By Tom Layberger, FootballMatters.org
Mike Shelly’s ankles were screaming at him when he awoke one late summer morning in 2014. Not only were they hurting, but he could not put any weight on them. He thought that was very odd because he could not recall injuring them at football practice the previous day or at any point the previous few days.
With the pain unrelenting following practice that afternoon he and his mother, Melissa, visited an urgent care center where x-rays were taken and Shelly was told he had a mild sprain. He was given an ankle brace and within a few days the pain diminished considerably, but something else flared up. Something far more serious.
“One night I was hanging out at a friend’s house and my stomach started to hurt extremely bad,” recalled Shelly, a junior center on the Marple Newtown (Pa.) High School football team. “It was hurting to the point I called my mom and told her that I needed her to pick me up. This was like 8 o’clock on a Saturday night and a kid my age is not going to call his mom to ask to pick him up, so she thought it was strange.”
At home all Shelly could do was lie in bed moaning in pain. That was until Melissa got the youngest of her and Mike Sr.’s three children into the car and off to a hospital where tests proved negative.
With symptoms, including vomiting, still rearing their ugly head, Shelly was placed in an ambulance the next morning for a trip to the Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., about 25 miles from the family’s suburban Philadelphia home.
Though the idea emerged that Shelly was suffering from an inflammatory bowel disease, more scans and tests proved fruitless.
“The whole time I am like, ‘Why am I feeling like this’ and ‘Why can’t they figure it out?’” he recalled.
After a couple of days physicians found the cause of pain was intussusception, a potentially lethal condition in which part the intestine slides into an adjacent part of the intestine much like a telescope, to use the analogy that frequently accompanies the disorder. Part of Shelly’s bowel would have to be removed.
The ultimate breakthrough, however, came during preparation for surgery: A tumor hiding behind and pressing against Shelly’s colon was causing the intussusception. The diagnosis was stage 4 Burkitt lymphoma, which was ravaging his central nervous system.
Burkitt is a form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. According to multiple medical sites only about 1,200 people in the U.S. are diagnosed annually, with most over age 40. Tumors in those who have been diagnosed with Brukitt are the fastest growing within humans as they can double in size in 24 hours. His ankle pain was a symptom.
It is a hard to imagine a 14-year-old, which Shelly was at the time, handling such a devastating development any better than he did. His mindset greatly eased his family’s concerns, including his older siblings, Amanda and Andrew.
“I felt like I had to go into fight mode where I was like, ‘Alright. I have to get through this and I might as well do it with a positive outlook because I have to get through it either way,’” said Shelly, who turns 17 in January. “So I tried to be as positive and as strong as I could, especially for my parents who had to be with me every day. I tried to make the best of it.”
He continued to make the best of it through 10 rounds of intense chemotherapy, the last of which was administered in March 2015. He also made the best of the setback while getting accustomed to the wheelchair he had to frequently use as he slowly rebuilt his strength. Then there were the inevitable side effects, a couple of which were severe enough to require hospitalization.
The texts, the calls, visits from friends, the #ShellyStrong t-shirts, a Marple Newtown game in his honor and the tutors arranged by the school district all combined to lift his spirts and keep him moving forward.
Shelly was able to return to school for the final month of his freshman year, by which time he was building up enough strength that he could look forward to playing football as a sophomore. He saw some action with the JV squad last year and continued to build stamina and work on his game while setting his sights on joining the varsity this season.
Sure enough he was the starting center in the Tigers’ opener and No. 60 quickly became a pillar on the offensive line for a playoff team, all of which cannot possibly be overstated given where he came from.
“With everything he went through, the fact he is where he is and playing football is huge when given what his body endured,” said Melissa. “I never in a million years thought that he would be able to do what he is doing. He had such a positive attitude. He looked forward and never looked back. Never once did he say, ‘Why me?’”
Nor was he going to. In fact, when he returned to the gridiron he had one message for the coaching staff: Treat me like any other player.
“To overcome cancer in itself is an unbelievable accomplishment,” said Marple Newtown coach and athletic director Chris Gicking. “He is one of the fortunate ones that battled it and beat it. Then to be able to be in the weight room, run sprints, practice and go through camp and play the way he has just says so much more about Mike.”
It says a lot about Shelly’s maturity level with respect to how he handled the entire episode. He is a young man that fought hard, learned a lot and is intent on making the most of every moment.
“To be alive and able to play football is wonderful because I saw kids in the hospital that can’t do a lot of things anymore,” he said. “People often do not understand how great life is until you go through something like that. I cherish every day much more because of what I have been through.”