SAN ANTONIO — It wasn't supposed to be this way.
This was the year Judson junior cornerback Bryce Wisdom, who has two older brothers who played football for the Rockets, was going to compete for a spot on the varsity.
But Wisdom's life was turned upside down in March when he was diagnosed with Stage 2 kidney cancer, only weeks before his 16th birthday.
"It didn't hit me at first . . . I didn't believe it," Wisdom said at a Judson workout this week. "I didn't really know how to feel until I got home. Then it hit me. I was sad for a day or so after they told me. The only day I cried through the whole process was when they told me I had cancer."
After having surgery March 26 to remove his right kidney, which effectively ended his football career, Wisdom began a grueling battery of 11 chemotherapy treatments in 19 weeks at Methodist Children's Hospital.
When Wisdom rang the bell in a ceremony Aug. 23 at the hospital, a ritual for cancer patients who have completed chemotherapy, Judson head football coach Rodney Williams was there to share the poignant moment with him.
"I was a little surprised when he went because I knew he was busy with the football team," Wisdom said. "But that's the kind of person he is. He cares about people. It's not just about football with him."
Judson High School principal Jesus Hernandez III also was at the bell-ringing ceremony, and JISD Superintendent Jeanette Ball sent Wisdom a card and has kept in touch with him and his family regularly.
Wisdom spent two weeks in the hospital after having surgery and was home-schooled for the remainder of the 2018-19 school year. When Judson began classes last month, Wisdom was at school on the first day.
"The Judson community goes above and beyond," said Wisdom's mother, Diana. "It's been awesome."
When Judson plays Judson ISD rival Wagner in the 14th annual Hammer Bowl on Friday night, Wisdom will take part in the pregame coin flip. He will wear jersey No. 39 to honor his older brother, Rashad, who graduated from Judson in the spring and is now a starting safety for UTSA.
Williams, now the head coach for the Rockets, appointed Wisdom a team captain for the next two seasons. Wisdom's teammates wouldn't have it any other way.
"He's an inspiration to the team and an inspiration to me," said junior offensive guard Cameron Williams, one of Wisdom's closest friends.
Rich Wisdom has marveled at how his son has handled the adversity he's faced.
"He is a true warrior," the father said.. "He is a true champion in my eyes. From day one when we got the news to look at him today, it's a blessing. I know a lot of people go through stuff in life, but this probably has to be one of the hardest things to go through. And like I said, he's taken this every step of the way like a true champion."
Although Wisdom is only 5-foot-4, Williams said he would have been "in the mix" for a spot on the Rockets' varsity this season.
"He was a very good technical cover corner, and he was fearless," Williams said. "He was one of those guys that you want on your team, that will stick his head in there and he forgets that he's a little guy. He was going to have a shot to play, whether it would have been on varsity or if he had started on JV and moved up to varsity later.
"He was going to be in the mix, just because of the type of kid he is. You talk about discipline and being determined and coachable, he was all of those. He still is. It's just that, unfortunately, this situation happened."
Wisdom, who weighed about 145 pounds before his illness, tips the scales at about 120 now.
The adversity of the past six months has given Wisdom a greater appreciation for life.
"What this has taught me is that not every day is guaranteed, even when you're young," Wisdom said. "You've got to feel blessed to wake up in the morning, still alive, breathing perfectly fine. That's what I've learned, just taking every day like it's your last."
Diana Wisdom said that the experience of the past six months has been a lesson for her, her husband and their entire family on how important perspective can be in the midst of a health crisis.
"Through all this, we just have to find the blessing and the lesson, and that's kind of how we look at everything," she said. "It's a bad thing that happened, but we turned it into a positive. You've got to find the positive in it.
"We really found out that we are loved by our community, by our Judson family, by our immediate family, all of our friends. I mean, it's bad, but we feel so blessed. That's how I feel when I look at Bryce. It's a blessing just watching him and how handles things. The way he approaches things has kind of taught me."
Diana Wisdom said Bryce's cancer battle has drawn a close-knit family even closer.
"I'm the one that stresses and I cry, and I check on Bryce at school," she said. "I text him, 'Are you OK, are you OK?' We've done it together. In this family, nobody is alone. We all have each other's back and we've always been that way.
"We're real tight. I ask Bryce all the time, 'How do you feel? Do you know you're not alone? I think that's what helps. He knows we have his back."
Although Wisdom can't play football anymore, he's still a part of the Judson team. After he completed his chemotherapy, Williams presented him with a hat and whistle and made him an offer.
"He said, 'I want you to be a coach. You blow the whistle, get on these dudes if they're ever messing up,'" Wisdom said. "He said, 'I want you to coach them up.' I feel better when I come out here, actually, because I'm with all my brothers, watching them play.
"I wish I could play, but it's all right. I love football but it's just a game. It's not life. It doesn't really matter to me. I can find something else to do and continue my life like that."
Wisdom, who ran track at Judson last year, said he plans to compete in the sport again next spring.
Wisdom has been a fixture at Judson football practice since the Rockets began preseason workouts last month.
Williams, who is in his first season as Judson head coach after serving as the Rockets' offensive coordinator the past seven years, shares a special bond with Wisdom and his family.
"We tell our kids, 'Look, guys, use your own teammate as an example,'" Williams said. "'Football is a game. Life is not a game. If you all can't go out there and have fun and give it 100 percent every time you're on the field, what do you think Bryce feels?
"'He would love to give 110 percent, but he can't anymore. And you guys take it for granted. You all need to do some soul searching and think about it.'"
Being around his teammates is the best medicine for Wisdom, who is especially close to the players in his junior class.
"They try to keep my head up, joke around with me, try to take my mind off of cancer, so I'm not so focused on it," Wisdom said. "They make me feel like nothing happened, that I've been here the whole time."
Wisdom has become an inspiration to his teammates, who have been moved by his positive attitude since being diagnosed with cancer.
Cameron Williams said he was "devastated" when he learned Wisdom, one of his best friends, had cancer.
"It was like I could lose my brother, possibly," Williams said. "So it really hurt me. Me and my mom both cried about it when we first found out. Every chance I had, I texted him or called him and made sure he was all right. It keeps my heart warm to know that he's all right, and just know he's pushing on and doing good."
Junior offensive tackle Kamron Scott said Wisdom's battle against cancer has had a galvanizing effect on the Rockets.
"I was really shocked when I first heard about it," Scott said. "It hurt me and I was sad. I didn't think it would happen to somebody like him. He was always smiling and had a happy attitude.
"When Bryce got cancer, it kind of brought everybody together like a family. He really helped us become closer. Seeing him deal with things has inspired us and motivated us."
Junior center Robert Rigsby had a difficult time wrapping his head around Wisdom's cancer diagnosis.
"It was really a shock to me because I've known Bryce since elementary school," Rigsby said. "When he told me he had cancer, I felt heartbroken. He always had a smile on his face. I felt so bad for him, so bad for his family, and what they've been through.
"We've always stayed close to each other, so it hurt me a lot. But the way Bryce has handled it has been an inspiration to us. He's a very hard worker. It meant a lot to the team when he came back because he's with us again."
Bryce is one of four children in his family. The eldest, Roisean, a 2007 Judson graduate, played college football at the University of Houston. Rashad graduated from Judson last December and enrolled at UTSA in January.
Quintin Green, who coaches the Rockets' cornerbacks, played in the secondary with Roisean at Judson and the two graduated the same year.
"They're like family to me," Green said of the Wisdoms. "Roisean was the best man at my wedding. That's my brother."
Green said he's been impressed with the way Bryce has battled during his illness.
"That's the great thing about being here," Green said. "He's the true testament to Rocket pride. When adversity strikes, you don't duck your head. You don't cower away from it. You go at it and you find a way to beat it.
"That's why we're telling these kids that it's beyond football what we're doing here. Bryce has been locked in from day one. We had no doubt in our mind that he was going to do everything he needed to do because of the way he's built."
While Bryce is done with his chemotherapy, he still must have periodic antibiotic treatments because his immune system has been compromised by the side effects of the chemo.
Bryce is scheduled to have an MRI on Friday, and barring complications, his doctor visits should start tapering off by the end of the year, Diana Wisdom said.
A premature baby, Bryce spent about three weeks at the Methodist Children's Hospital when he was born on April 28, 2003.
"He came into the world early," Diana Wisdom said. "He was about two months early. So he's been a fighter since he was born."