Richard Lagow sat in the locker room at Levi’s Stadium in late December preparing for the Foster Farms Bowl against Utah. Before taking the field, he reached for his cellphone to get a dose of what had become his regular reminder to keep the past year in perspective.
Lagow transferred to Indiana, his third FBS school in four years, the previous winter. He won the starting quarterback job for the Hoosiers in August. He led Indiana to a 6-6 regular-season record with a few near misses against big-time programs.
He threw 19 touchdown passes, but also added 17 interceptions. The regular season ended with a win over rival Purdue and a second consecutive bowl trip. A week later, the school parted ways with coach Kevin Wilson amid allegations that he had mistreated players.
Lagow traded a few text messages with a friend, and her replies, as they often did, gave him a spark of inspiration. “Yo,” he called to one of the team’s equipment managers. “I need a Sharpie.”
Lagow printed the name “Kara” in long, black letters on the towel hanging from his belt. He snapped a quick picture of it and then trotted out to the Levi's field in Santa Clara, California.
Kara is Kara O’Neal, a friend of Lagow’s from high school who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia last May. She had quietly managed a less aggressive form of the cancer with regular oral chemotherapy treatments since she was 16, around the time she and Lagow first met.
O’Neal watched Indiana’s bowl game from a hospital bed in Dallas. She had been there for a few days for reasons that escape her now. There have been enough visits to Medical City Dallas Hospital in the past 10 months that they start to blend together. She and Lagow exchanged a few messages about staying positive as a crazy year reached its conclusion, which prompted him to ask for the Sharpie.
“I had no idea he was doing that,” O’Neal said. “He texted me right before the game and sent me a picture. That meant so much to me.”
When Lagow returned to the locker room after losing on a last-minute field goal to the Utes, he had a long message waiting for him about the value of persistence and battling with all of one’s might. The sting from the loss quickly evaporated.
“She always thanks me for keeping her spirits up and reminding her to fight,” Lagow said. “But I see it as the complete opposite.”
Their friendship grew into a tighter bond after O’Neal’s cancer forced her to leave college at the University of Arkansas and move back to Texas for more intense treatment and regular doctor visits. Lagow checked in regularly, and while on obviously different scales, O’Neal says they discovered her battle with cancer and his battles on the field were “so relatable.”
O’Neal had a bone marrow transplant on Sept. 23. It was a major step toward being cancer-free, but the pain in the days that followed was “a little rougher than I think I thought rough could be,” she wrote in a blog she keeps about her journey with cancer. She stayed in the hospital for 28 days and then returned twice a week throughout the rest of the fall and winter. She’d often sit for hours while magnesium and blood transfusions pumped into her body through a port surgically implanted in her chest.
The day after the procedure, Lagow threw five interceptions in a five-point loss to Wake Forest, a low point in his first season with the Hoosiers. The team lost three of its next four games. Lagow says he kept things in perspective by talking to O’Neal every couple of days to get updates on how she was feeling.
“When this relationship first built into what it is now it was more just me shocked with her having to come back from Arkansas and having to deal with what she was doing,” Lagow said. “It was me wanting to keep her positive. It really just turned into her keeping me positive.”
Lagow had his teammates sign a football this winter to lift O’Neal’s spirits. He sent it along with a handwritten note, which started a weekly ritual of trading letters with one another. O’Neal’s transplant left her with a tremor that made her handwriting “look literally like a first-grader’s.” Writing with pen and paper helps her recover from the tremor for when she eventually returns to school.
A couple of the letters hang in Lagow’s locker this spring above a picture of O’Neal wearing eye black and boxing gloves below a bald head. He started spring ball a month ago with a new offensive coordinator and a head coach who was sending out the same message of positivity that Lagow gets from his new pen pal. He said he has made progress this spring in cutting down on interceptions and working to cement his spot as a team leader ahead of his final college season.
O’Neal had the port removed from her chest in late February. Her hair is slowly starting to grow back. Just last week doctors cleared her to travel outside of the Dallas area for the first time since the May diagnosis. She is escaping from Texas for a couple days this weekend in Washington, D.C., and already has ideas on the next trip she wants to plan -- a fall Saturday in Bloomington.