On Saturday night, Toni Pressley entered the pitch in the 72nd minute of the Orlando Pride’s season finale against Reign FC. All of those in the stadium then rose to their feet.
The appearance marked the first for Pressley since undergoing treatment for breast cancer in August - coming on the night of the Club’s first ever Breast Cancer Awareness Match. The 29-year old was diagnosed in July and underwent surgery to remove the cancer a month later.
Following Pressley’s diagnosis, those across the NWSL rallied around her and all of those affected by breast cancer to sponsor a league-wide auction to benefit Libby’s Legacy, an Orlando-based non-profit chosen by Pressley that provides breast cancer resources to the underserved. At halftime on Saturday night, it was announced that the auction and all the other efforts surrounding the match to that point had raised over $40,000. That number is still growing.
“I’m so grateful that the league has rallied behind me and this amazing cause and that we’re able to help so many people,” Pressley said of the support. “I never expected any of this to happen, but I truly believe everything happens for a reason and now that we’re able to help I’m just so thankful.”
Then came Pressley’s return to the field on the other side of the break, a moment that led the stadium to erupt and Orlando captain Ashlyn Harris to hand over her armband. Pressley finished out the match at center back for the Pride to close the 2019 season.
“It was just amazing to be back out there. Three, four months ago not knowing what my future held to now being able to play again the sport that I love it’s just unbelievable,” Pressley said following the match. “To do it before the season ends I think is even greater and I’m just so grateful for the opportunity to be able to play again.”
With the season now at a close, Pressley’s focus turns to an offseason worth of work to return to her physical form prior to her diagnosis. She has, however, embarked on a new mission in helping others by sharing her story.
“Talk about women empowering women, she is life. She’s giving us such a reality check of how beautiful this life can be and not take it for granted a second. She’s done it with grace and she’s done it with class and with a big smile on her face,” Harris said. “All she keeps talking about is how she wants to impact other people like her. What a selfless human and what an honor to call her a teammate and friend. She’s just teaching us so much right now about life and love and taking obstacles with total grace.”
It’s difficult to look at Pressley’s journey these last few months and not feel inspired. Her journey back to the pitch has been just a mere part of the strength and resiliency she has exemplified since her diagnosis. In a season that proved challenging for the Pride both on and off the field, Toni’s story has helped to show that this team and this sport is much bigger than soccer.
“When I reflect, I’m sure that’ll be the highlight of my season that we’ve had a player beat cancer and then come back so quickly,” Head Coach Marc Skinner said of Pressley’s return. “Look how brilliant physically she looks on the field, it’s amazing. That beats any football moment that’s happened this year."