The legacy of Craig Willinger lives on with Hannah Smith at the 2014 World Cup.
Smith, a 17-year-old high school soccer player from Murraysville, Pa., is in Brazil this week with her mother, Rori. She is the ninth honoree of a Baltimore-based foundation that sends young cancer patients and those who've survived the disease to soccer events around the world.
Willinger, who grew up in Highlandtown, started the fund after he was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer in 2007. After hearing that the former Archbishop Curley soccer player and Bayern Munich fan had been stricken, friends raised money to send him to Germany to watch his favorite club play in 2009.
"Craig came back and said, 'That was better than chemo[therapy] for me. We need to do this for other people,'" recalled Emily Agueda, whose sister, Johanna, was Willinger's longtime live-in girlfriend and the mother of the youngest of his four children.
The fund was started with the idea of sending its first honoree to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Katy Hudson was a soccer player at River Hill who at the time was in remission after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"Her story is actually nearly identical to our current World Cup honoree," Agueda said. Hudson "planned her treatment around games and worked with her doctors. Soccer was basically how she grounded herself."
There were concerns that the fundraising efforts would slow — if not cease entirely — after Willinger died in 2012. But Agueda said more than $20,000 was raised for Hannah Smith's eight-day trip to Brazil.
Smith was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma when she was a freshman at Franklin Regional High, outside Pittsburgh, in 2011. After undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, Smith has been cancer-free for two years.
Rori Smith said her daughter learned of her diagnosis shortly after making the state's Olympic Development Program for her age group. The team was about to play in a tournament in Baltimore.
"She had a couple of chemotherapies under her belt, and when she went to the first game, the team wore purple jerseys with her number on the back," Rori Smith recalled. "She played a little bit. That was pretty much the end of the soccer for a while."
While undergoing treatment, "Soccer kept her focused during her whole illness," said Rori Smith, a kindergarden teacher. Hannah Smith returned to the field for her sophomore year and has been elected a captain for next season. She also has orally committed to play at St. Francis (Pa.) in 2015.
Smith learned about the Craig Willinger Fund, which earned its status as a not-for-profit foundation a month after the 2010 World Cup, from her oncologist at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh.
"Everyone who knows Hannah knows that she's soccer, soccer, soccer. That's all she talks about," Rori Smith said. "When the doctor called about one of her scans, he said there was an application on his desk and he said: 'It has Hannah's name written all over it. I don't know anybody who loves soccer more than Hannah.'"
Agueda said the fund decided to send another one of the candidates, 22-year-old Eudom Moncada from El Paso, Texas, overseas to see his favorite club team, Manchester United.
Several fundraisers already have been held to pay for Smith's trip, including one — with the help of the American Outlaws, an unofficial fan club of the U.S. men's national team — at Little Havana in Federal Hill in conjuction with the World Cup opener last week.
Smith and her mother will attend that game in Natal, a city of nearly 1 million people in the northeast part of Brazil. The two, who were accompanied to Brazil by Agueda, met the U.S. team at their hotel Saturday.
"It's been an unforgettable day. It was the most amazing experience to meet each and every player," Smith said, according to an email to The Baltimore Sun from Agueda. "Clint Dempsey giving me his shoes after I said I liked them made it even better. It was more than I could've ever asked for. It truly was a dream come true."
It marks the first trip out of the country for either Hannah Smith or her mother. Hannah Smith said going to the World Cup "is not something you expect to do until you're much older. I don't know what to expect ... It's really awesome. I can't thank them enough for letting me do this."
One of the United States' group-stage games could be problematic for Smith, who is a big fan of Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, which will play the United States on June 22 in Manaus. "That will be an interesting game," said Smith, who expects to be back home by then.
Given what her daughter has endured, Rori Smith said going to the World Cup still seems a bit surreal.
"I can't fathom the grandeur of it all," she said Sunday. "It feels like such a dream."
Just as Craig Willinger envisioned it would be.
A previous version of this article misstated the date of a fundraiser for Smith's trip at Little Havana. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun