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Friendship has no formula: Ankeny football player shares special bond with childhood cancer patient

Iowa State football commit JJ Kohl and 4-year-old Willy Phipps have become best friends. They see the friendship lasting for a lifetime.

ELLSWORTH, Iowa — Friendship has no formula. There's no plug and play of how it all works. 

But, somehow, a high school football star in Ankeny and a 4-year-old in Ellsworth figured it all out.

When 4-year-old Willy Phipps sees his best friend, JJ Kohl, he can't help but sprint across the room right into his arms. 

"Always. He's always like that," JJ said. "He's always got energy. He's always running around. He never runs out of energy."

When Willy needs to burn that energy, having one of the top high school athletes in the country to run around with is probably ideal. 

The pair's moms, Leah Phipps and Charlene Kohl, are constantly captivated by the duo's bond. 

"It's so fun," said Leah, Willy's mom. "Their interaction is so great, just to see them playing." 

The quiet, friendly giant football star from Ankeny is nearly inseparable from the tiny toddler with a giant spirit in Ellsworth.

During Ankeny High School's football season, JJ had Willy by his side as the kid captain. 

Willy brought the cheer on the sidelines while JJ was on the field, because that's what friends are for: to share moments, both happy and difficult. 

"JJ kind of came in at a time when things were just a little better and he could come in and brighten his mood," Leah said. 

Willy is excited to be the kid captain for the Ankeny Hawks game tonight! JJ Kohl (their amazing quarterback) has teamed...

Posted by Leah Phipps on Friday, September 30, 2022

Earlier this year, Willy was diagnosed with cancer. 

It was hard for Leah and the whole family, knowing Willy, who was born with Down Syndrome, now had to overcome childhood cancer as well. 

"We didn't get a lot of visitors in the hospital and I think [seeing JJ] was just a refreshing break from the monotony of a day in the hospital," Leah said. "He brought him a Spider-Man and that was the highlight of [Willy's] day. He still plays with it. It's just a stuffed Spider-Man or them coloring on the bed together of them just being silly."

"There's no stress," JJ said of his friendship with Willy. "There's no pressure about what's going on in the real world. I can just spend time with him." 

Willy became inspiration for JJ to do more. So, he partnered with Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation to raise money and bring awareness to childhood cancer. 

"The goal was to help bring awareness to cancer but through that process, I got a friend named Willy and it's been awesome to spend time with him and be around him," JJ said. 

JJ and Willy have managed to bridge two different worlds. 

"While JJ has big goals and aspirations, Willy does too," Charlene said. "They just look different." 

But soon, they'll have to work extra hard to find time for each other when JJ moves to Ames, where he's committed to play football for the Iowa State Cyclones next season. 

"The nice thing is Iowa State isn't that far away from here so I'll be able to find time and I'll make time to see Willy," JJ said. 

Luckily, a little bit of distance isn't going to stop their bond. 

"I see [JJ] wanting to bring [Willy] to Iowa State games," Charlene said. "I see him wanting to continue on, even into adulthood, as Willy gets older and just really appreciating the friendship for what it really is."

When that friendship is authentic, time falls into place and growing together for the rest of your life seems like a good game plan.

"At the end of the day, football is only just a game and spending time and creating relationships with people such as Willy and his family is something I'll take with me for the rest of my life," JJ said. "I'm definitely a better person because I've met Willy." 

JJ Kohl is heading to Iowa State next season. As for Willy, he has an end of treatment date in May of 2024. 

If you'd like to keep up with Willy's journey, Leah has a Facebook group called "Where there's a Willy, there's a way" that you can join. 

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