MISSOULA — It’s a common sight once winter comes — children throwing snowballs and rolling around in the untouched powder, laughing with unadulterated joy.
After Saturday’s Griz Walk, Troy, a preschooler, and Kennedy, his kindergarten-age sister, did just that outside the Adams Center. Their parents, Callie and Wes Ross, stood nearby on the pavement watching their bundled up children run around together.
Together. That’s the key word.
Troy burned off more energy on the field before kickoff while his sister giggled at his antics.
Donning his Monte hat, No. 37 jersey over a blue winter coat, black snow pants and well-worn white mittens, Troy got his groove — as well as his mischievous side — on in the south end zone.
Dancing during warm-ups and moving all the pylons? That’s Troy.
At the team lunch, he had four servings of eggs and whipped up a 3-year-old’s culinary dream.
Dunking his cantaloupe in blue Powerade? That’s Troy.
“The kid’s full of energy,” Montana wide receiver and quarterback Makena Simis said. “He was so happy. His parents told me multiple times it was the best day of his life.”
Those joyful moments almost didn’t happen.
Exactly two months ago, the world stopped for Callie, Wes and everyone close to them.
Troy’s face lost its coloring, beginning to turn blue. Soon after arrival at the emergency room in Great Falls, doctors put Troy on a ventilator to stabilize him before airlifting him to Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Once there, the littlest member of the Ross family fought for his life. Three quarters of his blood was replaced via multiple transfusions and for a moment, doctors and his parents didn’t know if he’d make it.
“I'm very appreciative that Troy is here,” Wes said. “That was the only outcome I was willing to accept is that he was going to beat this.”
It took several days for doctors to figure out why blood seeped into Troy’s lungs. The diagnosis finally came — pulmonary capillaritis — a rare disease that causes the immune system to attack the lungs like a virus. According to Callie, Troy is the only diagnosed case in Montana and is only the eighth in the United States.
Troy spent nearly a month at Seattle Children’s. His road was filled with tests, pricks and pokes, ventilators, tubes, and plenty of bandages and cotton swabs.
But the bad came with glimmers of good.
The first weekend of Troy’s stay at Seattle Children’s lined up with Montana’s football game against Washington. The schedule worked out in Troy’s favor, and he and his family had a hospital room full of Grizzlies on Friday, Sept. 8.
The guest list was A-List — coach Bob Stitt, quarterback Reese Phillips, center Cooper Sprunk, wide receiver (and Great Falls native) Josh Horner, director of football operations Colin Bonnicksen and Simis.
Even though medicines heavily sedated Troy during their visit, friendships between them blossomed.
Montana invited the Ross family to participate in Saturday’s pregame activities with the team — going to the team lunch, being on the Griz Walk and getting sideline passes during warmups.
Seeing the team and Stitt — who Troy affectionately calls “Coach Bob” — meant the world to the Rosses.
"I'm gonna do all the things I can to give him a positive memory because he's got a whole life of pokes and needles and IVs,” Wes said. “If I can give him a few months of, 'Man, remember the time you got a jersey and a ball and all that stuff?' That's gonna be awesome for him because he's gonna have a ton of other memories too, you know."
At lunch, Troy’s friends made it a point to say hello.
“It brings a tear to your eye,” Callie said. “That was awesome. They, once again, have things they're focusing on and they still know that that's the human connection we forget about. Makena coming over, Coach Stitt gave me a hug. Cooper saw him do his O-line stance. He's been practicing that all week."
All football, all day. No needles, no IVs. Just smiles and sweet dance moves.
Troy’s smile beamed all morning and afternoon. His happiness rubbed off on others.
On the field, Phillips came over on his scooter to say hi and exchange fist bumps. Horner and Simis chatted with their little buddy too.
“It was really special,” Simis said. “To see the transition that he made when we were in Seattle visiting him in the hospital to today ... it was awesome. It’s really cool to see how a team like ours and people like what we have on our team can have an impact on a kid that’s in a situation like that. Just give him a day to be happy and be about him.”
Montana isn’t the only school to reach out to the Ross family.
High schools and colleges from all around the state have sent their well wishes.
Wes, an assistant football coach for Great Halls High, said nearly every high school he’s been affiliated with has offered well wishes, as has every Frontier Conference football team in the state. Montana State’s reached out too.
But one action — other than UM's — stands out just a little bit more.
On crosstown week in Great Falls, CMR held a fundraiser, selling green #TroyStrong shirts to benefit the family.
“That’s crazy,” Wes said, holding back tears. “I said, ‘This is the one time we can cheer for the same team: Troy Strong.’ It’s been phenomenal. I’m at a loss for words. I can’t thank everyone enough.”
He added: “It’s so comforting to know that so many people care about Troy. ... It’s humbling is what it is. I can’t list everybody. I’m gonna miss something or someone.”
Even though Troy looks healthy, there’s still a long road ahead.
He gets infusions every other week. That’s his schedule for at least the next year. Sometimes those infusions last as long as eight hours.
"He looks as good as he does on the outside because of a lot of drugs,” Callie said. “A lot of steroids, a lot of medications, that's what keeps him looking so good and I think that's hard for people because he looks so good on the outside and he's still so sick inside. His blood work is still low and sometimes at critical levels when they pull his blood.
“But we're making baby steps. Really intense treatment for at least another year and then they'll re-evaluate his treatment plan, but for now, it's what it will be for the year. But we're happy that he's here. When people ask me how he's doing (I say), 'He's here with us,' because that's all I can say."