August 27, 2019
Earlier this summer, doctors told 18-year-old Daniel Yallah how much longer they expected him to live.
He doesn’t like sharing the number of months they had estimated. People act differently around him when they know, and that doesn’t mesh with how he wants to live his life.
What Yallah accepts is the diagnosis – which arrived on July 25 – of stage 4 liver cancer.
What the soccer phenom who arrived from Liberia in 2015 doesn’t accept is a fatalistic approach to however much time he has left.
Instead, he’s focused on what he can control.
He can make the most of each day, from the moment he wakes up in the Southwest Philly walk-up he shares with his younger brother and sister until he falls asleep at night.
He can live like he’s always lived, by staying positive about the future despite countless hurdles that threatened to leave a young life in tatters.
And he can work to ensure that his younger siblings will be taken care of should he lose a battle he’s confident he’ll win.
“I just want people to know that whatever happens in life, don’t give up no matter what you’re facing,” Yallah said earlier this week. “I am a Christian. I believe in God. I keep the faith, always. People should never have a negative outlook, because that’s what kills you sooner.”
Yallah shared that sentiment on Monday afternoon at YSC Academy, a college-preparatory high school in Wayne, Delaware County, affiliated with the Philadelphia Union.
It’s the school to which he was recruited after a scout with the Union's youth program saw him playing soccer in Southwest Philadelphia – his raw talent, despite not spending years in the local youth-soccer development system, was unmistakeable – and the one from which he graduated in June with a full-ride scholarship to Harcum College in Bryn Mawr.
Everybody knew the dire situation Yallah was facing, but nobody let expressions of desperation cross their faces when he arrived with his little brother and sister just before 1 p.m.
Commencement at YSC Academy took place less than seven weeks before the stomach pain, which had been nagging him for a while, left him doubled over in pain. He was unable to move, and he hadn’t felt that way before.
Just a week or so away from starting pre-season training at Harcum, he called for an ambulance to pick him at the home where he lived with a foster family.
So fit as an attacking midfielder and left back that anyone who saw him play soccer with Philadelphia Lone Star F.C., the Union Academy and FC Delco can’t praise his abilities enough – that day medics had to physically lift Yallah out of a living-room chair.
"It was difficult to handle, hearing them say I had limited time left." –Daniel Yallah
They would take him to Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital in Darby. There, after a CAT scan, he’d receive the horrible news.
“I wasn’t really expecting to hear the word cancer, since it wasn’t really a part of my family (medical history). It was difficult to handle, hearing them say I had limited time left,” he said. “It effected me for about two days. Sometimes, things happen in life, and I know I can overcome them.
“I’m not the only person in the world with cancer. I have confidence in myself and in God. I knew I was going to keep moving forward.”
God willing, Yallah will turn 19 on September 24. He is physically weaker as he undergoes immunotherapy treatment, and about 25 pounds lighter than he was at graduation.
He still plays soccer several days a week. It’s the game he loves, and one that helped him lead Liberia to victory in Philadelphia’s Unity Cup.
By going to a junior-college locally, he could work both toward a degree in social work “to help others who are in similar situations,” and toward landing a scholarship at a four-year university while remaining close to his family.
Alex Graver is the head coach at Harcum College. He also coaches for the youth soccer club FC Delco at the Proving Grounds in Conshohocken. That’s where he first saw Yallah play this spring.
“Within 10 minutes, I asked him who he was playing for next year, and told him if he wants to come to Harcum, he’s more than welcome,” Graver recalled this week at the Proving Grounds. “The first thing he asked was, ‘When can I start?’
"He’s such a selfless person. He’s just super thankful for everything in life, a great person to be around in a team who never complains. He’s just super happy to be there.”
That selflessness comes despite living a life – even before the cancer diagnosis – that was more difficult than most people his age.
For the first 15 years of his young life, he and his family lived in Gbarnga, Liberia. It was a place he describes as being populated with refugees.
They had little to eat and not enough money to go to a good school, but good grades landed him a scholarship to a private school for sixth through ninth grades. That made Yallah happy because it reduced the burden on his parents, who had seven other children.
In 2015, his mother decided to bring him, and his younger brother and sister to America. They were in search of a better education and a better life.
His mother returned to Africa after a few months “to sell some things so we could have money,” Yallah said. She would never return. In January 2016, his older siblings called with horrible news: His mother had died.
“I was left in this country without a mother or a father, had my brother and sister to look after and I was only 16 years old,” Yallah said.
When he tried to enroll at Bartram High School in Southwest Philly, he ended up landing in the foster-care system. (Luckily, his younger sister Winner, 7, and 14-year-old brother Prosper were able to stay with friends his mother made locally before she returned to Liberia.)
Soccer would turn into his path to a brighter future when a Union scout saw Yallah playing and arranged for him to tryout with the MLS team’s youth academy, which – after a year or so of navigating life's hurdles – would come to fruition.
Instead of training with his new teammates at Harcum College, Yallah now spends his days praying and working to ensure his siblings are cared for should his faith not prove the doctors’ predictions wrong.
So, too, are those who know him, from his friends and soccer family through YSC Academy, FC Delco and beyond.
Earlier this month, he launched a Yallah Trust Fund campaign on GoFundMe.
“It is my goal in life to take care of my siblings, and maybe I may not be able to do that long,” he wrote. “That is why I ask for your support through this Yallah Trust campaign, so that I can leave a legacy for my siblings and so they do not have to be a burden on others the way I have felt.
“I hope God helps me survive from this cancer. My goal has always been to make a difference in the lives of those around me, and I hope to spend what time I have left doing just that.”
In less than a month, more than $10,000 has been donated, with plans in the works for multiple fundraiser events.
“He’s lacked structure. He’s getting bad grades at school and fighting,” Yallah said. “I’m asking them to give him just one chance, because I know he won’t mess it up. I won’t let him mess it up.”
Sitting in a lounge area at YSC Academy on Monday afternoon, Yallah did not once belie any sense of accepting impending death. He agreed that once he does so, he'll start to die.
He talked about playing soccer on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, and rued the fact that doctors initially thought the discomfort he was feeling was linked to a Vitamin D deficiency, which could lead to liver damage, or a possible ulcer.
He started to realize things were much worse when his appetite started to dissipate.
“I just really wasn’t feeling right. I was feeling really sick in my body,” he shared. “When they told me it was cancer, I was there alone and confused. I thought, ‘How did this happen?’ since cancer was never mentioned before.”
Yallah refuses to let it play on his mind, though. He has to be strong for Winner and Prosper, since he’s the only blood relative they have in the United States.
“I don’t let it play on my mind,” he said. “My sister knows I’m sick, but not what kind of sick. My little brother knows more because he’s older. All that matters to me right now is making sure they’re happy.”
The outpouring of support from those in the local soccer community also help buoy him during this most difficult time.
“A lot of people out there really want to help see me through this, and that helps keep fighting every day for my life,” he said. “With God, I can make this happen. The support is so overwhelming, I can’t put it into words. I can’t give up right now because I have so many people supporting me. I wake up every day thinking that.
“Yes, the doctors gave me a time, but I just believe. If God tells me I die tomorrow, that’s when I die. I will live until God wants me to die.”
The only pain he feels now is side effects from the medications. He started immunotherapy last week and will return to the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center for a CAT scan on September 27 to see if the cancer has spread.
If it hasn't, he'll continue the treatment.
If it has, his doctors will have to adjust their approach in an effort to save his life.
He'll deal with whatever they have to say with a bravery beyond his years.
"In the end," he said, "I just want to make sure that my life has made a difference through helping others."
When Yallah graduated from YSC Academy on June 7, he didn’t know about the cancer growing inside him.
Every graduate – there were 25 in the school's largest ever class this year – gives a speech. It serves as a chance to thank their loved ones, impart wisdom to the younger boys and reflect on their time at the school.
He was the second to last speaker since classmate Brenden Aaronson, who plays for the Philadelphia Union now, was late to arrive because of his training schedule in Chester that day.
"Daniel had the entire place in tears, as he was himself," said Beverly Brooks, the school's director of college and career counseling. "I've never seen one of our boys speak their heart so honestly."
The words he spoke were inspiring yet, in retrospect, heartbreaking. Below is the text of the speech he delivered on that celebratory Friday afternoon:
I feel joy,
I feel love,
I feel comfort,
I feel happiness,
and I feel new life.
I feel the blessings of God in so many ways.
First, I’d like to thank God for opening doors and creating opportunities for me in the past. It has been a journey for me to get here on stage with you today.
God has been good to me.
He never lets me down.
He’s always with me when I struggle.
There is never a day I go without his love.
I want to thank (Head of School Nooha (Ahmed-Lee), (English teacher and mentor) Kerry (DeFelippo), (Director of Operations) Jackie (Erixxon), Beverly, and all the teachers for your undying support throughout this journey.
I am blessed to be surrounded by people who love me and I thank you for your patience and grace.
There were mornings when I wanted to give up and just quit everything because of my social status and citizenship, and other difficulties I was facing in life. Living here in the United States by yourself without support is impossible.
Many of you will never have to deal with what I have been through, but just know that it has been a tough journey and I don’t regret what I have been through. So many times I have fallen short.
I have overcome and I am here.
I am here to accomplish my goals every day,
And to stay positive throughout my life.
To the students out in the audience today, I want you to know, that no matter what happens in your life, you must keep fighting for what you believe in, for what matters to you.
I know that I am not the strongest student among this graduating class, but I do know that my character and my relationship that I have established with my peers and my teachers is strong. For I know ...
That God gives me strength ...
To keep moving forward
For that I will forever be grateful.
Thank you to my foster family, most especially my foster dad Matthew Grubman. You treat me like a real son. Your unconditional love and support have guided me through all the obstacles, which I could not have done without you. You wake me up in the morning, you are on my case, texting me to make sure I am at school on time, doing my work and doing what is good in life, and I have come to realize that I cannot repay you for all you have done, so I hope instead to pay it forward. Only God knows how grateful I am for all that you have done for me.
Next year, I will be attending Harcum College and I plan to study Social Work in order to help others who are going through what I have been through.
I feel joy,
I feel love,
I feel comfort,
I feel happiness,
and I feel new life.
I feel the blessings of God in so many ways.
If you wish to donate to the Yallah Trust, you can do so via this link.
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