Alex Weininger gives it his all on the football field, just like every other Redmond High varsity player does on game nights. When the ball is snapped, the Mustangs plow forward into their opponent and aim to light up the scoreboard and notch a victory.
Heading into tonight’s matchup with Juanita, the Mustangs own a three-game winning streak, including a pair of 3A KingCo victories.
At 6-foot-2, Weininger will line up as one of the team’s starting cornerbacks. He’ll be ready for whatever comes his way.
The 17-year-old senior is also living with a disease called ankylosing spondylitis (AS), which is a rare form of arthritis. In Alex’s case, he’s had 10-15 percent bone loss in his hips.
“My teammates don’t see me as anything different on the field, they just see me as a teammate,” said Alex on Monday night while relaxing at home with his parents, Chuck and Suzanne.
Chuck adds proudly as he smiles and leans forward in his chair: “He hasn’t been beaten deep yet this year. He stays with everybody, he makes tackles — he’s had to tackle running backs and other wide receivers that come his way. He’s held his own.”
In last Friday’s three-point win against Mercer Island, Alex batted a pass away in the end zone that was headed toward an opponent’s hands. Chuck said it was one of many big plays that all the Mustangs participated in during that contest.
Chuck and Suzanne say that Alex — who was diagnosed with the genetically inherited disease a year ago — is a fighter who hasn’t complained about anything he’s faced (he once played an entire baseball game with a broken bone in his hand). Suzanne’s dad and his father were also diagnosed with the disease, which can also cause chronic inflammation of the spine and sacroiliac joints. According to medical reports, there is no cure for AS and only between 0.1 and 1.8 percent of people are affected.
The Weiningers’ first sign of concern was when Alex started experiencing pain in his hips and sacroiliac joint at age 13 or 14 while moving side to side during soccer games. He also had back pain and was diagnosed with a stress fracture. The lifelong athlete — who also played baseball and ran track at that time — sat out from sports action for six months at one point while doing physical therapy.
They asked the doctors if it was AS because of Suzanne’s family history, but they were told the disease doesn’t usually affect people Alex’s age.
On July 4, 2015, the lymph nodes in Alex’s groin began to swell like he had a “lapful of golf balls,” Suzanne said.
“Just randomly I would wake up and my ankle’s swollen,” Alex said. “That’s pretty weird, then the next day it was my knee, and then I got really, really sick that summer.”
They took him to see Dr. Megan Kullnat of Redmond Allegro/Pediatric Associates, who was determined to find out what was wrong with Alex. She consulted with doctors at Seattle Children’s and they thought it was lymphoma, but blood tests weren’t pointing that way.
A blood test did show a genetic marker called HLA-B27 that signifies AS. X-rays and MRIs compared with a previous MRI showed that Alex had the bone loss in his hips, which is a sign of AS. If left untreated, the spine could fuse together.
To deal with AS, Alex injects Humira — a prescription medicine used to reduce the signs and symptoms — into his stomach muscle once a week, on Sunday night (he took it every other week after first being diagnosed). Humira limits the immune system, however, and Alex gets sick easily and has missed some school days.
ON THE GRIDIRON
Some of the family’s acquaintances have wondered if it was OK for Alex to play football, but his doctors — including Shawn Jackson at Seattle Children’s Rheumatology — stressed that playing sports wouldn’t make his condition any worse, so they said he could participate as long as he feels comfortable and takes his medicine, Chuck said.
“On the field, I do not feel limited at all. I don’t see myself under anybody else. (I’m) just as athletic as everybody else,” said Alex as he grinned. He added that when he signed on for football, he knew that bumps, bruises and soreness were part of the deal. The soreness from AS — which causes pain in other joints, as well — blends in with the football aches, he noted.
“I hope to keep playing as long as I can. I don’t know how much longer I can be the athlete that I am now, so make the most out of it,” said Alex, who won’t play football after this year and plans to continue playing soccer. Doctors stress keeping good posture, staying active and doing yoga can help those with AS.
“We’ll be grateful for it now that you’re getting through it with a smile on your face,” Suzanne said.
Alex’s teammates, coaches and teachers are supportive and respect his toughness, he said.
After injecting Humira each Sunday night, Alex is a little tired and sore on Monday, but said he’s good to go with full-pad practices the rest of the week and games on Friday night. Injections aren’t as painful as before and Alex’s parents feel that he’s improving and that his body is getting used to the injections. The doctors will wait a while until they perform another MRI to see how the Humira is working, Chuck said.
Alex just began playing football last year on junior varsity. He grew up watching football and his two best friends played the sport, so he wanted to give it a shot. Suzanne always thought Alex was too small to participate, but when she gave him the go-ahead junior year, “I was really excited, like the next day I went in and worked out with the team, and the rest is history,” Alex said.
However, there were times when he didn’t think he could continue because of the strain, but he kept plugging away.
“That first year that I played it really connected me with everything,” Alex said. “With the football team, you kind of form a bond, and how can you leave the family?”
Chuck and Suzanne said that Alex felt he could make a difference on the team this year and help the Mustangs secure some wins that haven’t been present on their docket the last few years.
“It doesn’t matter to me whether he wins the game, or makes the play to win the game, but just the fact that he’s out there helping do something. That’s always been our thing, ‘do something'” Chuck said, noting that he’s pleased that Alex is happy out on the field.
Added Suzanne: “I’m proud of him for setting an example for other people. The likelihood of someone else in this area having (AS) is slim, but if somebody else has something that they’re struggling with, he can be somebody (they) say, look, ‘If he can do it, I can do it… if he can get through it, I can do it.'”
Suzanne said that she’s proud of Alex’s football and Crossfire Select soccer teammates for showing compassion for her son and helping him along if he needs a hand. In turn, Alex has encouraged one injured football player to play the role of a crucial supporter on the sidelines, Suzanne said.
Coach Jason Rimkus keeps an eye on Alex, making sure he stays warm when he’s sick or allowing him to go home early from practice to get well for a game.
“He may be the most respected player on our team; many of his classmates and teammates have witnessed or heard of him continuing to overcome his struggle,” Rimkus said. “He’s a very humble and selfless person with an almost professional level of work ethic and approach to the game. I love Alex Weininger; coaching him is an honor and he is the epitome of Redmond football.”
Alex is not someone who wants to stand out — he likes to blend in with the crowd.
However, since he’s been living with AS he’s chosen to educate people about the disease. He’s come out of his shell and advocates for himself, his parents said.
Last semester, he stepped up and discussed AS with his classmates in Jeannine Ewing’s health course at Redmond High. It was tough, but he wanted his peers to know about what’s he’s going through.
“As a teacher to sit with 32 students and listen to what living with AS is like for a young high school athlete was meaningful and inspirational,” Ewing said. “Many of us had no idea that Alex had AS and most of us had no idea what this degenerative autoimmune condition even was. Alex was our teacher for that period and questions flew! This age group will always continue to amaze and inspire. They are our greatest teachers.”
Seattle Mariner Franklin Gutierrez also has AS and that has inspired Alex to keep playing and educating.
“He can’t play every game because of it, but he does as much as he can and I think that’s really cool. If Gutty can do it,” Alex said.
Following school this year, Alex will head off to college and he hopes to major in computer science. He’s looking at colleges in Washington, Oregon, Florida and Ohio, the latter two states are on his radar partly because he has family members there.
“He’s able to find good things about every school… He can find the positives in anything. You could tell him he had to go pull weeds and take out trash every hour for the next 10 years, and he would find something positive about that,” Suzanne said. “You can either sit around and say ‘boo-hoo, poor me,’ or you get up and do something about it. Somebody will find a cure (for AS), maybe it will be him.”
Alex fed off his mom’s comments: “I have to kind of take my situation like that, because if I didn’t, I mean, I probably would have quit football and I wouldn’t be playing sports anymore.”