BRADENTON -- Joshua Fisher has battled acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a blood cancer, for more than two years.
Josh is only 5 years old. Still, despite the long and tough days getting treatment, Josh is still an avid sports fan.
Josh's favorite is something near and dear to Manatee County sports fans: high school football. And he is living his dream this year: Josh has joined IMG Academy in its inaugural football season as an honorary member.
He joined through the Friends of Jaclyn, a nonprofit organization that aims "to improve the quality of life for children with pediatric brain tumors and their families by pairing them with college and high school athletic teams," according to its website.
"In everybody's playbook, it's be the best you can be on a daily basis, but find a way to make a difference in someone else's life," IMG head coach Chris Weinke says. "That's part of our motto, part of our mantra here. This was a perfect opportunity with a young kid who is struggling to deal with a lot on a daily basis, and we wanted to do this to simply to get his mind off of all the other struggles."
Josh, who lives in Odessa near Tampa, attends IMG home games and even made his way to Orlando for an early-season road game that
the Ascenders won against Olympia. He's become an inspiration for the IMG Academy program, as he and his two older siblings -- Justin, 11, and Charlie, 8 -- become active participants on the sidelines during games.
It's a healthy reminder that football is just a game, and there are more important things going on around every day.
"You get into the daily grind of coaching football, and sometimes you forget about things that are going around you," Weinke said. "For me, it's gratifying to not only think about him and pray for him every day, but to have him be a part of this football team and help us on a daily basis."
A highlight for Josh was his chance to play catch with Penn State University-bound quarterback Michael O'Connor.
That thrill also left an impact on O'Connor.
"Sometimes to have an impact on somebody's life like that, you really can't put it into words," O'Connor said. "It's been great having him around the team."
Just last week, Josh arrived at an IMG practice with his family and another inspiring message. Utilizing the IMG blue-and-white color scheme in tie-dye fashion, Josh and his brothers handed out bracelets that read, "Team Joshua" on one side and "Hope" on the other to Ascender coaches and players.
"Everybody will be wearing them on our wrist ... for the remainder of the season just as a reminder of how lucky we truly are to play this game," IMG offensive lineman Donnie Foster said.
Fisher was diagnosed at just 2 1/2 years old, when he had bruises on his legs and neck pain. It wouldn't subside, and he was crying. So his parents, Pat and Jessica, took him to see a doctor.
Their world completely changed when the news of leukemia was revealed.
"It's very difficult," Pat Fisher said. "It's not just difficult for him. Your whole family experiences it."
That difficulty is what the family can and cannot do, as Josh's immune system isn't capable of handling big crowds when going through the rigorous treatment. Monday through Friday, Josh takes an oral medication, while Wednesdays he takes an additional chemotherapy and Friday through Sunday, he takes prophylatic antibiotics.
But right now, Josh is in the maintenance portion of his treatment, which allows for him to be around more people.
"The treatment includes having a lumbar puncture, where they pull out spinal fluid and they put in a chemotherapy drug into the spinal fluid," his mom explained. "So he's completely sedated, and then after that he has to go to the infusion room. In the infusion room, he gets medication into his port via IV. So it's a long and rigorous day."
Despite all that, Josh is living the dream of a high school football player. Because every Friday night, Josh is an IMG Academy Ascender.
So far the team has responded with a 4-0 start, and Josh is inspiration behind it all.
"Whenever something is going down, we can always count on him being there to bring the spirits up," Foster said. "It brings an energy to the team."
Jason Dill, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7017.