It was November 2013 and the Atkinson family, like most, was preparing for Thanksgiving.
But Colby Atkinson, then a 14-year-old freshman at Smyrna High School, was tired and listless. He had not been feeling well over the course of a week, culminating in a three-day stretch when his body couldn’t cool down, even though he was not running a fever.
Before that, Atkinson had been a healthy teen. He played football at Smyrna High and baseball in Smyrna Clayton Little League. He was an honors student. Only months earlier, he had been in New York playing in a baseball tournament.
But Colby could not shake this illness. Little did he know his life on and off the field would never be the same.
Colby has spent the last three years battling T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia and the side effects from a bone marrow transplant. His fight inspired his family, friends and community. All the while, Colby kept sports close to his heart.
A hero every day
As the Atkinsons kept hitting traffic on the drive down to Baltimore, Colby was becoming worried they weren’t going to make it to Camden Yards in time to watch batting practice.
To celebrate his 16th birthday, his parents planned a trip to see his favorite team, the Orioles, on Aug. 12, 2015. But there was a surprise twist: Colby’s mother, Virginia, had set it up so Colby could meet his favorite player, Orioles third baseman Manny Machado. Colby was speechless after introducing himself to Machado, who gave him a few personal items.
Colby’s younger brother Shaun, now 12, was in the dugout, too. Virginia noticed that Shawn, normally talkative, had quietly taken in the scene and let Colby have his time with Machado.
“Well, it’s not every day Colby gets to meet his hero; I get to see mine every day,” Shawn told his mom.
“Sports have given him the motivation to keep moving,” said Virginia, who is a math specialist at Smyrna High.
While at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, Colby would go to the hospital gym and play catch as part of his therapy. Getting back on the baseball field motivated Colby.
He returned to baseball in spring 2015, one year and a day after a bone marrow transplant that saved his life. Still, it’s difficult for Colby to run because both of his Achilles tendons had to be surgically lengthened due to the impact cancer treatment and complications had on his muscles. He pitches and plays first base for his Smyrna Clayton Little League team and has a designated runner when he hits.
Colby struggled to explain how much sports and his teammates have meant to him the last three years.
“They’re there for me always,” Colby said. “They’re family.”
‘No clue’ it was cancer
It never crossed any of the Atkinsons’ minds that there was something seriously wrong with Colby. His parents believed he had a virus that would run its course.
But when he still wasn’t feeling better after two visits to the family’s doctor, Colby was taken to a local LabCorp to have his blood drawn and analyzed. The next day, the Atkinson’s doctor called Colby’s dad Bill and simply told him Colby needed to be taken to the emergency room at A.I. because, the family was told, his “numbers” were high. Virginia, Colby’s mom, immediately left school in the middle of planning a quiz to meet Bill and Colby and head to the hospital.
Virginia could not have imagined that when she walked out of the school on Dec. 3, 2013, she wouldn’t return for 13 months.
“Cancer did not pop into my head whatsoever,” Virginia said. “I had no clue.”
Virginia was eventually pulled into a room with a doctor and a few nurses to be given the results as Bill kept Colby company. Colby had been diagnosed with leukemia. His white blood cell count was 76 times the normal range of 5,000-10,000 per mcL.
Virginia shared the diagnosis with Bill and together they broke the news to Colby.
“I looked over at my parents and I saw my mom was getting ready to cry,” Colby said.
Said Virginia: “Colby is so stoic, almost to a fault where doctors feel he’s detached, but that’s his coping mechanism is he’s never really been one to show emotion. He didn’t get upset at all. He was just like, ‘OK, so do I have to take chemo and can I play baseball?’ That’s all he was worried about.”
Potential on the football field
Colby was making a name for himself as a left tackle on Smyrna’s freshman football team in 2014.
Mike Judy, then the offensive line coach and assistant for the varsity team, knew of Colby and his budding ability.
“He was kind of ‘the guy,'” Judy said. “He was the guy who was going to be the next real good one, along with his teammates and that freshman class.”
Although he’s not able to play football anymore, Colby found a way to be part of the team.
Before this season, he approached Judy, now Smyrna’s head coach, about being a volunteer student coach. After Judy cleared it with athletic director Bill Schultz, Colby joined the staff. He helps in meetings, films practices when needed and isn’t afraid to offer technique tips to the offensive linemen.
Unless he has a doctor’s appointment or it’s too hot outside, Colby is at practice every day. He can be spotted on Smyrna’s sidelines during games wearing an Eagles jersey with the No. 59, his number from freshman year.
“It means a lot. It’s fun,” Colby said of his role.
Judy said Colby is part of every offensive meeting and has become a student of the game. Judy has been impressed with how his protege has handled working with guys who are his friends and his own age.
Colby considers being part of the team that won the DIAA Division I state title last season as a bright spot in the midst of his difficult personal journey, attending the games last year to support his team.
“I try not to dwell on what has happened; I try to stay in the present and focus on what’s now,” Colby said.
Long wait for remission
After his leukemia diagnosis, Colby was immediately admitted into A.I.’s pediatric intensive care unit, where he would spend the next 10 days.
An initial biopsy showed that 95 percent of his bone marrow was cancer cells. To combat the problem, Colby needed blood transfusions – he’s had 163 since his diagnosis – which included platelet, red blood cell and plasma transfusions.
Colby would spend the next five weeks in the hospital receiving treatment. Many of his friends and teammates were unable to visit as that part of the hospital required visitors to be at least 16 years old. To pass the time, Colby played video games – often with his friends online – watched TV, had physical therapy or occupational therapy and attended school in his hospital room each day.
In the following five months, Colby would go home for two weeks and then return to the hospital to spend two weeks receiving treatment. Most kids who have this type of leukemia – the most common childhood cancer – go into remission after the first month, according to the American Cancer Society.
However, months came and went without Colby going into remission.
Finally, on March 31, 2014, Colby’s biopsy showed no signs of cancer in his bone marrow. He was in remission.
“Thankfully that day we got the phone call because honestly, I don’t think his body could have handled another month of the chemo they were giving him,” Virginia said. “It had taken its toll on him.
Still, Colby’s battle wasn’t over yet, though. The Atkinsons knew months before he was declared cancer free that Colby would need a bone marrow transplant. Doctors said that without a transplant, Colby’s leukemia would definitely return.
An example of true toughness
Colby’s experience with cancer has helped put football in perspective for him and his teammates.
“These young guys, his classmates, they don’t know what ‘tough’ is,” Judy said. “He’s an example of toughness. That’s tough. It’s given us such a boost to see him continue to fight and get better and find a way to live the new normal for him. It’s been awesome to see.”
Colby treasures the support of his community and teammates.
“It’s meant a lot to me,” Colby said.
Smyrna held its first annual Be Bold, Go Gold event at the school’s football game on Sept. 29. The event honored seven local residents, including Colby, whose lives have been affected by pediatric cancer. It raised $2,000 for childhood cancer research through the B+ Foundation.
“The support that he’s received from his friends and community has really been a source of inspiration and strength for our family,” Virginia said.
Smyrna senior linebacker Josh Hutchinson said it has been tough to watch what his longtime friend has endured. Colby’s mom kept Hutchinson in the loop on how Colby was doing during his time in the hospital. Hutchinson said he gets to see a side of Colby that not many do, describing him as a quiet, funny guy who’s always playing jokes.
“Whenever I came over, there was always positive energy around him the whole time,” Hutchinson said. “We talk about fighting against adversity every day we’re out here. If anything, Colby’s fight is an example of that.”
Colby’s parents and younger brother Shaun, then 9, spent part of Christmas Eve 2014 in the outpatient clinic at A.I. They each had their blood drawn for human leukocyte antigen (HLA) typing to see if any of them were a good bone marrow match.
Of the markers they examine to determine a match, Virginia had 9 out of 10. There were two other matches from the Be The Match Registry, part of the National Marrow Donor Program. Like Virginia, the two matches were 9 out of 10 and the mismatch in all three candidates was for the same marker. So, it was decided that she would be the donor for her son.
On April 17, 2014, Colby received the bone marrow transplant. Virginia had made a two-minute video to show Colby on his transplant day, featuring clips of friends and teachers at Smyrna showing their support for Colby and offering encouraging words.
During the transplant, which is similar to receive a blood transfusion, Colby played video games with his dad and even got to push some of the cells into his body.
“My cells going into him knowing that was going to bring life back to him, I cannot even express the emotion,” Virginia said.
Added Colby: “I can’t use words to describe what it meant.”
Now, the Atkinsons celebrate April 17 as Colby’s rebirth day. They have a small get together each year with family and eat cake, much to Colby’s delight.
Although he was discharged from the hospital on June 7, 2014, his road to recovery wasn’t complete.
A month after his transplant, Colby developed Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD) There’s no set protocol to treat GVHD because it varies patient to patient and depends on how their body responds. If unchecked, GVHD can damage organs and lead to serious infections.
The side effects from the GVHD treatment, such as not being able to sweat, have been the most difficult part of the last three years, Colby said. It’s prevented him from being able to attend football practice when temperatures are too high.
Living a full life
Colby’s day-to-day life is pretty typical for a senior in high school, with a couple of exceptions.
His daily routine includes taking eight pills, including one to treat GVHD. He attends physical therapy three times a week to work on stretching and range of motion. Colby had to be completely revaccinated after the bone marrow transplant. His immune system still isn’t 100 percent, but it’s strong enough that his parents aren’t worried about him catching something at school.
Virginia and Bill’s hopes for Colby are the same as many parents’ dreams for their children. They want him to be able to do what he wants to in life. Colby plans to go to college next year. He’s unsure what he wants to study. He’s maintained an A average and is taking Advanced Placement classes this year.
“My outlook is that he’s going to live as full a life as possible,” Virginia said. “His just has some more twists and turns to it.”
Amid everything he has gone through, Colby has learned that you’re always stronger than you think you are. Believing he could overcome the cancer helped fuel Colby during the hours, days and weeks worth of chemotherapy, transfusions and physical therapy. At 17, Colby has already endured more pain, challenges and triumph than many people experience in a lifetime.
“Even through your darkest times, you can make other people happy, make yourself happy,” Colby said. “There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel when everything will get better sooner or later.”
Contact Meghan Montemurro at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @M_Montemurro.