CLEVELAND (AP) — The elite athlete who endures pain in order to compete is part of the mythology of sports.
Fictitious Rocky Balboa said, “Cut me, Mick!” so that he could see out of his swollen eye and fight another round on the big screen. Real life players tape it, wrap it, inject it, ice it, heck, they might really even rub dirt in it in order to stay in the ring, on the ice, the court, the field or the pitch.
Still none of them have anything on Nick Lenyo, a freshman at Huron High School who has a prosthetic leg, a pretty new one, too, and played both sides of the ball on the freshman football team — starting safety and backup quarterback. He also plans to play baseball, basically any position including pitcher.
Nick was diagnosed with bone cancer just above his left ankle on Jan. 13, 2013. A basketball injury led to the discovery of a tumor. After enduring chemotherapy and weighing his options with his parents and doctors at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, he opted to forgo limb-saving surgery that April because, in part, that gave him his best chance to have the range of motion he’d need to compete in sports.
This was way bigger than “Cut me, Mick.”
“I think both for the percentage chance of the cancer ever coming back and getting out playing sports fast, that was the best decision,” Nick said. “It would have been so much longer before I’d even walk, much less play sports.”
“Nick really wanted to be able to run and he wasn’t going to do that with a limb salvage,” said his orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Michael Joyce. “He certainly wasn’t going to be close to doing sports even if I hit a home run in the surgery.”
In October 2013, when he was just finishing chemotherapy, Nick attended the Indians’ one-and-out playoff game as a guest of his friend, Indians manager Terry Francona, who had given Nick his cellphone number when the two met at an earlier game. They often text each other and chat.
The Browns’ Joe Haden befriended him, too, and Nick went to the Pro Bowl last year for his Make-a-Wish trip.
Francona’s Indians didn’t win the playoff game where Nick cheered with a skull cap covering his chemo-bald head. And they didn’t do much winning the following season, either. And let’s not even get into Haden’s Browns.
Still, Nick kept racking up the victories. Chemo: Done. Hair: Back. Cancer: Gone.
Icing on the cake was the 9-0 record racked up by the Huron freshmen this year, one of them earned at the expense of Nick’s prosthesis, which snapped in half on a play: “I was coming off a block to go make a tackle, I just felt no spring and I basically snapped the carbon fiber in half. I came off and luckily my dad had brought my spare leg and I was back in the game in the same quarter.”
One more victory is Nick being honored — alongside this region’s most elite athletes at the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards — with the Cleveland Clinic Sports Health Courage Award.
Nick is still a kid. Sometimes he’ll turn his leg backward, so his foot faces the wrong way, to freak out a new classmate. He goes to school, where he earns straight A’s, plays sports and occasionally is found vegging out with a video game like Madden.
Mostly, no one even mentions the leg, including him: “It’s kind of like nothing ever really happened. I don’t look back.”
His mom, Andrea, said she and her husband, Dave, and Nick’s sister, Allie, are proud of the boy.
“He’s just back to being a normal kid,” she said. “Every once in a while something will happen and you’ll stop and think and then it hits you and makes you remember how amazing all of this is,” she said.
He’s a normal kid, but the cancer gave him something he might have lacked before he became sick: perspective.
“You don’t know how much time you really have. Don’t hold back. Take every day like it’s your last, not letting anything stop you, like me getting back into sports,” he said. “Therapy was rough and the chemo, I was down to 100 pounds and I had mouth sores and everything. It sucked. But no matter what obstacles there are, you can move past that.”
Even when the obstacle is cancer, the solution involves losing a limb and the decision is made by a teenager.
“He’s disease free and he’s going on with the rest of his life,” said Joyce, the doctor. “The odds are in his favor that he is, indeed, cured.”
Said Nick: “I’m very competitive. I like winning.”