Nick Hibbeler felt itchy as rain pelted down his head. As he ran his hands over his black buzz cut, bits of hair stuck to his palms. Some of it fell into his eyes and clung to his white jersey.
He ran toward Park Hill (Kansas City, Mo.) coach Josh Marchbank on the sideline, removed his jersey, and his coach squirted a bottle of water on his head and face to wash away the hair.
After taking a sip of water, Hibbeler ran back onto the field for the remainder of the second half. He later scored the game-winning goal.
Hibbeler’s father Gregg recalls watching it all happen, during that preseason soccer tournament between Park Hill and Smithville last August.
“I get choked up when I think about it,” Gregg said. “To see him out there trying to compete, wanting to be with his friends was really inspiring. It sunk in what he was going through and how much he loved the sport.”
It wasn’t the last time Hibbeler’s character has been on display since he was diagnosed with testicular cancer a year ago. Last spring, Hibbeler was nominated as part of the USA TODAY High School Sports and Army National Guard Most Inspirational Athlete contest, a search of student-athletes who inspire others to better themselves.
He was a finalist in the contest, but he withdrew his spot so another athlete, Dominique Cooks, who suffered from an inoperable brain tumor and died in April, could take his spot in the final round.
Hibbeler was 16 years old and heading into his junior year when the cancer was discovered during a routine sports physical. He recalls lying on the couch watching a soccer game between Everton and Real Madrid when his mother paused the TV to inform him of the devastating news.
The day after he was diagnosed, Hibbeler had surgery to remove one of his testicles. He cried in disbelief, but only briefly.
“I never thought that the cancer would get me,” Hibbeler said. “I knew I would beat it.”
Days after surgery, Hibbeler began four rounds of chemotherapy, each lasted five days for eight hours at a time.
Because he was nervous about losing his hair, his teammates and coaches organized a pizza party at an indoor soccer facility nearby and everyone shaved their heads before the season.
“That will be one of the best memories I will have in my life,” Hibbeler said. “Their support gave me faith to push through.”
Soccer has ruled Hibbeler’s life since age five. He exuded exceptional talent throughout his childhood and participated in the Olympic Development Program in Missouri at age 12. He earned a spot on the Region II Soccer Camp a year later.
Hibbeler’s talent impressed Marchbank when he first watched him play at a camp in eighth grade. Marchbank described his technique as elite. What he didn’t have in size at 4-foot-10 he made up for with precise dribbling and passing skills.
Hibbeler was the only freshman on Park Hill’s varsity team. He played up to 50 minutes each game, which “lit a fire in some of the older guys,” Marchbank said. “His work rate and hunger rubbed off on everybody and bumped up the level on the team.”
As a sophomore, he was at the top of his game. He started on varsity and finished the season with 6 goals and 8 assists.
Several months later came his diagnosis after a sonogram revealed a lump.
The question of whether he’d be able to play soccer was uncompromising in his mind. Hibbeler trained when he wasn’t having chemotherapy. He’d show up to practice despite feeling exhausted and lightheaded. And though he struggled to breathe and felt tired after 15 minutes on the field, he refused to let his condition get the best of him.
Hibbeler’s frustration with his deteriorating athleticism was evident — he’d leave the field with his head down.
“It wasn’t fair,” said Thomas Klender, a senior defender. “But he loves soccer like it’s his life and never gave anything less than 100 percent.”
Klender regularly visited Hibbeler in the hospital with a dozen teammates at a time. When family and friends weren’t there, Hibbeler watched highlight videos of his favorite players — Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Philippe Coutinho — on his iPad. He spent time away from the hospital dribbling and shooting with friends or playing solo in his backyard.
“To see his dedication and passion was infectious,” Marchbank said. “It was an eye-opening experience for his teammates.”
“They saw the physical toll he was going through, and they also saw him continue to work through it. I’ve never had a closer team than I did last year. They took it upon themselves to play for Nick and fight for him.”
He played in nearly half of Park Hill’s games between chemotherapy sessions last season. Hibbeler, who is 5-foot-9 and weighed 150 pounds before the diagnosis, lost approximately 20 pounds throughout treatment. The cancer spread to his stomach, and he had a second surgery at the end of November to remove more than two-dozen lymph nodes — one the size of a golf ball.
His abdomen has since been drained eight times — 8 to 12 pounds of liquid removed each time. In May, Hibbeler had a six-hour procedure during which organic glue and platinum coils were inserted to treat his chronic leakage known as chylous ascites.
After six rounds of chemo, six surgeries and eight stomach drains, Hibbeler is cancer free. He recently returned from the Region II Soccer Camp for the Olympic Development Program. The roster will be announced this fall. In the meantime, he’s preparing for his senior season as Park Hill’s team captain.
“It’s been remarkable to see him continue to work so hard,” Marchbank said. “Soccer is his love. It was his release that kept him moving.”