- JuliaKate E. Culpepper The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Josh Proctor never was a soccer fan.
Like most southerners, he preferred football to fútbol.
Sure, his children played in soccer leagues and he even coached some youth teams, but Proctor never was all in.
In March, a cousin by marriage, Stefan McDonald, who was a “founding member” ticket buyer of Atlanta United, invited Proctor to the team’s first match inside Bobby Dodd Stadium against the New York Red Bulls.
During those 90 minutes, Proctor was forever changed.
"I went to the Super Bowl last year. I was at every NFL playoff game for the Falcons last year, and that's an electric crowd, but even the Super Bowl didn't have the emotion wrapped around it that Atlanta United had,” Proctor said. “The fact that everybody stood for the entire match, the chants going through the crowd and I was right near the supporter section, so it's just reverberating off you."
That one match ignited something deep inside Proctor.
When he returned home from Atlanta United’s win over New York, he bought seasons tickets for himself and his family — his wife, Stephanie, and children Kara (21), Jarret (13), Taylor (12) and Jaydon (10).
Then the diagnosis hit.
On May 8 at 40 years old, Proctor was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia — a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that usually is seen in individuals in their 70s.
Proctor, now 41, started chemotherapy in August. The depression quickly set in.
A disabled veteran who had battled PTSD and anxiety in the past, Proctor now started to wonder about the future and things like if he would be there to give his daughters away at their weddings.
"When you have an incurable cancer like this, it just becomes a routine," Proctor said. "The first couple of months, all I could think about is how many years I'm going to get? Am I going to be here 10 years from now?”
Cancer was just the icing on top of what had been a dark year for the Proctors.
In September 2016, Proctor learned that Heather McDonald, his cousin and Stefan McDonald’s wife, had gone missing. Two months later, her body was found.
The trauma from his miliary past, the diagnosis and Heather’s mysterious death easily could have destroyed Proctor and his family, but he found healing.
“When I was first diagnosed, I was reading in Romans 8, and it says that for those that love God, he works all things out to their good and his glory,” Proctor said. “That just has me reminiscing ever since then and meditating on knowing that even in cancer, God is loving me. I just have to figure out how he’s loving me every day, and I have to ask, ‘How are you loving me today?’ and ‘How is cancer loving me?’”
During the time of his diagnosis, Proctor stopped working as a church planter and pastor at Redeemed Church in Cartersville, something that brought him joy and escape from the PTSD.
With increasing fatigue, drowsiness and cloudiness of thought, Proctor found it nearly impossible to work.
"I thought it was getting too hard," Proctor said. "I wasn't able to do as much throughout the day. I'd gotten away from wanting to meet with people and doing the necessary things for a young church plant to keep it going and doing well."
With the rest of his world seeming to come crashing down, Proctor continued to find escape while watching Atlanta United.
When surrounded by the electric air around Bobby Dodd Stadium on match days, tailgates with friends and excitement, the cancer never crossed his mind.
"I'd be depressed Monday through Friday. You're thinking about cancer every single day, but then Sunday morning or whenever the match was, all I was thinking about was getting up, getting dressed and getting down to the stadium," Proctor said.
After he started chemotherapy, Proctor’s doctors advised him to stay away from large crowds because of the side effects of the chemo on his immune system.
Proctor told his wife, Stephanie, he would listen to his doctors, but only after after one more match.
Proctor attended Atlanta United’s match against FC Dallas on Sept. 10, the team’s first match inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Atlanta United came away with a 3-0 win.
Since then, Proctor heeded his doctors’ orders through chemo and avoided the past few regular-season matches.
At least the “avoiding crowds” part.
While Proctor still struggles with fatigue, he stays glued to the television during each match, standing the entire time at his home in Cartersville.
Even over 40 miles away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the fog of cancer is lifted on match days.
"Those days are a break for the kids, just like they are for me just because of what it does for me, it gives them days with their dad,” Proctor said. “You can tell it on their faces ... It's kind of like, I feel like sometimes when they're asking, 'Hey dad, does Atlanta United play this week,' they're kind of asking me, ‘Hey dad, is there going to be a day where we all hang out or where dad's going to be there?'"
Before he heads in for his third round of chemo on Monday, Proctor will bend his doctors’ orders one more time and “sneak” into Atlanta United’s playoff game against Columbus Crew.
On Thursday night, Proctor will rejoin the 70,000 Atlanta United faithful in fashion when he, along with three other fans chosen by supporter groups, ceremoniously carries the Golden Spike into the stadium and is free from the grasp of cancer for 90 glorious minutes.
"On those days, (the fatigue) just isn’t there,” Proctor said. “The adrenaline carries me through."