Shirtless and wearing an Obama mask, Ben Harmon is flying across the Avon High football field. If you know him at all, you know this moment is so Ben. He’s up for anything, this kid, and not in a bad way but in that big-grin, high-energy, school-spirit sort of way that draws kids and even adults like steel shavings to a magnet.
This is Avon vs. Brownsburg in 2015, a rivalry game featuring two of the top high school quarterbacks in the country (Avon’s Brandon Peters will win IndyStar Mr. Football that year and sign with Michigan; Brownsburg’s Hunter Johnson wins Mr. Football in 2016 and goes to Clemson), and ESPN is televising it live. Avon scores and now it’s a break in the action, a commercial, when Ben Harmon peels off his shirt and puts on the mask. He hops a fence near the goalposts and comes chugging out of the end zone.
He crosses the 20, the 30, the 40 …
Under the lights the field stretches ahead, as open and endless as a young man’s future, and he’s cruising toward both. Ben is one of the fastest runners at Avon High, a 4½-minute miler, but he isn’t just fast; he’s brilliant. He’s one of the top scorers on Avon’s national championship calculus team, he’s an A-plus student in two different AP physics classes, and he’ll graduate 17th in a class of nearly 700. He’s going to Purdue. Going to be an engineer.
The 50, the 40 …
Standing in the bleachers, his mom is laughing. She has no idea who’s under that mask, and she’s a school teacher herself, but she can’t help but giggle at the sight of some shirtless kid pointing at the crowd as he glides past. It is Sept. 11, 2015 – it is 9-11 – and at Avon the theme for this annual rivalry game is patriotism. Look closer: The kid in the Obama mask is wearing red, white and blue shorts. Marcia Harmon holds up her cell phone and takes a picture.
The 30, the 20 …
Behind the end zone is another fence, and a waiting car. Ben and two of his buddies have planned this whole thing out, start to finish – “The extraction point,” Ben calls the getaway car – and he’s almost there. He’s big and strong, 6 feet of long legs and ripped abs, and he’s revving toward the end zone. His race is almost over.
The 15, the 10, the 5 …
* * *
Ben Harmon doesn’t want to talk about dying, because that’s not what he’s doing. He’s living. He’s fighting.
The chemotherapy isn’t working anymore, and the bone-marrow transplant scheduled for last week was called off because the cancer in his hip is too far along. He’s home now, being doted on by family and friends and resting as comfortably as he can. All that’s left are experimental options and clinical trials, and doctors keep asking: Does he want to fight or …?
Fight, Ben says. Always: Fight.
He’s fighting for himself, for sure, but also for his parents (Marcia and William), for his step-mother (Kim), his brothers (Will and Caleb) and sister (Julia), his friends.