When Trisha Johnson watched her son, Evan, start his first boys volleyball match in two years for Phoenix (Ariz.) Desert Vista last week, she had to hold back tears.
After all, she knows just how far Evan, 17, has come after missing all of his junior year and watching matches from a wheelchair or on crutches. She knows how he battled through eight months of intense chemotherapy and how he learned to walk again after his femur, riddled with bone cancer, was replaced with a titanium rod.
Now, he moves along the court gracefully, coming up with digs, serving aces and setting up teammates for kills as libero for the 13-5 Thunder, ranked 44th in the nation by MaxPreps.
“When I watch him, it is literally a miracle,” Trisha said. “Even his surgeons said, doing the things he’s doing, it’s just a miracle.”
Trisha, who recently turned 50, can relate.
She has served as Evan’s greatest role model because she has been through it all herself.
Following her original diagnosis in 2003 and the cancer’s return in 2008, Trisha has been through 18 months of chemotherapy and two brain surgeries. Her last chemotherapy treatment was 2009, but she continues to make regular checkups to make sure the “malignant” growth is not still growing, she said.
Trisha is not only a survivor but a motivator, able to help steer Evan through his own rough patches with laughter and faith.
Mother and son relate to each other, cheer for each other, hold onto each other.
“We spend a lot of time together,” Evan said. “She has really helped me, always knowing what to say.”
Evan changed positions from setter to libero, where less jumping is involved, since returning to volleyball.
“But I’m getting the hang of it,” he said. “I’m learning to cheat a little bit, compensating.”
When Evan made his first start of the season in a straight-set win over Peoria (Ariz.) Liberty, he said, “I was incredibly nervous.”
“I could have played better, but I was just grateful to be out there,” he added.
It’s been a long journey back.
Evan first started feeling pain in his leg during spring break of his sophomore year.
“It wasn’t getting better, so I went to see a doctor,” he said. “I was getting massages and stuff. Then, in June or July (of 2014), I saw a sports doctor who took an X-ray. There was a tumor around my femur.”
After surgery to replace the femur in October of that year, and while going through chemotherapy from August 2014 to March 2015, all he could think about was volleyball and basketball, which he played on a church team.
Would he ever play again?
“It was hard for me to watch him go through it,” Trisha said. “But I knew the things that would help him get through it. We got through it together.
“You learn to have faith, believe in miracles and to enjoy every day more. You look at things to laugh about every day. You have to laugh every day. That is one of the keys.”
Desert Vista coach Ryan Tolman recalled a frail kid sitting on the sidelines at club volleyball practices in the fall of 2014 after Evan had surgery. Evan was one of Desert Vista’s more athletic players, but the chemo took its toll.
“He was so skinny,” Tolman said. “But he kept showing up. He’d be in a wheelchair or on crutches all of last year. He toughed it out.”
Evan made his first appearance since his diagnosis on March 18 at La Jolla (Calif.) in a three-set victory. His return was delayed because he had broken his wrist in practice two nights before Desert Vista’s opener.
“He had his best practice,” Tolman said. “He took a fall. At that point, I thought, ‘Wow, this kid worked so hard just to get here.’ We thought a broken wrist was going to get him. But we got lucky and he’s been able to come back.”
In his first match back, Evan showed no fear.
“I was fearful, but he went right after it,” Trisha said. “It was amazing to watch. He was so excited.”
The eight months of chemo, being in the hospital a great deal of time, kept Evan from attending school. He fell behind academically and won’t be able to graduate in May with his classmates.
He could potentially graduate in December by taking summer school. But he wouldn’t be able to play volleyball.
Evan said he is leaning toward petitioning the Arizona Interscholastic Association to get his lost junior season back next year.
He still goes in for bone scans every three months to make sure everything is OK. As long as he is OK, Trisha says she is OK.
Now, when Desert Vista has a bad practice, if anybody gets down, Evan can stand up before peers and motivate.
Tolman has already witnessed that.
“There was one club practice last year when he was really down, he had just had surgery,” Tolman said. “He was watching the guys practice. They were having one of those practices where nobody really wanted to be there. They weren’t playing hard. He gave a speech. He got emotional and said, ‘Hey, there’s a chance I may never play volleyball again. Don’t take it for granted.’ ”
Evan Johnson never does. Each volley and every game renews his spirit.