I looked him dead in the eyes as he quietly sighed and said, “You have bone cancer, and this football season is over for you.”
I just stared. All I could do was look away and take it all in. Disbelief and agony took over me, and I was just still. Not a facial expression was made as I processed in my mind that I had cancer. I knew about cancer. I mean, we all did, but I truly never thought it would fall on me. My life was about to change forever.
I called my coach that night in the hospital, and I’ll never forget it. The man who taught me everything I knew about the sport I loved cried into the phone with me. That’s when I let all the pain in my heart loose. I sobbed and asked, “why me?”
My coach said in between my sobs, “you, Andrew, will always be a part of my team.”
Mom and I decided that chemo was the best option for me before surgery. We scheduled the appointment, and until then, I had to just wait. The feeling of knowing you could die is indescribable, it was all I could think about as I sat on the sidelines in my wheelchair watching my team play without me. My heart was broken, as cliche as it sounds, and I was just sad. I didn’t want to fight for my life, and that is a scary feeling to have.
The first day of chemo arrived, and I was terrified. My whole team showed up in the waiting room to support me. I was overcome with emotions, and quite frankly, I didn’t know how to process anything I was feeling. The doctors were nice enough, but anyone could tell that their feelings of sympathy were slim to none because of how many times they’ve seen “my story” come in and out of the doors. Weeks go by and the same type of needle with the same type of anti-cancer drug is put into the same veins until one morning I woke up and tried to brush my hair. I pulled down for the first run through and a chunk came out. It was finally happening, the hair loss. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was watching myself die every single morning when I woke up and looked in the mirror. I hated my patchy hair that I had to cover with a hat, and I hated my dwindling body that used to be so strong. I could hardly pick up a football anymore. I could hardly pick up my football, my one escape, my clarity.
I’ve read about the most inspiring cancer survivors due to school-assigned readings and my mother, who would send me articles titled “The Player who came back” or “How I survived cancer”. She was trying her best to keep my spirit alive, and I appreciated it more than I ever showed. I would never admit it, but her effort is partly what kept me going enough so I could show up to my team’s games. I watched every Friday, away or home. I came to all the team dinners and other planned events. I showed up the best I could for them because they always showed up for me. I know that seeing me slowly shrink in size was scary. I didn’t quite look like me anymore. Even I knew that. My boys never treated me differently. They still asked for my opinion on the routes they should run or how they looked out there on that field. I know in my heart that I was still a part of my team, just in a different way.
Play-offs came about the same time that my doctor recommended surgery. My bone cancer was spreading quicker than they wanted, even with chemo. The decision was now or never. When I got this news, something in my heart just clicked. My mom sobbed on the floor because to her, me going into surgery was a life or death situation and she couldn’t fathom losing her baby. Although the facts were there, and she was correct in that if the surgery got complicated or something was wrong that they couldn’t see before, I could die. Those words lost their meaning to me at that very moment. Death was inevitable to everyone, and even though I would like to live long enough to play for my senior year of football, I was ready for this surgery. I had sulked long enough and I knew that if I went into that surgery thinking I wasn’t coming home, then I wasn’t. Maybe this epitome was an overreaction because my feelings didn’t predict my surgery’s outcome, but the Lord and I knew that I wasn’t backing down to cancer at this moment, or ever.
The next day, my emergency surgery was a go for the doctors and I. I got into my gown and layed on that stiff hospitable bed until it was my turn to dance with the devil. The surgeons wheeled me out into the hallway and to my surprise my whole team was there. My team was lined up to send me off into surgery. I was slowly rolled down the hallway doing all my secret handshakes with my boys, telling them I’d be back next year no problem. We laughed, we cried, we said what needed to be said. “I know this was most everyone’s way of saying goodbye to me,” I whispered into my coach’s ear, “but I’m going to fight like hell under that knife.”
He nodded at me with tears in his eyes as if to confirm what I had said, and followed that up with, “ Hell yeah you’re gonna live, we need our wide receiver back before senior season, and there’s a spot open with your name all over it.”
I took his hand into mine and held back my tears as I said, “I’ll see you on the field, coach.”
As you’re reading this now, whether It’s because it happened to be an assigned reading, or an article your mom sent you, I want you all to know that I lived. I played my senior season as starting wide receiver and averaged three touchdowns per game. I danced with death and I kicked its ass. Waking up after that surgery, hearing those words telling me that I was cleared to play football again, and hugging my mom after surviving what seemed impossible to survive were everything I had dreamed of. My name is Liam, and I lived.