August 24, 2016
Tech football family adds a new team member
Fifteen-year-old Elijah Oltmanns, who has been battling lymphoma, enjoyed a practice with the Hokies and will be a part of the team as he continues his treatments

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Tuesday marked the day for Student Appreciation Practice at Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium and approximately a couple of thousand college students showed up to watch a portion of the Hokies’ football practice.

Not all in attendance were college students, however. A certain high school student and his family sat in the stands off to the side and took in the event.

This 15-year-old resembled the typical American teenager. He had shaggy locks hidden underneath a Virginia Tech cap. He wore a t-shirt, baggy shorts, black socks and gray sneakers and he looked at home amidst a group of people not that much older than him.

But Elijah Oltmanns is not the typical teenager. He’s been battling an opponent much tougher than any Tech will face this fall – lymphoma – and the Hokie football family wants to help with that battle.

Elijah and his family drove from their hometown of Vinton, Virginia – essentially a suburb of nearby Roanoke – and attended the practice as guests of the football team. Following the practice session in front of the students, head coach Justin Fuente invited Elijah and his family to come down to the field and introduced him to the students before handing him a jersey, declaring him as a new member of the squad.

“I don’t know who instigated it,” Fuente said to media members after practice. “But when it found its way into our office, we wanted to make it clear that we would welcome his family with open arms for as much or as little as they or he wanted to be around.”

An organization called “Team IMPACT” started this process, contacting the athletics department's Office of Student-Athlete Development, which, in turn, reached out to the football program. Team IMPACT is a non-profit organization that matches kids who have life-threatening or chronic illnesses with local college athletics teams. The idea is to provide strength, camaraderie and support for those children, while also giving college athletes a real-life perspective that can’t be taught in a classroom.

Tech’s football players certainly gained that perspective once they heard Elijah’s story. In October of 2014, Elijah – who was playing on the William Byrd Middle School football team – noticed a lump on his neck. Doctors later took a biopsy of the lump, and the diagnosis was T-Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.

He began chemotherapy treatments shortly thereafter and is still taking them. He must do this until February of next year.

The cancer forced him to give up football (he decided to join the band and plays several instruments). He lost weight and developed diabetes and even once spent a month in the hospital because of complications stemming from the cancer.

“It’s been really hard,” said Heather Oltmanns, Elijah’s mother. “Last year was much harder than this year. There was a time last year when he lost the ability to speak and he couldn’t move his arms and legs. We spent a whole month in the hospital. It just seemed like if something happened between one and this many people, it would happen to him. The medication has caused him to act like a diabetic and he has to take insulin. It’s been really tough.”

Now, though, Elijah looks great and said he felt great. He certainly felt great after spending the afternoon with his favorite team.

Elijah and his family are lifelong Virginia Tech fans. His father, Todd, graduated from Tech and his 18-year-old brother, Caleb, just enrolled for his first semester. Elijah also has three other siblings – 11-year-old Micah, 9-year-old Hannah and 6-year-old Abigail.

The family watched the second half of Tech’s practice in the indoor practice facility. Elijah spent a chunk of that time talking with kicker Joey Slye, who understands Elijah’s situation better than anyone. Slye’s older brother, A.J., passed away in 2014 after a battle with leukemia.

“He really wanted to go out of his way to meet Elijah and spend some time with him,” Fuente said.

At the conclusion of practice, the players invited Elijah to lead them in their “breakdown” to end practice. Then the majority of players introduced themselves to Elijah, including leaders like Sam Rogers, Bucky Hodges and Isaiah Ford. Rogers, Slye, Cam Phillips, Tremaine Edmunds, Nigel Williams and Chris Durkin comprise a “leadership team” and will be keeping in touch with Elijah throughout the season. He also will be attending practices and games as they fit into his and his family’s schedule.

“I was excited,” Elijah said. “It was a lot of fun getting to meet everyone here and everyone was really nice. I was surprised.”

In addition to leading the breakdown and meeting the players, Elijah secured a pair of gloves from freshman Jovonn Quillen. But perhaps the most touching part came at the end. A group of 30-40 players gathered with team chaplain Dave Gittings for a post-practice prayer and invited Elijah to be a part of it.

“This is just amazing,” Heather Oltmanns said. “I couldn’t have asked for more, especially with him having to give up sports and not really being able to be a part of it. This is really something.”

“We were just trying to make it a special day for him,” Fuente said.

Elijah faces six more months of chemotherapy treatments. He faces surgery Monday to replace the port through which the chemo enters his body.

One never really knows what will happen next when it pertains to cancer. But Elijah and his family can take comfort in knowing that they aren’t fighting this battle alone.

Now, they’ve got a football team behind them.

For updates on Virginia Tech football, follow the Hokies on Twitter and on Instagram @vthokiefootball Instagram

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