When FC Dallas defeated Minnesota United in a penalty kick shootout during the 2022 MLS Cup playoffs Monday, season ticket holder Erik Tillisch was one row back from the field surrounded by his family and a vibrant home crowd.
“It was probably the loudest I’ve ever heard that stadium and that includes when they won the 2016 U.S. Open Cup,” he told USA TODAY Sports. “It was such a joy to be a part of.”
Two days later Tillisch was in a much quieter room under fluorescent lights. The cheers of a sellout crowd at Toyota Stadium were replaced by the beeping of medical machines and the slow drips of his first round of chemotherapy.
Tillisch, 54, was supposed to receive his first of four rounds of treatment as part of aftercare for a surgery to treat stage two breast cancer on Monday, but the long-time Dallas supporter wasn’t going to miss his team playing at home.
“I pushed it back two days, to make sure I was at the stadium,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I had my full energy.”
Tillisch has been a season ticket holder with his wife, Leslie, since 2008. During Monday’s game, while wearing his navy blue FC Dallas zip-up and gray hat, Tillisch carried a small white sign that said, “Hi Paul, I start chemo Wednesday. Can I have your cancer shirt?”
The simple message was meant for FC Dallas winger Paul Arriola, who started wearing a white shirt under his jersey that said “F**K Cancer” in May. After more than 130 minutes of grueling soccer, Arriola jogged into the locker room to grab the shirt and present it to Tillisch.
“When I saw Erik, I just thought it was a no brainer,” Arriola said. “After an amazing, emotional win for us and the team, when I walked off the field and saw his sign it reminded me once again how precious life is and how you just never know what people are battling.”
“I never thought my shirt would have the impact that it has had.”
The moment with Arriola brought tears to Tillisch’s eyes when he recalled the kind gesture.
“He grabbed my hand and just said, ‘Don’t worry about this, you got this, you’re going to knock it out of the park,’” Tillisch said. “Being in that atmosphere was amazing. And I knew it was going to be the energy I needed to carry over into Wednesday, and to have the shirt … It was amazing.”
Arriola, who is a contender for a U.S. World Cup roster spot next month, first revealed his “F**K Cancer” shirt after scoring against the LA Galaxy during the regular season. He explained that the shirt was in honor of his future mother-in-law who was undergoing cancer treatment.
“My mother-in-law is dying of cancer,” Arriola said in May. “Today could be the last time she ever sees me play. For me, it was tough but I wanted to send a message. Not only to her, but to everybody, to just keep fighting.”
Diagnosed in 2018, Arriola’s future mother-in-law currently has stage four lung cancer. His grandfather also had cancer and died in 2019. Arriola says his fiancé, Akela, has been his rock through tough times for both him and her.
“She allows me to be me,” Arriola said. “She allows me to focus on the sport and what I do best. And I’m just really thankful to have her.”
Arriola joined FC Dallas earlier this year after five seasons with D.C. United. His move was, in part, to be closer to his Akela’s mom, who lives in Southern California.
“After the season had ended, it just seemed like things took a worst turn in her battle,” Arriola told USA TODAY Sports. “Soccer is your job, your career. But at the end of the day, I’ve gone through loss, and I understand how important family is and having support.”
For Arriola, soccer is work, but it’s also a place where he can escape and enjoy himself for 90 minutes, he said. Tillisch too was able to escape his own difficult reality while watching Arriola and his favorite team.
Tillisch was diagnosed with breast cancer in August, just after his birthday. He said it was initially difficult to get a proper diagnosis and treatment plans had to be altered because breast cancer treatment is typically tailored to women. According to the American Cancer Society, a man’s lifetime risk of getting breast cancer is about 1 in 833, compared to a woman’s risk which is 1 in 8.
Tillisch had a partial mastectomy on Aug. 29, a surgery that included removing two lymph nodes. He is currently “100% cancer free” and the four rounds of chemotherapy are for maintenance. During the start of his treatment he wore his FC Dallas jersey and had the familiar white shirt nearby.
On Sunday, FC Dallas heads across Texas to face rivals No. 2-seeded Austin FC in the MLS Western Conference semifinals. Tillisch will likely watch from home with his new memento.
Tillisch has his eyes locked on Dec. 21 when he’s set to complete his last round of chemotherapy. He said it will be a nice Christmas present. And as for the shirt, Tillisch hopes to gift it to someone else in the new year.
When he finishes treatment, Tillisch’s wife suggested he give the shirt back to Arriola to give to another fan.
“This way that fan – when they’re going through the same thing I am right now – has the same comfort and the same strength. I want to pass it forward,” Tillisch said. “If you’re lucky enough to go through the fight and survive the fight, you need to make sure you encourage others to do so as well.”