As a wide receiver and middle infielder at Wadsworth High School, Joey Collins has developed some pretty sure hands.
Ironically, a groundball that got away while Collins was playing shortstop for the Ohio Orioles this summer may ultimately end up saving the 18-year-old’s life.
Struck in the groin due to that misplay, Collins had some swelling for a few days, but it eventually went away. Fortunately for him, he casually mentioned the incident while receiving his Wadsworth football physical on July 21, and the doctor, noticing some irregularities, recommended getting an ultrasound.
Collins got one the next day, and on July 27 the results came back: He had Stage 3 testicular cancer (Stage 5 being the most advanced).
Doctors told him the incident on the diamond in no way contributed to the cancer, but it did lead to its discovery, which is why Collins said he’s been told he has a 95 percent cure rate.
“Thank God,” the senior said. “If we hadn’t found it when we did, it could have spread even more.”
Already, the cancer had spread to Collins’ lungs, which contain four tumors, and the lymph nodes in his stomach, which contain two.
But the young man who was slated to be a starter at receiver and defensive back for the Grizzlies could very well be looking at much worse odds if the cancer had not been discovered when it was.
“I told him, ‘You’re lucky that baseball hit you,’” said Wadsworth linebacker Jake Crowley, one of Collins’ closest friends. “I said, ‘Now you’re one step ahead. When would you have found out if that didn’t happen?’”
Road to recovery
Collins, who had his right testicle removed but was told by doctors he will still be able to have children, has already started rigorous chemotherapy treatments that will last until mid-October.
He receives treatments on two straight Mondays, then a lengthy one the following week that hospitalizes him from Tuesday through Sunday. He will repeat that whole process, which led to him recently shaving his head when his hair started to fall out, three or four times, then receive several additional once-a-week treatments.
“The weeks that I’m in the hospital all week are horrible,” Collins said. “I’m pretty sick and laid up for the first couple of days after I come out.
“When I’m going through the chemo, that’s pretty much all I think about. When I’m out with my friends, I really don’t think about it at all.”
The 6-foot Collins weighed 165 pounds when he began treatments. His weight dropped to 150 initially, but he’s now back to 155.
“I was scared at first, but I knew I had to get through it,” Collins said. “I kept a good attitude. My parents (Mark and Angela) had a rough time at first. I just tried to keep them strong.”
Collins, who also has a 21year-old brother, Josh, credits the support of his football teammates at Wadsworth and the mental and physical toughness he developed on the gridiron for helping him get through the roughest times.
“You realize your teammates aren’t just there on Friday nights,” he said. “They’re with you the whole time.
“The mental toughness you learn in the game, it’s the same thing with this. It’s just a bump in the road. You’ve got to get through it, just like if you have a bad play.”
Collins, one of those stick-to- it athletes who played almost exclusively junior varsity as a junior, has not been forgotten by the Grizzlies, who have his number, 21, on the back of their helmets and maintain steady communication with him.
When Wadsworth plays its first home game of the season next week against Medina, the players plan on painting “21” on their faces in support of Collins, who still shows up at practice a few times a week while keeping up on his schoolwork with a home tutor.
“It’s a tough thing for anybody, but if anybody can handle it, it’s Joey,” said Grizzlies quarterback Nate Heideman, like Crowley one of Collins’ closest friends on the team.
“He’s always had that mindset that he’ll deal with anything.
He’s one of the toughest guys I know — and that was before cancer.”
Collins is grateful for all the support he’s received, but he’s not looking for sympathy. He doesn’t want his friends to treat him any differently than they did two months ago, and they’re doing their best to oblige.
“They know how I am,” Collins said. “I don’t need much and I don’t expect much. They ask me how I’m doing when we start talking, then we all start giving each other a hard time. It’s pretty much like normal.”
It’s like that because that’s what Collins needs, wants and expects.
“We love him, but we’re not sucking up to him,” Crowley said. “He’s been incredible.
He’s really still his same old self, still joking around, still having fun. It’s been amazing. I haven’t seen a difference.”
There is one big difference: No. 21 is no longer lining up at receiver and cornerback for the Grizzlies.
Collins went through several two-a-day practices with Wadsworth, but when he was late showing up one day, a number of teammates wondered where he was.
When he finally arrived, he told several of his friends about the cancer individually, and word quickly spread to the rest of the players, who suddenly realized practicing in 90-degree heat wasn’t real adversity.
“He tells me how much he misses it,” Heideman said.
“When we’re out there doing wind sprints and it’s hot, I know he would trade everything he’s doing to come out and join us.”
The game plan
Collins, whose goal is to continue his baseball career at the University of Akron, misses being on the football field tremendously, but he’s intent on remaining part of the team.
“That’s the hardest thing,” he said of not being able to play. “School’s a little rough, but I’ll never be able to put on a football helmet again.
It’s rough. I was working out every morning and was all ready to go, and it all got taken away from me.”
Collins, however, is one of those kids who doesn’t feel sorry for himself for long. His senior football season may have been taken away, but he’s now focusing all his energy on beating cancer.
“He’s just a great kid,” Wadsworth coach Greg Dennison said. “He does everything you would want a player to do. He’s the kind of kid we win with.
“He’s fighting this with the same attitude he brings to everything else he does.
That’s why you feel good about it. We’re confident the end result is going to be good because of the attitude he has.”
Collins’ friends, who still go to his house for bonfires and often accompany him to many of the outdoor activities he cherishes, expect nothing but that positive attitude they’ve come to know and love.
“He’s a go-get-what-you want kind of kid,” Crowley said. “I don’t know how else to explain it. He doesn’t wait around for people to do stuff for him. He loves to do things for himself. He doesn’t hesitate.
“He’s got the best attitude I’ve ever seen. He’s going to beat this, no doubt. I mean, no doubt. None.”
“Football is all about mental toughness,” he said.
“When you’re down in the fourth quarter, what are you going to do? That’s kind of how Joey is right now. He’s going to fight back and beat it. I know he’ll do it.”
Collins is equally confident he’ll beat cancer, in large part because he knows he’s got a great quarterback. With all due respect, it’s not Heideman to whom he’s referring.
“The first week after I was diagnosed, I was like, ‘What did I do?’” Collins said. “I don’t do anything. I’m not a partier. I was pretty mad.
“Now I think it’s something God gave me for a reason. He thinks I can get through it, so that’s why He chose me to have it.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.