willinger to Germany to see Bayern Munich play."
Willinger had rarely traveled out of Maryland, so Rudham's fundraising efforts garnered support for Agueda to travel with Willinger to Munich.
"It was the trip of a lifetime -- the city and the people were beautiful," Agueda said. "We didn't have seats together, and the fans quickly fixed that. He was never tired, despite his condition. He was a different person. Craig told me, ‘I want to do this for other people.' He found his legacy."
Dedicated to sending cancer patients to see their favorite soccer teams, the Craig Willinger Fund (CWF) was born. Willinger contacted Rudham and his Baltimore Reds fan club and also utilized his vast Rolodex of contacts. In 2010, CWF had its first honoree -- Katy Hudson, a Hodgkins lymphoma survivor who traveled with her father to watch the United States in the World Cup in South Africa.
"Craig found people," Agueda said. "He was called, ‘The Mayor of Highlandtown.' We created a 501(c)(3). He got someone to donate a website. Now, the teams are starting to get involved."
The CWF quickly spread beyond Baltimore when
Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl mentioned it on a website in 2010. After reading of the CWF's mission, Jordyn Farrell's father encouraged her to share her survival story. An Atlanta resident, Farrell was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She flew to Barcelona to watch FC Barcelona play Villareal. There, she met her idol, forward Lionel Messi.
"The Craig Willinger Fund affected me profoundly, giving me the best day I think I will ever have in my entire life, with an emotional high that could have reached the top of the Camp Nou stadium," Farrell said. "On the exact same day, a year before that high, I had reached a whole new low that came with my cancer treatment. CWF showed me that for even the lowest low, there is an equally tall high."
Craig Willinger passed away in 2012 after complications from a bone marrow transplant, and Agueda worried the fund would disappear. With a dedicated board of directors that included Rudham, it began to thrive in the aftermath. Eleven cancer survivors from Texas, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Iowa have enjoyed trips to see their favorite teams.
Zach Bach, from Richmond, Va., was diagnosed with cancer in his arm the same day he made his varsity high school soccer team. He had a golf-ball-sized tumor removed and endured a year of chemotherapy. Agueda and Bach went to see his favorite team, Real Madrid, play in 2013. After meeting the team and touring the stadium, Bach declared it the best day of his life before seeing the game. Agueda worked some magic and finagled a special meeting with star forward Cristiano Ronaldo.
"Ronaldo was amazing," Agueda said. "Contrary to everything you read about him, he asked Zach questions and was very attentive. Something happens to the honorees when they are on the trips. Zach couldn't use his arm because of the surgery, and he was so happy he jumped up and grabbed a pole on the subway."
In September, the first accredited Baltimore FootGolf course was named after Willinger in Carroll Park. There's an exciting "premiere" trip planned for 2017.
"I get to honor Craig this way," Agueda said. "The donation goes straight into funding the trips. When you go into an international football stadium, everyone is connected to that game. It makes people happy."
Rudham remembers how people would "light up" when Willinger stopped and answered questions for anyone going through chemotherapy.
"Even with those that love you around going through it with you, battling cancer can be an incredibly lonely journey, and one that many want to forget when they have gone through it. Craig would dive into it and lift people when they needed it most," Rudham said. "It's one of the reasons he was so tireless in his efforts for the fund -- to give those who were battling something to look forward to, to raise them up."
Issue 227: November 2016