Sports help up escape.
They allow us to focus solely on what’s in between the lines and whistles until the team we’re rooting for comes out victorious or not.
Usually fun, reality does set in when a player suffers an injury on the field or court, but only briefly. We jump right back to the fantasy of sport the next time our classically conditioned ears hear a whistle after a casual clap for the wounded athlete being helped back to the bench.
Another avenue in which we enjoy sports is the comeback. It could be in one game, a team or individual during a comeback season, rebounding from an injury, etc. Ryan Childers’ comeback seems bigger than most.
Rewind back to 2008, when the middle schooler was preparing for his first season of travel football. It’s seventh grade, where you no longer have mom and dad drop you off at games, and you get to travel with your teammates on a bus before battle. Everything was going well for Childers, who always wanted to play college football, during the season until about the halfway point.
“There was a bump, sort of a lump the size of a golf ball, on my neck,” he said. “It stood out to me, I didn’t tell anybody for a while.
“I thought I just got hit. No big deal.”
The common mistake made by football players during a campaign, ignoring an apparent wound, continued for some time.
The mark didn't go away. It didn't even decrease in size.
“I went to the doctor, and they told me I needed to go to the pediatrician hospital to see the surgeon,” Childers said. “I took a biopsy, because they said it (the lump) could either be cancer or an infection. Got that finished, didn’t hear back from the doctors or anything, so we knew it wasn’t going to be good. Something was going to come back.
“I got the call a few weeks later, that I had stage three Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
Cancer is determined by the stage, on a scale from one to four, four being the worst and when it spreads to distant tissues or organs, often fatal.
As described by the Mayo Clinic, Hodgkin's lymphoma occurs when “cells in the lymphatic system grow abnormally and may spread beyond the lymphatic system. As Hodgkin's lymphoma progresses, it compromises your body's ability to fight infection.”
“I had chemo (therapy) for six months, I didn’t lose my hair or anything…but I played football through all of that,” Childers said. “The day after my last seventh grade football game was the day I went in for my first chemo treatment.”
To defeat the cancer, chemo therapy is just the first step. After six months of it, three months of radiation followed. The process stretched from the fall through the summer of 2009. But the worst part of the process wasn’t any treatment, Childers says.
Childers at a fundraising event in his honor.
“That first day was probably the lowest point, we didn’t know if I was going to make it, much less play football again or be able to be a normal kid,” he said. “It was hard on all of us, and my family and friends, too, a lot of kids that age didn’t understand. “
It was during this time that faith was tested, then strengthened. Through multiple blood transfusions, barely being able to walk on some days and more biopsies, there was much to be desired – and much to be learned.
“It wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t a walk in the park,” he said. “Basically what I learned is that you can do anything. As long as you have the will power, you can do it.
“To go from that to six months later to playing football, doing sprints and blocking people again, it was like night and day. It proves that anyone do what they want to.”
Finally cancer free before the next football season, his final before hitting the ranks at Class 6A power Birmingham (Ala.) Vestavia Hills, Childers had new perspective with faith, football, family and of course, cancer.
He hasn’t been the same since.
“I am actually speaking at a church coming up on the 30th or the 31st, it’s a youth event,” he said. “I spoke at relay for life event at a high school, it’s something I want to do as I get older. I can share my testimony and maybe be motivation for people.”
“I’m completely glad it happened…I know that it’s made me a tough person. It’s definitely pushed me to the limit to show me what I can accomplish. I’m glad it happened just so I can share it with everyone else. If they’re going through tough times, they can accomplish anything, they could look at me. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, especially because of my relationship with God. I wouldn’t be where I am in my walk with Christ if that wouldn’t have happened.”
Fast forward back to this fall, and the Rebels are moments away from defeating reigning Class 6A state champion and intense rival Hoover (Ala.) High in the state semifinals. The Bucs came back and defeated Vestavia Hills in the final minute, notching a win for the second time on the season before going on to win another state title.
As many players lie in disbelief, Childers among them, it wouldn’t be the now 6-foot-2, 260-pounder’s final football game.
On January 7, the projected center accepted a full scholarship offer to Jacksonville State University, an in-state FCS school fresh off of a semifinal run in the playoffs.
“From the first time I met the coaches at one of the camps in the summertime, the O-line coach (Mike Bennefield) stuck out to me, I liked them a lot,” he said. “He seemed like a nice guy, he’s a great coach but at the same time he’s a great person.
“All the coaches are like that at JSU.”
Childers' parents, with him every step of the way towards his football peak, were overcome with emotion after the long journey to college football was completed earlier this month.
“I know my dad and mom are real happy, they were almost in tears when I told them what I was going to do,” Childers said. “It means a lot to me. I can now answer 'JSU' when people ask me where I’m going.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.”
Childers and his grandmother
*Photos supplied by the Childers family