11-year-old bonds with football team while battling cancer
Nov 18, 2012 (Greeley Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Anthony Etchamendy will never forget the two hours he spent with Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton.
How could he The Rockies icon gave him his Oakley sunglasses and batting gloves.
However, it was the past 12 weeks of Anthony's life that the 11-year-old sixth-grader from Winograd K-8 says were the best he'll ever have.
"It was very nice of them to let me go down on the field," Anthony said of the Northridge High School football team and its coach Jeff Fulton. "And they let me hang out with them and go to their talks."
For the Northridge players and coaches, however, it was much more.
"That little guy has fought the fight," Fulton said. "He offered us a chance to understand what the big plan is. And that it is not to play 10 games of football."
Fulton was referring to Anthony's diagnosis of embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancerous tumor of the muscles that are attached to the bones. In Anthony's case, it was in his sinus cavity near his left eye.
In February, Anthony came home from school with a black eye. His step-father, Greg Franks, asked who punched him. When Anthony said no one, his parents took him to the doctor. For two weeks they had nearly a half-dozen answers: swollen saliva duct, sinus infection, tooth infection, to name a few. Finally, one Sunday, Franks came home from work and had seen enough. The family went to Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland and forced a CT scan, a few hours later, he was undergoing surgery at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins. But doctors still didn't know what they were dealing with. During surgery, Anthony lost 24 ounces of blood. It took 72 inches of gauze packed in the young boy's nasal cavity to stop the bleeding. When it was finally over, doctors sent the tumor off to be tested and Anthony left for The Children's Hospital in Aurora.
When the diagnosis came back on March 3, it was the beginning of a long road to recovery. Anthony underwent daily radiation treatments for six weeks. He has undergone weekly treatments of chemotherapy since. Prognosis is positive. Anthony's last session of chemotherapy will be Dec. 11, and doctors have already begun to lighten them a bit, as the cancer is gone.
The football team has helped the youngster get through the last three months, Franks said.
"Fulton was my coach at Greeley Central in 92-93. Every time I've seen him, he's asked if I'm ready to coach yet," said Franks who at one time owned the semi-pro football team, The Greeley Blaze.
The men ran into each other in August and the question came up again, but Franks had to say no because Anthony was his first priority. But that was how Anthony met the team. One day after school at the beginning of the season, Franks saw the team practicing when he picked Anthony up from school. He thought he'd take him over and introduce him to Fulton.
Fulton introduced the two to the entire team and told Anthony he could hang out on the sidelines anytime he wanted. What Fulton didn't expect was that it turned into every game, home and away, something Fulton said was good for everyone.
"He offered my boys a realistic balance, a perspective," Fulton said. "Everyone of us walks this earth not knowing what tomorrow brings."
Anthony did miss one game, the regular season finale against Skyline. Anthony's blood count dropped too low, and doctors put him back in The Children's Hospital. But at 6:45 p.m. that night, the phone rang in Anthony's room. The team hooked up Fulton's phone to a boom box in the locker room before they took the field and told the boy they planned to win so Anthony would be there for them in the playoffs. The 33-23 win that night, secured their spot in post season and gave Anthony some more time with the team.
Anthony became a part of the team, they all said. He was with the team during pre-game talks. He was with the team during half-time talks. He was with the team, win or lose, during post-game talks. Heck, team photos include Anthony.
Calling Anthony the team's good-luck charm, receiver Blake Karlin told Anthony he had to come back after the team's first win with him present. Blake dedicated every touchdown he scored -- three -- in the team's final game against Conifer to the boy.
"He would find me on the sideline after the kickoff and tell me, 'That one's for you,' and hug me," Anthony said.
"He was a big support system for us," Blake said. "For such a young kid to go through what he's going through, someone we've never met before, to love us and support us the way he did. He supported us 100 percent. He loved the Grizzlies."
Franks said he doesn't know how to thank the team enough for giving Anthony something to take his mind off the illness.
"It was kind of hard getting through week by week," Franks said. "They gave something he was able to look forward to. I wish nobody had to go through this. The day with the celebrity was cool, but the 12-week adventure with these boys and this team, that was something special."
Blake said it worked both ways.
"To have a child that hasn't been able to play football because of his illness be with you all season, we are lucky to be able to do what we do every day," Blake said. "We wanted to be his inspiration to get better."
Sherrie Peif covers education for The Tribune. Her column runs on Mondays. If you have an idea for a feature, contact Sherrie at (970) 392-5632 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
That little guy has fought the fight. He offered us a chance to understand what the big plan is. And that it is not to play 10 games of football.
-- Jeff Fulton, Northridge High School football coach
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