For a few weeks in late July and early August, the football fields at the Marriott River Ridge complex in Oxnard, Calif. are a great place to find reasons to smile.
It’s there, during the Dallas Cowboys’ daily two-hour practices, that you’ll find some of the team’s most interesting fans. You’ll find the guy who has Cowboys-themed tattoos and named his son after Dez Bryant, or the guy that had a custom-made “Feed Zeke” hat made just for the occasion.
But you’ll also find fans like 9-year-old Samantha Hernandez, who stood among the scores of fans waiting for autographs and brought her own sign to training camp.
Samantha will make you smile for entirely different reasons, though. She’s not just a fan celebrating football’s return after months of the sport’s dormancy.
Samantha was at training camp celebrating being a kid again. And that sign she was holding? It boasted the fact that she’s two months cancer-free.
It’s good news in Samantha’s long battle with a rare cancer called Langerhans cell histiocytosis.
After months of medical uncertainty, it was discovered that Samantha had a tumor on her spine, and she was diagnosed with LCH in September 2015.
“As a parent, you never expect that’ll happen to your kid,” her father, George Hernandez, said. “When it happens, we all have to stick through it.”
In April of 2016, she was officially in remission, but was diagnosed a second time last December.
Five months later, she was in remission again.
“It was her fight,” said her proud dad. “She was the one telling us, ‘Let’s go to chemo, let’s go to chemo.’ She’s a strong one.”
It’s no small task being diagnosed with cancer at the age of seven.
“At the beginning I was really scared, and sad, because I couldn’t do that many things,” Samantha said.
Like most 9-year-olds, Samantha likes to run and play soccer, and she loves to bake. During her cancer battle, she couldn’t do those things. She also couldn’t make the trip to Oxnard with her dad to see the Cowboys.
George’s Cowboys fanhood can be tied to his love of UCLA growing up. The Hernandezes live in Pasadena, Calif., about 60 miles east of Oxnard.
Pasadena, of course, is home to the Rose Bowl, a storied sports cathedral that has held some of the most memorable collegiate and professional football games ever. One of those games was Super Bowl XXVII in 1993 -- the last Super Bowl to be played at the Rose Bowl.
The Cowboys beat the Buffalo Bills in decisive fashion to win that Super Bowl. The MVP? Troy Aikman, a UCLA alumnus.
Seeing them play in Oxnard and getting to meet some of the players was an unforgettable experience, George said.
“This one was one of a lifetime,” he said. “We met so many people who gave us the chance to get autographs, something that she hasn’t been able to do, and that I haven’t been able to do.”
Samantha got signatures from Ezekiel Elliott and several others. My interview with her was delayed by backup quarterback Cooper Rush adding his signature to a small collector’s helmet covered with autographs.
“It is awesome,” Samantha said. “Today I got a ton of autographs from the football players. I had a lot of fun.”
The trip was planned for them by a retired post office employee named Angel who had followed Samantha's story, George said.
"It was something we didn't expect until we got here," George said.
But, while he and his daughter are too nice to say it, talking to me on the sideline of a football practice was pretty small-time.
Samantha’s story has been featured on the nationally-syndicated “On Air with Ryan Seacrest” radio show, and she even appeared in a Make-A-Wish commercial with Los Angeles Clippers star Blake Griffin.
Seacrest’s radio show includes a “tell me something good” segment, during which listeners call in to share good news. Samantha and her mom called in March to say she was halfway through her chemo. That call turned into a visit to the studio and a set of gifts from the popular host.
Their journey will soon take them to North Texas, too. The family is moving to Cedar Hill, where they’ll be closer to Children’s Hospital and their Dallas Cowboys. And, of course, less traffic.
Here’s to fewer cars, and, more importantly, many more months and years of being cancer-free.