BIRMINGHAM — Lexie Appleby's special moment earlier this week was captured on video. For memory's sake, though, the video was probably not necessary.
"It's a day we'll never forget," said Austin Appleby, Lexie's husband, five months into his first year as the UAB wide receiver coach.
This past Wednesday, Lexie stepped into the lobby of O'Neal Comprehensive Center at UAB and rang the bell signaling a significant step in her fight against breast cancer. When she was done, she turned with a smile on her face and her hands raised and hugged her husband. Nearby a group of about 25 friends and members o the UAB football staff, including head coach Trent Dilfer, cheered her on.
"Oh my gosh, just that feeling of the culmination of knowing that's it's been five months since my diagnosis," Lexie said when asked her thoughts at that moment. "To be able to finally reach a moment where my most invasive treatment was over was completely surreal. Knowing how many videos and stories and posts that you see other people share, you never imagine that could be you in those shoes or having that moment. I'm just grateful for an opportunity to celebrate with so many people who have supported me along the journey."
Lexie and Austin met while both were freshmen at Purdue University. Austin was a quarterback on the football team. Lexie was a member of the Purdue Golduster dance team. They met while serving at a football camp for special needs children.
"I totally blew him off for three years before I let him take on a date," Lexie said with a laugh. "We would consistently run into each other, though, from freshman until senior year. By senior year, I agreed to let him take me out."
Their relationship was about six months old when Austin chose to finish his college career as a graduate transfer at the University of Florida. That began a long-distance relationship that included a bunch of football.
Austin started seven games for a Florida team that played in the 2016 SEC Championship game and beat Iowa in the Outback Bowl. He had a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys, played for the Orlando Apollos in the AAF and spent some time in the Canadian Football League. Intertwined in that, he began his coaching career. Lexie spent four seasons in the NFL as an Indianapolis Colt cheerleader.
In March of 2022, Austin retired from playing football and took an assistant coaching job at Missouri State. The long-distance relationship ended, and Austin and Lexie married in July. On December 1, Lexie was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"I went from bride to breast cancer in six months," Lexie said. "For sickness and in health, we are really learning that one quick. You're like, I'm going to repeat this phrase, but here I am, it's real."
Lexie's mother is a breast cancer survivor. She was 37 at the time of her diagnosis and has been cancer free for the past 15 years. That, however, didn't take away the shock of Lexie's own diagnosis.
"First of all, never in a million years would I have thought I'd be 28 and it even be a possibility," Lexie said. "Being someone is young and healthy and textbook doing all the things – eating well, drinking the right amount of water, going to workout, taking care of my body. You wouldn't imagine that being a healthy individual that you could possibly be diagnosed with cancer. That was just extremely humbling."
Lexie said her mastectomy came a week before they found out they were joining Dilfer's staff at UAB.
"Everything," Austin said when asked what being at UAB has meant to this journey. "We talk about God's plan and everything happens for a reason. We didn't know we were taking this job when she had the diagnosis. To blessed and to have an opportunity to come into this area and this place, which is, obviously, a world-renowned medical center. It means everything. Just all of the people that we've encountered at all of the hospitals. Every single experience we've had has been first class. We haven't had one negative thing to say. The people have been tremendous. It speaks this community and obviously to UAB as a whole."
That feeling extends into the football program, evident when she rang the bell.
"What we love about the program with UAB football is it's so much more than football," Lexie said. "That speaks volumes about Coach Dilfer and the culture that he's creating here. From the very start, he set the precedent that family comes first. Austin has been able to be there with me every step of the way, to be able to take care of my health when a call comes in that I need to be somewhere. We're really grateful for that."
Lexie moves on with the belief that she will remain cancer free. She also carries the memories of small victories during this process that turned into lifetime lessons.
"You always think it's going to be someone else, that it could never be you," Lexie said. "When it is you, my eyes have been opened to a world with so many more moments to celebrate. I had a moment where I thought I was going to lose all my hair. That was really hard for me, the vanity behind that. Why do I care so much about losing my hair going through chemo treatment? Shouldn't I just be happy to be cared for? When I was told that chemo was no longer going to be part of my treatment plan, I've been able to celebrate the moments like going to the hair salon, washing my hair. You know, just those little tiny things that we take for granted on an everyday basis. It's just been thankful to be able to have these little celebrations and moments of joy that I was taking for granted."
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