Power Over Cancer
A Mustang Love Story
Eleven-year-old Eli Williams was used to packing a suitcase. His green one has worn thin at the corners by now, but he knew just how to get everything in it that he needed to be away from his home in Athens, Alabama. When preparing to be away from home, packing his necessities was his job. So, he got a Transformer robot, his Nintendo video games, five Hot wheels, and a diecast Ford Mustang. He knew his mom would take care of the bothersome items, like clothing, and a toothbrush, because she always did when they traveled. And, they traveled a lot, sometimes for fun, sometimes not.
Eli was an almost six-year, three-time brain cancer fighter who died in August 2017 at the age of 12. He became known for his love of the Ford Mustang, having been plant manager for the day at Flat Rock manufacturing plant in Dearborn, Michigan, in 2014 and a guest of the Mustang Club of America at the 50th birthday party in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2015. The Junior Mustang Club of America member was also a guest of Mr. Gale Halderman, Ford Mustang design icon, at his home in Tipp City, Ohio, where he has a collection of cars and automotive historical items.
Before he was originally diagnosed on December 29, 2011, at age 7, with metastatic medulloblastoma, Eli’s family didn’t even own suitcases because they never went anywhere. His first trip to St. Jude in Memphis that day was the first of countless trips that kept the suitcases loaded. Eli and his mom were separated from his younger brother, two sisters, and dad many times over those years as he endured treatment, and while pursuing treatment. Family life has been a challenge, and chaotic, plus it has been difficult to maintain childhood friendships and participate in what would be considered normal kid activities. Eli was originally with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, but since his relapse Eli was treated through experimental trials in Houston, Texas, with MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Children’s Memorial-Hermann, then again at St. Jude, then at Children’s of Georgia, and a final attempt to cure him with Children’s of Atlanta.
Through the generosity of so many in his community, and those who came to follow his story on Facebook and his mom’s blog, Eli had so many opportunities to pack his suitcase for fun. After news of his first relapse, a Facebook follower who works for Ford Motor Company, acquired an invitation for him to be plant manager for the day at the Flat Rock Assembly Plant. Ford representatives were generous with their time, and attention to the entire family. The Williamses also toured the Rouge Plant to see the F-150’s, and visited The Henry Ford, a museum of American innovation history. Eli was featured in the local news media, and in internal Ford publications. The family continues a wonderful relationship with the FRAP workers who pooled money to purchase a limited edition pinball arcade game commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Mustang. Eli received the first one produced.
The Mustang Club of America invited Eli to be its guest at the 50th-anniversary celebration in South Carolina where he met Bill Ford, Henry Ford’s great-grandson, and he continued to enjoy that relationship as a member of two local clubs, the Limestone County Mustang Club, and the Rocket City Mustang Club. His local club hosted a car show after his relapse, attracting hundreds of cars from all over the southeast. That car show tradition continues as “Eli’s Block Party: Fighting Childhood Cancer with Muscle and Style” that benefits a non-profit group his mom started in 2015 to raise money for childhood cancer called Eli’s Block Party. After the second relapse, money was raised to purchase Eli his own Mustang to enjoy, take to car shows, and to be a full-out member of the Mustang clubs. He purchased a black 2014 GT Premium that he named Bruce with his own nickname tag “The Eliminator.” Roush Fenway Racing, a Ford performance parts company and Race Team, hosted Eli and family at a race in Birmingham, Alabama, and sent Roush parts for Eli and his dad, Vic, to begin customizing his own car. The customization continued in memory of Eli, and The Eliminator is now a muscular beast on the road pushing 1,000 hp.
“I like Mustangs because they are fast, and I like how they look,” Eli said in an interview. “I started liking Ford and Mustangs when I read about Henry Ford. He is my favorite, but it was fun to meet Mr. Halderman because I know that he started the idea of what a Mustang looks like,” he said.
At the end of his treatment in Houston, Eli was granted a wish from the Marty Lyons Foundation to tour Jay Leno’s garage in Burbank, California. The entertainer, who has a television show on NBC called Jay Leno’s Garage, has almost 200 unique and historical cars and trucks, and over 200 motorcycles in his collection. The family toured the collection, but disappointingly did not get a chance to meet Leno, but Eli didn’t care because a 1965 Mustang GT350 was among Leno’s unique collection.
Eli was sent home to hospice care three times. He defied the life expectations from all of his doctors by years due to his parents sniffing out experimental trials that maintained his high quality of life and knocked the cancer back during the last four years of his life. Eli was a childhood cancer research pioneer. The data gained from his participation in numerous trials is helping to find better treatments and an eventual cure for childhood cancer. His parents use Eli's love of Mustangs to raise money for pediatric brain cancer research. The foundation hosts car shows to raise money, and Eli's own car is used to spread awareness.
Childhood cancer is the number one killer of children by disease, taking six children every day, according to the National Cancer Institute. It also says that the disease is rare. Being the number one killer, taking six lives every day doesn’t sound rare to the Williamses. Despite its own statistics, the NCI gives less than four percent to childhood cancer. The American Cancer Society, which uses children in its advertising, gives less than one percent. Donate to childhood cancer through a pediatric hospital or childhood cancer-only organization in order to aid the fight against the number one killer of children.