A friend unlike any other

The little boy with a big smile would have been a senior. Landon Ahrendt’s friends carry his legacy.

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Contributed by Scott Ahrendt

Barrett Kenny, Landon Ahrendt and Michael Kell laugh during a Trailwood Gators swim meet. The three of them became friends in first grade when Kell heard Ahrendt and Kenny talking about Yoshi and joined the conversation. The three of them would call each other by the nicknames Boshi, Loshi and Moshi, replacing the ‘Y’ in Yoshi with the first letter of their names.

By Kathleen Ortiz, Kingwood Park High School

Soccer practice had just ended when they noticed the bump.

“Did you roll your ankle?” Scott Ahrendt asked his then 9-year-old son.

“No,” Landon Ahrendt replied as he took off his shin guards.

“Well, did you get kicked or did someone step on your foot?” Scott pressed.

“No,” Landon said. “It doesn’t hurt either.” 

Scott stopped pressing. After all, Landon was a four-sport athlete, so a number of things could have easily happened to his ankle. 

Cancer never crossed Scott’s mind.

The bump kept growing and despite it not hurting Landon, his parents decided he needed to see a doctor.

One MRI and biopsy later, the Ahrendts were getting ready for church when the phone rang. Scott picked up.

“They’re still trying to classify what type of cancer it is,” the doctor on the other end of the phone said. “But I have you set up with a team at Texas Children’s Cancer Center and we have an appointment scheduled for you.”

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Scott was driving on 59 to work when his wife Jaymi Ahrendt called to tell him their third child was going to be a boy. Scott still vividly recalls the joy he felt that day. And then, on June 12, 2003, Landon Thomas Ahrendt was born.

“Landon is kind of indescribable because he was just so amazing,” his older sister, Haley Walker, said. “He was one of a kind, one of those kids that you don’t experience very often. He had one of those incredibly bright personalities, like when you were around him it was kind of hard not to be happy, to smile, to pull from the energy that he had.”

Barrett Kenny, Landon Ahrendt, Talon Balcom and Michael Kell swam for the Trailwood Gators neighborhood swim team. (Contributed by Talon Balcom)

The Ahrendts’ backyard was the site of diving board and trampoline flips. The game room housed wrestling matches and Wii games.

Landon was early to rise, and it wasn’t uncommon for wrestling practices with his friends to begin as early as 6 a.m.

“Be quiet,” a teenage Walker would yell from her bedroom connected to the game room. “Landon, Barrett, or Landon, Michael, whoever. Be quiet.”

The boys would laugh and continue to work on their WWE takedowns on Landon’s bean bag. 

A solid group of kids frequented the Ahrendt house. Barrett Kenny was the first to meet Landon. Sometime during the first week of kindergarten at Foster Elementary they were sitting in the assigned seats for carpet time when Landon turned to Kenny.

“Hey, do you want to be best friends?” he asked.

Kenny replied with a yes, and from that point on he spent more time with Landon than without him.

Michael Kell became a part of the group a year later, and then Talon Balcom a year after that. They all swam for the Trailwood Gators. Each of the boys had his own thing he enjoyed doing with Landon.

They recreated music videos, went fishing, rode their bikes and played a lot of sports together.

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Then that bump showed up.

Landon was diagnosed with stage 4 rhabdomyosarcoma. It started in his right foot, but by the time the doctors did scans and tests on him it had spread to his lungs. 

“When we found that out it knocked us to our knees again,” Scott said. “And you know all this is going on and you have to explain it to your 9-year-old son who should be in school. He should be playing soccer, at the pool, not having to deal with something like that.”

Jaymi started the conversation with Landon in his bedroom. He was playing with some toys when she asked what he knew about cancer.

“Isn’t that when people are bald?” Landon replied.

Jaymi, Scott, Teigan, Landon and Haley at Atlantis in the Bahamas for Landon’s Make-A-Wish trip. Landon loved water parks and wanted to design waterslides when he grew up. The Ahrendt family along with the Kenny family flew to the Bahamas for Landon’s Make-A-Wish trip. (Contributed by Scott Ahrendt)

Jaymi then explained that they were going to have to spend a lot of time in the hospital, the medicine might make him feel sick and he wouldn’t be able to go back to Foster Elementary for third grade.

Through the whole conversation Landon never put down his toys. He replied to her news with a simple “OK.”

“It was worse for me thinking about telling him all that than it actually was,” Jaymi said. “We were a lot more scared than he was.”

Balcom, Kell and Kenny didn’t understand enough about cancer to realize the severity of what Landon was going through. Kenny’s parents told him that Landon would be OK. Balcom was more worried about his friend being bald than the cancer itself.

“I didn’t think he would die. I just thought he would go to the hospital for a little bit,” Kell said.

Landon’s older sisters didn’t have a much better understanding of cancer than his friends. Nobody they knew had ever gotten cancer. To them, it was something that happened in movies and to other people.  

“Even when things were going great and I was happy in the moment and I was experiencing joy for whatever reason, it was always still there,” Walker said. “Always in the back of my mind was, ‘Landon has cancer. My brother has cancer.’ That’s scary and that’s hard.”

Landon, on the other hand, stayed himself. Even when Landon was in the hospital bed, Kell never saw him sad.

“Landon was a little bit less active but I didn’t mind it,” Kenny said. “He didn’t seem like it fazed him, so I wasn’t really freaking out about it at the time. He was just the same guy that I remember from before.”

Balcom, Kell and Kenny visited Landon in the hospital often. They would goof around and play as much as they could with Landon hooked up to an IV. A lot of the time though, they just talked. They talked about sports, their lives in general and how Landon thought it was funny that some of the medicine turned his pee blue. 

“It was probably pretty freaky, but seeing how strong he was,” Kenny said. “I was freaked out when I got there and he made it seem like it was no big deal, so I never really thought too much about it.”

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The boys’ parents drove 40 minutes each way for their kids to spend time with Landon at Texas Children’s. 

“You know people always call Kingwood ‘the bubble,’” Scott said. “Well, that bubble really helped protect and take care of us and our kids during a difficult time. It allowed us to really be able to focus on Landon and what he needed, but also make sure that Haley and Teigan had what they needed.”

Landon runs the last 20 yards of the Addi’s Walk By Faith 5K when he was 6 years old. The photo became the L3 Foundation logo photo. Before he was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma he was training for his first triathlon. (Contributed by Scott Ahrendt)

Jaymi and Scott alternated spending nights with Landon when he had overnight stays. They made sure that Walker and Landon’s other older sister Teigan stayed in their extracurricular activities to make sure their lives didn’t change more than needed. 

Many Kingwood families knew the Ahrendt family’s situation and stepped in to help. However, that wasn’t the case for a lot of the other families they met at the hospital.

“When you go down to Texas Children’s one of the things that you see is cancer doesn’t discriminate at all,” Scott said. “We were very lucky and fortunate with the support we received, but not every family has that.”

The Ahrendts received donations to a medical fund. They knew that they would have some of the money left over.

“You know how people have been helping us?” Jaymi asked Landon in the summer of 2013. “We’re going to have some extra money. What should we do with that in regards to cancer?”

The answer was the L3 Foundation. L3 signifies live, love, Landon. 

“All that he really wanted was to make sure that no other families had to go through what his family was going through or no other kid had to go through what he went through,” Kenny said. “It was really important to him that if he passed away that we made a foundation.”

The classic red t-shirts were made and the first L3 Turkey Day 5K took place on Thanksgiving of 2014, six months before Landon passed away.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

The boys always held out hope Landon would return to school.

“Oh, I think Landon’s coming back next week,” Kenny would tell his friends.

There was even a date at the end of fourth grade when they were convinced he would come back. 

He never did.

It was almost like he just knew he was only meant to be on earth for a short time. He wasn’t anxious about it. It was almost just like he had an inner strength.”

— Teigan Ahrendt, Landon's sister

The chemo treatments stopped working.

They began trying all sorts of alternatives, the most promising being immunotherapy. There was a clinical trial for immunotherapy treatment, but he didn’t have the right protein markers on his cancer cells to qualify. 

That had been their last hope.

Landon eventually went home on hospice. He wasn’t always feeling great in those last few months, but when he was, he would spend hours playing board games on the couch with Walker.

“It was during those times when we were playing that he would just return to himself,” Walker said. “You could see those moments of his bright personality come through. Those are moments that I just treasure and cherish a lot.”

Landon died on May 21, 2014, 22 days shy of his 11th birthday.

“It was almost like he just knew he was only meant to be on earth for a short time,” Teigan said. “He wasn’t anxious about it. It was almost just like he had an inner strength and I think that radiated off to people knowing that he had gotten to be in the best place, somewhere better than we could imagine.”

The Ahrendts held a celebration of Landon’s life five days later at Kingwood High School. There were games and an inflatable obstacle course. The menu included Landon’s favorites: popcorn, cotton candy, pizza, hot dogs and Laffy Taffy.

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For the past six and a half years, Balcom, Kell and Kenny have worked alongside the L3 Foundation and on their own to continue to honor Landon’s legacy.

Michael Kell, Barrett Kenny and Talon Balcom at the Gold, Fight, Win pep rally on Sept. 17. The three of them continue to work with the L3 Foundation and on their own to raise money and awareness for a cure for pediatric cancers. “It’s nice and it’s hard all at the same time,” Scott Ahrendt said. “You watch these kids grow up and you think well mine should be there too, but he’s not.”
(Photo by Kathleen Ortiz)

“Seeing the way [Balcom, Kell and Kenny] supported each other as friends of Landon and seeing the way their parents supported my parents, I just knew it’d be impossible for them not to be in our lives,” said Walker, who included all three of the boys in her wedding.

Balcom has collected thousands of medals and donated them to Bling For Bravery, an organization that gives medals to kids with cancer to honor them for completing treatments.

“I would get pictures of people wearing the medals and they would have a gigantic smile on their face,” Balcom said. “It just meant a lot that I could make someone’s day and make them happy in such a hard time.”

Kell’s Eagle Scout project was inspired by Landon’s experience. He built two dozen cushioned lap desks and sent them to Texas Children’s. Kell knew kids spent days in their beds. He knew the desks patients were provided often made doing schoolwork or even playing games on a computer uncomfortable.

Kell found “purpose” in having Landon be a part of his Eagle project.

“It makes me feel like I’m doing something good,” he said.

Barrett Kenny

Kenny decided that each year he would run 10 races to raise money for pediatric cancer research. He chose 10 to honor each year that Landon was alive. Running was always Landon’s thing. Kenny preferred to walk half of the races. But as he ran for Landon, Kenny raised more than $10,000 in the first year alone and became more of a runner himself.

“When Barrett was 10 years old the last thing he wanted to do was run,” Scott said. “He just wasn’t that interested in it, which is pretty amazing now when you watch the kid. He’s cross country, track and lacrosse.”

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The Ahrendts watch proudly as Balcom, Kell and Kenny prepare to graduate in May. They can’t help but wonder what Landon would be like if he was still alive.

“This is going to be a very difficult year,” Scott said. “It’s such a milestone year for each of them. And we sit and look at all of their accomplishments and where they are and where each of them have the potential to go and we’re so proud of all of them. And at the same time, you sit and you wonder, ‘what would Landon have been like?’”

The boys wonder what he would be involved in, who he would be friends with, and if his soccer skills could have helped the boys team win last year’s state championship game.

Even as they wonder, Scott wouldn’t trade the almost 11 years they had with Landon for anything. 

They can’t change the past. All they can do now is focus on helping others and finding a cure – just as Landon asked them to.

This story was originally published on Park Times on September 22, 2021.