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Football preview: Liberty team rallies around player battling cancer
By wearing the initials “TR” on their helmets this season, Liberty football players will undoubtedly be asked to tell the story behind them.
They better allot some extra time to respond, because those two little letters represent Tyler Ritchie, and his tale can only be told by weaving through themes as sweeping as cancer, football and the military.
But at its heart, Tyler’s story is about a high school junior finding a home — for the first time — on a team and refusing to give it up, even as he dug in for the fight of his life.
“The first time he cried was when he realized he wasn’t going to be able to play football this year,” Tyler’s father, Jeff Ritchie, said. “He really thought he was going to be able to do it.”
The diagnosis was a whirlwind of the worst kind.
Tyler’s headaches appeared every day. His back was bothersome in the weight room and he was always tired.
“I knew I wasn’t dehydrated or anything, but I couldn’t do stuff that I know I’m able to do,” Tyler said. “That’s when I knew something was wrong with me and I had to go to the doctor.”
He started with a physical at the Air Force Academy — where his father was a 1991 graduate and launched a career that had ended the month before — and was sent immediately to Fort Carson. Tests showed a tumor at the junction of his abdomen and upper leg and doctors wanted him in surgery. That day.
“They said, ‘We found this thing and the faster we get it out, the better it is for you,’” Tyler said. “I was just like, ‘Hey, whatever helps.’”
Not that anything is uncomplicated when a seemingly healthy 16-year-old learns there could be something terribly wrong, but it didn’t help matters that Tyler’s father had just weeks before taken a job with General Electric in Cincinnati as the family decided that retirement from the Air Force in favor of a civilian position with an established company was better than an 18-month deployment.
Ohio may be a lot closer than Afghanistan, but it was far enough away that the longtime tanker pilot, who had flown many missions near combat, was left feeling helpless when his son called with the terrifying news.
“He was trying to calm me down, to be honest with you,” Jeff Ritchie said. “That was the most scared I’ve ever been in my life. I literally almost passed out.”
The surgery and biopsy uncovered rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the soft tissue. More operations followed, including a probing surgery throughout his upper body to see if and where the cancer had spread.
Eventually, a 52-month treatment plan was set, with most of the treatment to take place in Denver. With the plan came a decision to take time off from school or try to keep up from afar.
Tyler’s parents tried to persuade him to take a step back, but that’s just not him.
“It was really important to me to see my friends and stay in school,” Tyler said. “Otherwise I’d be just sitting at the hospital waiting for chemo. That’s not very fun. It’s depressing, really.”
Liberty’s football team made a trip to the playoffs in 2009. That season was the exception. The pair of 3-7 seasons that followed were a little closer to the norm for the Lancers, who have won just 36 percent of their games since 2004.
“Liberty doesn’t really have the best football record, but we do have a lot of talent on the team,” senior captain Zach Hill said. “A lot of people are lazy.”
That description of course doesn’t fit the entire program — coach Jaron Cohen with his intense style would never allow it — but it was especially off the mark when it came to Tyler, and his teammates took note. Though he was a sophomore offensive lineman who played junior varsity, he was “Rudy”-esque in the ferocity with which he approached drills and practice. It was as if he wanted to hustle his way into the good graces of his teammates and earn the kind of acceptance that was hard to build in a childhood spent moving around New Mexico, Oklahoma, Florida and Montana.
Then again, maybe it was that he just really loves football.
“I like the contact about the sport,” Tyler said. “And you’re on a big team, you see all the guys and you’re really close. It’s great to be part of this program.”
It was that attitude that inspired the senior captains to find a way to honor their teammate this season. The first idea was to shave a “T” into one side of their head and an “R” in the other.
Cohen suggested the helmet initials as a more practical alternative, one that could involve everyone on the team and not lead to some awkward-looking senior pictures.
The team presented their helmets, complete with stickers, to Tyler on the practice field earlier this month. They formed a circle around him and acted like football players — yelling, screaming and jumping.
Tyler was in the middle of the commotion, a normal 16-year-old kid on the field for that moment.
A lesson in courage
In the mega bestseller “Super Freakonomics,” it is speculated that chemotherapy will be the leeches or bloodletting of our time in that some day a new treatment for cancer will emerge and future generations will say, “You used to do what?!”
Unfortunately, right now, there is no better alternative than to pump the body full of liquid drugs that kill most of what they encounter, not just the cancer. It’s a little like destroying a full city block to remove one dilapidated building.
Tyler’s hair is gone and he’s dropped from 195 pounds to about 160. He tried to sneak in some workouts for a time, but his energy was zapped.
The cancer has thus far cooperated. An appointment this past week brought “the best possible news,” his father happily reported.
Unfortunately, 32 more weeks of treatment lay ahead. “It could be worse,” Tyler said. “I actually feel a lot better than I did when I had cancer and didn’t know it.”
The schedule is mind-numbing. There are the trips to Denver, sometimes four or five a week, plus the blood tests at the academy before each round of treatment.
Radiation is about to be added to the rotation.
“I can tell you the real hero in this is his mother,” Jeff Ritchie said of his wife, Susan. “What she has to do — wants to do — every day is just crazy.”
Plenty of the normal activities of a high school junior have been placed on hold. Tyler had to cancel his driver’s license test because of a conflict with his treatment and even scheduling college placement exams has been a challenge.
“Hospitals can’t move around chemo very much,” Tyler said. “But sometimes they can make an exception and move it around a little bit.”
A straight-A student, Tyler had to do some make-up work after last semester because the surgeries took away weeks of school at a time, but he expects to keep up this year because he doesn’t foresee any long absences. The class schedule is full, complete with honors and advance placement courses.
Academy School District 20 has provided a tutor to help fill in some of the gaps from the missed class time, and Tyler’s motivation is as strong while studying as it was on the field.
After all, he’s added a career in medicine as a possible target. And he wants to keep his grades up to ensure he can return to the football team next year and graduate with the class he joined before seventh grade — marking his longest stay at a school.
His father worries that Tyler won’t be able to keep up with everything, that he’s taken on more than he can handle. Then again, he’s learned Tyler is not a person you ought to doubt.
“I thought I knew what being a man was; but, guess what, my 16-year-old just taught me what being a man really is,” Jeff Ritchie said. “He has so much courage and so much fight in him. “He’s doing a good job of hiding it if he’s having any negative thoughts at all.”
Victory the only option
The initials on the helmet were the football team’s way of honoring Tyler. But the motivation those initials provide is Tyler’s way of helping them right back.
“That was one reason we wanted to put it on our helmets is just to remind us that, when we want to quit and stuff, Tyler Ritchie would give anything to be out there with us,” Hill said.
The inspiration carries to the coaching staff.
“For us as adults, it really puts things into perspective,” Cohen said. “You feel like you have a tough situation, or you had a bad day, or you screwed up a play call or something else that in the grand scheme of life isn’t really that important, even though to you it is. Then you see a kid like that. It’s just a real inspiration.”
Athletic teams are notorious for their reliance on clichés and metaphors.
And sometimes, they’re right on the mark.
For Tyler Ritchie, the desire to rejoin that family on the field has made him the model cancer patient. He is treating cancer like it’s the hated rival, where victory is the only option.
And he’s doing it as part of a team..
“We always say football is your family,” Tyler said. “That’s true. These guys have supported me a lot. I know they’ve got my back. We all look out for each other. I know the team is always there for me. It’s great to have a whole team of people looking out for you.
“It gives me a reason to keep going.”
That’s what the “TR” stands for. It’s certainly a story worth telling.