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Gainesville boy battling leukemia will be honorary Falcons captain Sunday
Emma Claire, 9, J.R., Riley, 6, and Molly Johnson pose for a photo at their Gainesville home Wednesday. J.R. and Molly Johnson said they are blown away by the support they have received from the community after Riley was diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. - photo by Erin O. Smith/The Times

GAINESVILLE -- When Riley Johnson’s parents get discouraged over their 6-year-old son’s illness, he jumps in their laps and tells them everything is going to be OK.

Riley was diagnosed in May with B-Cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a blood cancer. He has been taken to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Scottish Rite hospital for chemotherapy once a week while also taking some treatments at home.

The Gainesville boy’s smile and his consistently positive outlook continue to blow away Molly and J.R. Johnson.

“He’s a lot tougher than we are,” J.R. Johnson said.

Thanks to the Rally Foundation for Childhood Cancer Research’s partnership with the Atlanta Falcons, Riley will take the field for the coin toss as an honorary team captain at the Georgia Dome when the Falcons take on the New Orleans Saints in their final regular-season game Sunday.

Support from groups like the Rally Foundation and Team Summer, as well as others in the community, have overwhelmed the Johnson family. Eli Ligon, a fellow childhood cancer patient and Gainesville resident, helped Riley get an iPad earlier this year.

“It’s something we wish we’d never found out,” said J.R. Johnson of how supportive the community has been. “We’d give it up for him to not be diagnosed.”

But Molly and J.R. both emphasized how much every other part of their life, particularly their faith, has grown in the midst of this battle.

J.R. said it was a tough day when Riley lost his 8 inches of blond, curly hair.

When the family was still at the hospital after Riley’s original diagnosis, Molly came across a devotional that encouraged her and inspired three words that start most posts on the “Rally 4 Riley” Facebook page: “So we fight.”

“We’re pulling together,” Molly Johnson said. “God’s got our back, and we’re going to win this fight together.”

As he wore his No. 2 Matt Ryan jersey on Wednesday, Riley was looking forward to his opportunity that awaits. It will be his second Falcons game; he attended the Dec. 18 home game against the San Francisco 49ers with tickets from the Rally Foundation provided by linebacker Vic Beasley.

While chemotherapy has been tough on Riley, his parents said he has been responding to the treatments the way the doctors had hoped. And he should transition to maintenance treatments, which will drop back to once a month, starting Jan. 23. Some of his hair is starting to come back, too.

The Rally Foundation has been alongside Riley for much of his battle with leukemia, with Director of Development Emily Kallos usually stopping in at each treatment to encourage the family and help take Riley’s mind off treatment. Last time, she and Riley watched videos of trains, one of his favorite things.

Kallos was thrilled when the Falcons decided for the first time to have a Rally Foundation kid as an honorary captain in their final regular-season contest at the Georgia Dome. The team will move to a new downtown stadium next season.

“It’s just an amazing opportunity for the Johnsons,” Kallos said. “And I know Riley’s going to have a blast.”

J.R. said his son “loves football.” A fan of Troy, Auburn and the Falcons, Riley also served as captain for the youth football team his father coached for Gainesville Parks and Recreation this fall. When it came time for Rally Foundation to pick a child as honorary captain, Rally co-founder and CEO Dean Crowe said “without a doubt” Riley came to mind.

While Sunday will be a special day for the Johnson family, everything leading up to it continues to impress the parents.

“We’re so proud of him,” J.R. Johnson said. “He’s a fighter. He’s the toughest kid I know.”

His mother echoed that sentiment.

“God has big plans for this kid,” Molly Johnson said. “He will win this battle.”