WINAMAC, Ind. -- Though only six years old, Cooper Fulmer is already a presence on the Winamac football team.
Cheerfully rambunctious around his big brother Gavin and his teammates, Cooper provided an energetic distraction during breaks between two-a-day practices in the summer. He often showed up when the team captains met for Thursday night dinners at the home of the Fulmers' grandparents.
But one month ago, Winamac's players learned Cooper faced an opponent much greater than anything they'll face on the football field. As the Warriors entered the state tournament, one of their biggest fans began a fight against cancer.
"I've always seen us as kind of a close-knit group," senior left tackle Billy Bunkowfst said. "This whole thing made everybody one. At every school you have your cliques; seniors here, juniors here. When this happened, everybody became tighter."
Winamac will host top-ranked and defending Class A champion Lafayette Central Catholic in its first regional championship game in 12 years tonight. Winamac defeated West Central 49-13 last week after losing to it by 42 points in the regular season. In this Pulaski County town of 2,400, the football team has found something to play for beyond its own success.
"They probably won't tell you this, but I think they care about each other now," said Tim Roth, a 1972 Winamac grad in his 32nd year as the Warriors' head coach. "Come tournament time, there seems to be a closer bond with teams having success and a chance of moving on each week, and I think that's happening with us. You can see it in their faces, hear in their comments."
In the middle of July, Steve and Trina Fulmer noticed their lively young son no longer wanted to play. Bronchitis was first suspected, but when Cooper did not improve, additional tests eventually led them to the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent in Indianapolis.
The unexpected diagnosis -- leukemia -- came on the week of the Warriors' senior night game against Frontier.
"It was just devastating," said Gavin Fulmer, a senior right tackle.
That day, Roth reassured an emotional Gavin that his little brother's odds were good. He recounted the story of former Warriors player Jason Dilts, who battled leukemia in high school but recovered and went on to become a doctor. Cooper is no longer hospitalized but continues to undergo treatment in Indianapolis once a week and has not yet returned to first grade.
Roth also spoke from more personal experience, reminding Gavin that doctors cut a cancerous tumor from Roth's own left leg just two years earlier.
"Everything is going fine (but) when they hit you with that C word, life takes on a new perspective," Roth said. "It just puts the fear of the Lord in you. You don't know from one day to the next what's going to happen."
A week later, in the locker room before Winamac's sectional opener against Tri-County, Roth said the game ball would go to Cooper if the Warriors won.
After the 40-15 victory, an appreciative Steve Fulmer said the game ball should instead go to Roth, who earned his 200th career win that night.
Roth insisted Cooper needed it more.
"When my husband and Gavin brought the game ball to the hospital that Saturday morning, (Cooper) just lit up," Trina Fulmer said. "He was so excited and he was trying pick out everybody's name on the ball, 'So and so signed it!' It was really, really cute."
The Warriors then made their greatest gesture of solidarity for Cooper. Gavin and a few other players had already shaved their heads to show Cooper he had nothing to fear from losing his own hair to chemotherapy.
At the team dinner on the eve of a sectional semifinal game against Hammond Bishop Noll, team mothers buzzed the rest of the players' heads.
"We thought if we showed him that he was a role model to us, it would make him a little stronger through the process," Gavin Fulmer said.
Trina Fulmer said those gestures and visits from the football players gave Cooper new energy and raised his spirits. The Warrior players also noticed a change in themselves as they came together to help one of their own.
"Football's about 11 men working together to get a single goal of winning a game done," said Brandon Dickson, a senior middle linebacker. "When we all have a common goal to win the game and win the game for Cooper, it gives us that much more to fight for and makes us work together. We see we're all equal in some way."
Adversity tested the Warriors' new bond in the sectional semifinals. Noll took a 10-7 lead early in the fourth quarter on a touchdown pass that was tipped by a Winamac defender in the end zone. The Warriors drove the length of the field and scored for a 14-10 victory.
"In years past, giving up a (fourth-quarter) lead, some of those teams would have folded," Roth said. "They found a reason why. This season, our seniors have given us really good leadership, and we just weren't going to be denied."
A greater challenge awaited in the sectional championship. Pulaski County and Midwest Conference rival West Central, ranked No. 8 in Class A, had walloped the Warriors 49-7 in Winamac on Sept. 21. The Warriors committed six turnovers in that game and could not stop West Central's option combo of quarterback Michael Hamilton and running back Chantz Marlatt.
Winamac made a few defensive adjustments before the trip to West Central, and when they held the Trojans to a three-and-out to start the game, the Warriors found a spark. With a decisive 49-13 victory, Winamac won its third sectional championship, and first in 12 years.
"Going into this game, we felt like we had something to prove," Bunkowfst said. "We felt like we had to prove we were a good team, not a joke. With the motivation to play for Cooper added in, it was an all-around perfect game."
Cooper listened to the radio broadcast of that game at home, later excitedly asking which player had doused Roth with the water cooler.
As Cooper continues his recovery, the Warriors realize their greatest football challenge lies ahead. Lafayette Central Catholic is the three-time defending state champion and has won 21 consecutive state tournament games. In their sectional final, the Knights routed Pioneer, which beat Winamac 42-14 early this season en route to the Midwest Conference championship.
The Warriors now wear bracelets with the phrase "#Coopstrong." They hope their new bond carries them to another improbable victory.
"Every game we've played since he's been diagnosed has been for him," senior quarterback Zach Shidler said. "That's our motto, For Cooper."