The date? Monday, April 4, 2011.
The time? 9:30 a.m.
The place? St. Thomas Hospital in Akron.
The verdict? Bone cancer - again.
“It was gut-wrenching,” John Nemec said. “If this were the first time out you’d just say ‘Ahh, we’re going to beat this.’ But we know what can happen. I was breathless.”
Nemec coaches football at Roosevelt High School in Kent. He’s 65 years old and has spent 30 of those as a head coach. He’s a talkative, entertaining, fatherly figure whose won his share of games over the course of a storied career. There’s one loss in particular however that sticks with Nemec and the entire Roosevelt community. The reminder is a bronze statute that sits prominently inside Rough Rider Stadium.
Cancer is responsible for nearly 25-percent of all deaths in the United States, and it’s responsible for ending junior Ryan Anderson’s football career.
A month ago the Roosevelt offensive lineman was mulling scholarship offers from Boston College, Indiana, Pitt, North Carolina State, Toledo, Kent State and others.
Wednesday he was discussing a future without football.
Anderson is a hulking specimen, a great individual and a helluva football player.
A 6-foot-4, 315-pound wrecking ball, he was a consensus 2012 Top 50 football prospect in Ohio and was going to be a Division II JJHuddle Preseason All-Ohioan. Within the last month he was ranked the 36th overall prospect regardless of position in Ohio by Bucknuts.com. Anderson was also receiving extensive interest from Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame and Ohio State.
Friday he’ll receive a stent in his chest and next Tuesday he’ll receive his first dose of chemotherapy.
Cancer confuses things quickly.
Diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma in the lower part of his right leg less than two weeks ago, Anderson’s senior season, which was to include helping Roosevelt try to reach the Division II postseason, will now include trips to the hospital instead of the huddle. Anderson will undergo 11 weeks of chemotherapy followed by bone replacement surgery. An additional 11 weeks of chemo will follow.
Osteogenic sarcoma is a form of bone cancer, which is considered to be extremely rare in teens and affects just five out of a million U.S. patients under the age of 19 per year.
Anderson was unaware he had it until a nagging pain lingered in his leg during preseason track workouts in early March.
A tribute to former Kent star Benny Cowgill who suffered from osteogenic sarcoma.
The day Anderson’s pain became the most bothersome team doctor Nilesh Shah, M.D., visited track practice. Shah looked at Anderson’s leg and suggested further evaluation.
“He went through all the tests and you could tell it just wasn’t adding up,” Anderson said. “My knee wasn’t swollen and it wasn’t bruised. He suggested we get it X-rayed.”
That weekend Anderson participated in a football scouting combine and ran a 5.2 40-yard dash. The next day a CAT Scan revealed a lump in his femur. He underwent an MRI and bone scan to see if there were any additional lumps in his body. There weren’t.
“At that point we didn’t know if it was cancerous or not,” Anderson said. “We just knew I had a tumor.”
On April 4, Anderson underwent a biopsy which revealed the tumor was malignant.
“When I woke up I started to understand what was happening because of who was around me,” Anderson said. “My parents were in the room and I could just tell it wasn’t good news. They just came up and tightly squeezed my hands. I asked for the doctor and he came in and said it was cancerous. He said I was going to have to start chemo soon and that I was going to have to have surgery to replace that part of the femur. He also said I wasn’t going to be able to play football again.
“At that time – and still now – once I heard it was cancer I really didn’t care about football. I said to coach when I saw him that I don’t know how long the doctor talked to me – maybe 30 seconds – but it changed my life. Honestly, at that second I started prioritizing and I thought, ‘I gotta get healthy because I have so many people around me that love me and that I love and that I need to be with for the rest of my life…even if it’s without football.”
Said Nemec: “It’s just one of those things that hits you in the face.”
The coach should know – he and Kent have been punched in the mouth before.
In the summer of 1992, Benny Cowgill showed great promise at quarterback, so much so that Nemec took note of the then-Roosevelt eighth grader. That same year, Cowgill’s own bout with osteogenic sarcoma began.
Complaining about shoulder pain in his throwing arm in July, Cowgill played through what was then believed to be a rotator-cuff injury. He did physical therapy but by mid-September was unable to throw the ball. The rest of the season Cowgill remained at quarterback and simply issued hand-offs. When basketball season started he couldn’t lift his arm to shoot.
Ensuing examinations and an eventual biopsy revealed the cancer.
“We got the diagnosis but none of us knew how bad osteogenic sarcoma was,” Nemec said. “It was just a big word and we said, ‘Heck, Benny will beat this.’ But then they took his arm and shoulder and we kept getting bad news. It was just real tough. He had spots elsewhere.”
Cowgill never gave up.
He missed his freshman football season but returned as a sophomore.
Benny’s father, Ben Cowgill, a former assistant coach under Nemec, was a former teammate of then-Youngstown State and current-Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel at Baldwin-Wallace. Under Tressel’s tutelage, Benny Cowgill became a kicker by practicing with YSU personnel, including former NFLer Jeff Wilkins.
“Benny went down a couple times a week,” Nemec said. “He comes back his sophomore year and he knows what he’s doing. He got good.”
In 1995, Benny’s junior season, he was first team all-league and won the Rough Riders a game at Campbell Memorial on a last second kick.
“He was a real, real brave young man,” Nemec said. “When we lost him it was devastating to this whole community.”
Benny Cowgill, nicknamed the “No-Quit Kid,” passed away in January of 1996.
“I went out to his house one night right after he had his arm removed and he was doing homework,” Nemec said. “I mean this is right after the surgery and he’s practicing writing with his left hand. I asked him what he was doing and Benny said, ‘I’m going to be the best damn left-handed writer in the school.’ That’s just how he was.”
Cowgill’s impact on Kent was immense. And to this day remains so.
A bronze statue of Cowgill sits inside Rough Rider Stadium, surrounded by brick pavers and groomed landscape.
In addition, the Kent City School District honors Cowgill’s memory by dedicating one home game a year as ‘Benny Cowgill Night.’ During pregame festivities, the district honors two fifth-grade students each from Davey, Franklin, Holden and Longcoy elementaries with the Benny Cowgill Award. The designation goes to a student who best showcases the same characteristics as Cowgill.
“Benny Cowgill is an inspiration to everyone around here,” Roosevelt junior Sterling Alexander said. “Every day you hear stories about Benny inside school and outside of it. Even people on the streets who are up to no good will tell you about Benny because they either went to school with him or watched him play. Benny Cowgill impacts everything.”
The Benny Cowgill Award winner in 2005?
Alexander knows everything about Anderson or close to it. The two have been friends since first grade and Alexander has stockpiled stories.
There was the time the two showed up for pee-wee football in third grade and coaches immediately moved Anderson up two grade levels. The next year, they moved him up another.
There was the other time Alexander says Anderson stopped his car in the middle of a street, “hopped” a fence and “ran faster than I’ve ever seen him before” to chase a prankster who threw a bottle at his car.
There was the other time, during a Week 2 game against Stow this past season, where Roosevelt was on the verge of losing a big second quarter lead and Anderson, “got in everyone’s face – even the coaches – and told everyone to wake their (butts) up.” The result was a 41-14 Rough Rider win.
“There are people in Kent that you see everyday, but Ryan is someone you remember,” Alexander said. “Of course, he’s going to stick out because he’s big, but the personality that he has and his affect on people is incredible. Every time I’m with him or see him at his house there’s always kids around and people coming up to him. He’s just a great guy.”
Alexander knows form personal experience.
After living next to Anderson for years, Alexander and his family were evicted from their home. The move was hard but Alexander said Anderson was one pillar he could lean on throughout the transition.
“Ryan was one of the only friends I had that would take me places, get me stuff and do things for me,” Alexander said. “He calls me his brother all the time. Whatever he could do for me he did.”
Nemec echoes Alexander’s praise.
The coach said Anderson is the “best leader of young men” he’s ever coached and could literally talk for hours about him.
“He’s uplifting,” Nemec said.
Anderson currently carries a 3.5 GPA and is coming off a grading period in which he got all As.
It’s easy to see why the Roosevelt football team took the news so hard.
Alexander found out before anyone else from an assistant coach and his emotions exploded.
“I tried to keep it together but I called Ryan the next period and he knew my voice,” Alexander said. “He said ‘I know.’ I just broke down crying.”
He wasn’t alone.
Alexander said when Nemec addressed the team and told them what their biggest and strongest teammate faced…dry eyes were hard to find.
“That was bad,” Alexander said. “Another one of our friends, Rich Graves, just broke down crying and I hadn’t seen Rich cry in a long time. The only times I’ve seen Rich cry were when we lost to Tallmadge in the playoffs and in sixth grade when we lost the championship game. Everyone was down. It was silent.”
Said Nemec: “It was just awful. And there was fear.”
Anderson, however, is confident.
“I’m just going into it thinking that I’m coming out alright,” he said. “There are no what-ifs. I’m looking forward to getting better.”
Letters, Phone Calls And Fans
Nemec remembers basically going numb when he heard Anderson had the same form of cancer as Cowgill. He also remembers his wife asking what he was going to do and needing to get some fresh air. A phone call to longtime friend and current Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman ensued. Bollman relayed the message to Tressel who quickly followed up.
“I said ‘Jim, I’m very emotional right now and I’m reaching out,’” Nemec said. “I told him (Ryan had) gotten 20 letters a day from colleges and that, ‘They’re going to stop abruptly. I gotta get something very positive and inspiring to him. I don’t know what you can do or what your limits are but I need some help.’
“Tressel said, ‘John, just go hug Ryan.’”
Days later, Anderson received a package addressed to him with over 100 hand-written letters from the entire Ohio State football program – coaches and players combined. Nemec made Anderson promise to read every one.
“The impact of getting over 100 letters from Ohio State was more meaningful than I think anyone will ever know,” Nemec said. “It just shows you the quality of leadership that the Ohio State football program has. Ohio State has a coach that gets it. (Tressel) understands.”
So do others.
On Monday, Sandy Herzlich, the father of cancer survivor and Boston College senior Mark Herzlich, called Nemec and offered support. Mark Herzlich was the Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 before being diagnosed with bone cancer in May of 2009. He missed the 2009 season but returned – after surgery and chemo – to compete for BC in 2010. The families plan to continue communication.
Locally, Nemec said a number of schools have called to offer their thoughts and prayers.
“It’s not an easy topic,” rival head coach Patrick Youel of Field High School said. “(Ryan) is a wonderful young man and the bright future he had ahead of him in football has been taken away. We were devastated to hear the news and I can’t imagine what is going through their minds (at Roosevelt). My first reaction was shock and sadness. That immediately turned to thoughts of support and prayers.”
“I told our team to keep Ryan in their thoughts and prayers,” Coventry head coach Jerami Hodgkinson echoed. “They know how hard of a worker he is and that he can battle through this. Even though we play against him on the field as an opponent, it is bigger than that, and our kids consider Ryan family. Our team knows that he would be with us if we were dealing with the same situation.”
Youel addressed his team at their recent monthly team-bonding session and had every player sign a card that they’ll send soon. Field, like others, has also inquired about helping financially. As of now, a fundraiser will be held locally through the sale of bracelets.
“Kids need to understand that football is great but that it can be taken away from you at anytime,” Youel said. “We stressed to (our kids) to make every play count. That being said, sometimes there are just things in this world that are simply far more important than football.”
What Lies Ahead
So what now. Where does the road lead?
Anderson was largely regarded as one of the most talented offensive lineman in Ohio and was a special player.
“Anderson is one of the most powerful lineman for the class of 2012,” ScoutingOhio.com’s Mark Porter wrote earlier this spring. “At 6-4, 330 he is an athlete in a big mans body and delivers a strong punch upon contact. He’s very strong at the point of attack and can open up running lanes for the ball carrier. He will project as a center or guard in college and dominate in the run game. He’s a great student and leader for Kent Roosevelt.”
“Ryan Anderson has been ranked as one of the Top 10 offensive linemen in the Ohio class of 2012,” Bucknuts.com recruiting analyst Bill Kurelic summarized. “I’ve potentially seen him as a two- to three-year starter at a major college program, most likely as a guard. He has toughness and tenacity, which would lead him to be a very solid force in the middle of the line. Anderson has shown at the high school level that he can move defenders off the line of scrimmage and I believe that would have translated into him becoming an excellent lineman at the next level.”
Nemec said Anderson is among the top two kids he’s ever coached in regards to recruiting interest.
“He’s hurting over this football thing – we all are,” Alexander said. “His girlfriend and I were talking about being in his room and seeing all these open letters from Ohio State and Michigan and Notre Dame and Nebraska. And now that’s over. It’s tough. Who ever would have landed him next year would have been one lucky team.”
Said Youel: “At 6-4, 315 you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb in our league, but he had tremendous ability and he was someone you had to build your game plan around.”
Anderson will now formulate a game plan around beating cancer and doing what he can to continue to inspire others.
Becoming a role model in the mode of BC’s Herzlich is a real possibility.
“You never hope you’re going to get (cancer) but I want to make this bad thing into a positive thing somehow, someway,” Anderson said. “I think becoming an inspiration to somebody/anyone would definitely help me through this. Knowing that I can help others by battling this horrible thing that’s happened to me is a driving force. I believe everything happens for a reason. I’ve never asked why.”
“He’s going to miss a lot of things (in the next six months) but he has everything in perspective because he’s so mature,” Nemec said. “He told me ‘Coach, I’m going to go on and do great things.’ And I really believe if anyone is going to be successful in life it’s this kid. Ryan Anderson is a champion. I don’t know much, but I know young people and this guy is going to be successful. He’s just one of those people.”
Anderson knows one thing he’s not.
“I’m not going to be a statue,” Anderson said. “God Bless Benny but I’m using him as motivation.
“I’m going to get through this.”