If playing football was a possibility for Josiah Speer, the 11-year-old Longmont boy would prefer to have the ball in his hands as often as possible.

He'd like to be a running back. He has proven he can carry a heavy load.

Every now and then when he stops by football practice at the University of Colorado he is blessed with the opportunity to live that dream of running behind 300-pound linemen and being chased by 250-pound defensive ends, usually giggling on his way to the end zone.

The thrill he experiences is evident in his smile. That precious expression has been known to leave a lump in the throat and puddles in the eyes of dozens of players, coaches and staffers in the CU program.

The Buffs are proud of Josiah. They admire him for his toughness and courage every bit as much as the stars of the NFL.

"It's fun," Josiah said simply when asked what it's like to spend time with the Buffs.

Eight years ago, Josiah, who was 31/2 at the time, and his family were mourning the death of his grandfather, who lost a painful year-long fight to mouth cancer. That Thanksgiving was a solemn one and Christmas was going to be even harder.

Josiah fell and broke his nose on Christmas Eve that year and stopped breathing temporarily. At the hospital, doctors found a brain tumor and informed his parents he needed surgery to remove as much of it as possible. They decided to wait a day to allow the family to spend Christmas together not knowing what was to come.


He was diagnosed with juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma, a rare, slow-growing brain tumor.

The surgery went well, but Josiah endured a year of chemotherapy afterward. Coming so soon after his grandfather's death, he would often experience nightmares in which he believed his grandfather was trying to take him away.

He would wake up and tell his parents, "I don't want to go with Pa," Kristen Speer said.

In 2006, Josiah underwent a second surgery to have a shunt implanted in his head to help his body drain excess fluid from his brain. He was in remission but doctors warned the family that this kind of cancer often returns and can become more aggressive as children grow older.

Josiah watched his family grow over the ensuing years and was able to live a more normal life. He welcomed his third younger sister into the world and was able to play on soccer and baseball teams. He developed a passion for history, especially the Middle Ages and discovered he liked to cook. He will sometimes prepare an entire steak dinner on the grill for his family with potatoes and corn and maybe even a little monkey bread for dessert.

"He has been a trooper," Kristen Speer said. "He rarely complains, but he has his moments."

A routine checkup in May 2012 revealed the cancer had returned. He endured another year of weekly chemotherapy treatments and this time kids at school began treating him differently.

"Everybody thought I was contagious," Josiah said.

It wasn't him alone. His sisters were treated the same way, despite the family bringing one of Josiah's nurses to school to educate his classmates about cancer and chemotherapy.

Kristen Speer made the decision last summer to keep her children at home where she home schools them every day after working all night caring for elderly men and women in her job with Summer Cares Home Health. Josiah's father, Kirk, is a construction manager for a construction company.

"They had a really tough year," Kristen Speer said. "So I just wanted to give them a break."

Like a lot of children, Josiah nods or shrugs to answer questions when they're being asked by someone he's just met. He's not shy about sharing his favorite moment this season from CU football.

"When they beat the Rams," he said of the season-opening triumph over Colorado State.

He can be surprisingly candid at times about his fight for life.

"I hope I don't die from cancer. That would be sad," he said after listening to his mother mention some of the tragedies she has seen other families endure over the past eight years.

Earlier this year, one of Josiah's doctors put the family in touch with the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, a nonprofit group based in New York that pairs children fighting brain tumors with college sports teams near their homes.

CU's starting left defensive end Juda Parker serves as the conduit between the CU program and the foundation. Parker has become Josiah's favorite player on the team. They talk frequently and occasionally eat meals together and play video games.

Parker said he was drawn to Josiah because he watched his cousin, Amberly Schmall, fight Leukemia when he was younger. His mother would take him every day after school to visit his cousin when she was in the hospital and he came to understand how just being there helped his cousin and her family. Amberly Schmall was diagnosed at age 6 and is a healthy, happy 13-year-old now.

Parker and the Buffs are hoping for a similar long-term outcome for Josiah.

"So just to be able to have an impact on his life and just have him around the guys and make him like a true brother of Colorado football, that did a lot for me," Parker said. "It gave me perspective on the brevity of life and how you've got to enjoy every moment. I thought it was something like magic. It was awesome."

Josiah and his family first met the Buffs in August. They have been guests of the team at numerous practices and every home game this season, except for the Cal game, which they weren't able to attend.

"I was kind of overwhelmed at first," Kristen Speer said. "I didn't realize what all it entailed exactly. It was pretty exciting and just knowing that other people out there care, college students care and want to be role models for kids out there and help in any way they can with ill children, it's pretty amazing. It's quite a network that they've got going."

In a modest house on a typical street in southeast Longmont, the Speer family will celebrate Thanksgiving today knowing that Josiah is once again in remission. Josiah plans to make chocolate chip cookie brownie pie, his creation.

Josiah, his mother and younger sisters Elizabeth, Abigail and Jude celebrated the holiday with CU players and coaches over a Thanksgiving meal Wednesday night. Coach Mike MacIntyre said the program's relationship with the Speer family won't end. He said he hopes to see Josiah at practices when he is 25 years old.

"I think it makes our young men realize how blessed they are," MacIntyre said of watching his team interact with the Speer family this fall. "And I think at the same time it makes them realize how fragile life can be at times. They see the fight in him and his attitude and his spirit.

"Me, looking at it as a dad, really makes me relish and understand how blessed I am that my kids are healthy and that type of thing. When I look into his mom and dad's eyes, there has to be a lot of fear and anxiety there and how they're handling that is pretty amazing. I don't know what I would do in that situation."

Contact staff writer Kyle Ringo at ringok@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/kyleringo