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Burns town supports Colby Ward, high school football coach battling cancer

Apr. 27—CHEYENNE — Burns is a small, intimate town of farmers and ranchers, with a population just shy of 400 people. In a close-knit town where everyone knows everybody, the news of a beloved high school football coach diagnosed with brain cancer is enough to shake the entire community.

One spring day in 2019, Colby Ward was out fly fishing when he had a stroke — doctors diagnosed the 24-year-old with a brain tumor. After five years of intense rounds of chemotherapy and cancer treatment that made him sick, Ward recently made the decision to stop treatment altogether.

"He just got tired of feeling that way," said Justene Hirsig, a close friend of the Ward family.

Ward and his wife, Cassidy, have a 2-year-old son, Noah. One of the players Ward coached at Burns High School, Keenan Manlove, speculated that Ward didn't make the decision to stop treatment for himself — it was for his family.

"Colby wasn't doing that because he's a quitter in any sense of the word," Manlove said. "I know that it had not been an easy choice — but, for Colby, it was the right one."

Ward is described by those who know him as a selfless man who is strong in his faith. He has a strong, competitive passion for sports, but a stronger passion for God and those who are close to him.

Hirsig started a GoFundMe on April 15 to raise money to support Ward and his family. Within four days, the online fundraiser gathered nearly $30,000. As of Tuesday, a little over a week since the GoFundMe went online, family and friends had contributed nearly $42,000.

"It's extremely special," said Jordan Hirsig, Justene's older sister. "It's a testament to the type of people that live in Wyoming, that live (in Burns) and know the family."

Jordan is close friends with Alex, Ward's older sister by a few years. She recalled Ward as being the "typical annoying little brother" who always tried to tag along. But no matter who he was with, both Jordan and Justene said he had a special way of connecting with everyone.

"There wasn't really a bad day with him," Justene said. "(He is) very strong in his faith, and loves his wife and son, Noah. Just a very genuine person."

A beloved football coach

Talk to anyone who knows Ward, and they'll almost certainly mention his love of football.

Several of Ward's former high school teammates said he was admired by kids long before he became a coach. Head Broncs football coach Travis Romsa recalled when he was a nervous freshman player for the Burns high school team, just one grade level below Ward.

Ward would tell him, "You can't be scared; just go out and play." A lot of the kids in Romsa's grade level looked up to Ward, who went on to become an assistant football coach after he returned to Burns from Torrington, where he got a degree in welding.

Romsa said he didn't get much of a chance to coach with Ward at Burns, since Ward got sick around the time Romsa was hired. But even though the cancer treatment forced him to give up his career in coaching, Ward would always call Romsa and ask about the team.

"He's still very involved, and that means a lot to the kids," Romsa said.

Manlove said Ward's passion and competitive spirit helped the team beat Thermopolis the last game of the season in his senior year. Burns and Thermopolis are major rivals, he said, and tensions often run high.

The previous season, during a semifinal playoff against Thermopolis, Manlove suffered a compound fracture to his leg that forced him to take a break from playing. Ward was the first coach to reach Manlove on the field, and he continued to support him during one of the "lowest points" of his life, Manlove said.

Come hell or high water, Manlove said he was determined to get back on the field by his senior year. Burns was scheduled to play against Thermopolis the last game of the season, and emotions were running high that day.

"Since I broke my leg, there was a lot of animosity between the two teams," Manlove said. "I personally marked that one on the calendar."

Just before the game started, Ward called a meeting with Manlove and the rest of the coaching staff, reminding him and everyone else to stay "laser focused."

"It was an absolute dogfight — it came out to a Hail Mary play at the end of the game," Manlove said.

Burns won that day, and Manlove said Ward played a huge role in the team's success.

"I don't think the outcome of that game would have been the same if it wasn't for Colby," Manlove said.

'More than a brother, less than a wife'

Ryder Bishop has known Ward since elementary school, and it didn't take long for them to bond over their mutual love of sports. They knew each other as friends and then as teammates, playing football, basketball and running on the track team from junior high through high school.

Ward was given a fly-fishing pole one Christmas, and soon enough the two of them were waking up before 5 a.m. to go fly fishing at least three times a month.

"It was something so new to both of us, being farm kids, that we just learned together and started tying flies," Bishop said. "He bought a kit. I told him it was the dumbest thing ever, but six months later, I had my own kit."

Bishop and Ward lived together on Ward's family farm shortly after high school — it was the first opportunity the boys had to live independently of their parents. Bishop said they thought they were "the coolest guys in the world."

"Colby's more than a brother to me, a little less than a wife," Bishop said.

Then, one day, Ward was introduced to Cassidy.

"I remember when he first met his wife, Cassidy, and I told him, 'I'm not going to be here much longer am I?'" Bishop said. "Sure enough, she came in and ruined all my fun."

When Ward returned home after his first date with his future wife, Bishop said he was worried his friend was falling a little too hard, too fast. But it turned out the two were a "perfect match."

"Cassidy was always the one that would crack a witty joke or have great comedic timing to make the whole room laugh," Bishop said. "Colby always appreciated someone like that."

A genuine man, strong in faith

Former high school teammate and close friend Cole Bostron said Ward was the reason he started going to church. Many people who know Ward will say he is a strong man of his faith.

Bostron stayed over at Ward's house one Saturday night, and Ward's mom, Lisa, told Bostron he either had to leave or get ready to go to church with the family. Ward encouraged his friend to tag along.

"That's kind of what sparked my love for God," Bostron said.

Ward is now the godfather of Bostron's two children, one age 3 and the other only a year old. Those who know Ward spoke to his strong faith in God and his passion for the people he cared about the most.

Bishop recalled giving Ward a hard time back in the sixth or seventh grade, to which Ward responded, "Well, my mom always tells me I wear my heart on my sleeve."

"I don't want him to ever be forgotten," Bishop said. "Any way I can glorify Colby and spread his message of love and compassion and being genuine, I think I have an obligation to do it."

Hannah Shields is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's state government reporter. She can be reached at 307-633-3167 or hshields@wyomingnews.com. You can follow her on X @happyfeet004.