WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — When it comes to gratitude, look no further than Brian Wolnewitz. The Palm Beach Gardens fire captain has been a first responder since 2002. At 43 years old, he comes to work every day carrying the weight of an unseen burden.
"It was blindsiding, to say the least," Wolnewitz said.
Wolnewitz was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer on Jan. 2, 2020. Twenty tumors were found in his chest. His life flashed before him when the prognosis came from his doctor.
"He told me I'm probably looking at Christmas, if I was very lucky, Easter," Wolnewitz said.
For a guy who never smoked a day in his life, learning that cancer would one day take his life seemed unreal. However, the husband and father of four knew full well how to battle this fire.
"You have to live it one day at a time," he said. "I told my oldest daughter that we're not going to be sad when we got the diagnosis, that you don't know what's going to happen in a year."
Cancer treatments began right at the start of the pandemic. Everyone around him took notice of something right away they couldn't believe.
"He's at work every day," Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue Chief Keith Bryer said. "And he's training with these guys -- guys that are half his age -- and he's still taking that leadership and mentorship position and he doesn't dwell on it."
Support for his fight grew throughout the year. Firefighters to the Rescue, a Palm Beach Gardens-based nonprofit that supports their own, pitched in. Then a big milestone came in December. Christmas was celebrated.
Soon after, Wolnewitz was gifted tickets by his comrades to the College Football Playoff National Championship game at Hard Rock Stadium. When Alabama defeated Ohio State to hoist the championship trophy in January, Wolnewitz never expected what would happen next.
"Brian is just a tremendous, you know, human being," Alabama's Landon Dickerson said. "At the end of the day, him and his family are going through so much right now, and he still gets up and goes to work every day and he still wants to help other people."
Dickerson, a 6-foot-6, 325-pound center for the Crimson Tide, found out about Wolnewitz's fight through a family member. After the title game, Dickerson decided to start a raffle for Firefighters to the Rescue in Wolnewitz's name. A bumper signed by fellow teammates and a helmet are now going viral.
"It makes it easy to be grateful for every day you got," Wolnewitz said.
The unsolicited support has been immense, yet his strength and courage comes from one place: his loving family.
"I want to give away my daughters at their wedding," Wolnewitz said. "I want to watch my son grow up and play sports."
They've been a guiding light for a man who never thought he would fight an inferno inside his body. It's a fight he's not willing to give up anytime soon.
"There's a hint of a, 'why me?' But you just got to stick to it, that there's a plan bigger than myself," Wolnewitz said.
He added that his cancer remains dormant, and he will continue treatment periodically at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
All proceeds from Dickerson's raffle will go toward Firefighters to the Rescue. They help pay for Wolnewitz's various expenses like airfare, hotel rooms and meals for his family during treatment.
Only a few more days remain to donate directly to Dickerson's raffle. To make a donation in Wolnewitz's name, click here.