E.A. Sports Today

No stopping him now

Oxford sophomore returns to football field after making a goalline stand against cancer

Oxford sophomore lineman K.J. Lynch unfurls the banner he received from the doctors and nurses at Children's Hospital in December after his final chemo treatment to knock out his cancer. On the cover, he talks about the ordeal wearing the undershirt that expresses his post-treatment attitude.

Oxford sophomore lineman K.J. Lynch unfurls the banner he received from the doctors and nurses at Children’s Hospital in December after his final chemo treatment to knock out his cancer. On the cover, he talks about the ordeal wearing the undershirt that expresses his post-treatment attitude.

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

OXFORD — K.J. Lynch was already dressed for a football practice that was still more than an hour from starting when he was called to the head coach’s office to meet a visitor. All that was left for him to do was slip the pads over his shoulders and strap on his helmet and he was good to go.

It was hard not to notice his colorful undershirt. He said the only reason he chose it was because he thought it matched his shoes. It didn’t occur to him until it was pointed out the message on the front was the perfect inspiration for someone who had come through what he has over the last four years.

“Try to stop me.”

K.J. Lynch is a survivor, having made a goal line stand against a rare form of cancer that was diagnosed only a year ago but has impacted nearly a quarter of his life.

Whether or not the sophomore nose guard plays much tonight in Oxford’s season opener against Southside at Lamar Field is immaterial. The fact he’s even out there working to play on the same field his father Tavars and brother Noah both did is it’s own kind of victory.

Last August Lynch was diagnosed with Stage 3 nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin’s lymphoma after three years of tests that left the family few answers. He is said to be cancer-free today after three months of aggressive treatment, but will require regular monitoring for at least the next 10 or 15 years.

A diagnosis of cancer is frightening at any age, but especially when it strikes someone so young. Lynch, now 15, was determined to beat it and he’s hoping his fight serves as an inspiration for all those looking to overcome adversity.

“I want other people to hear my story so they can reflect on it,” he said. “There are a lot of people who know about it, but a lot who don’t.

“There’s nothing you can’t do when God is with you at all times. He was with me at the hospital. I had gotten really sick and thought I was going to die and He had talked to me and said keep on going. They were the only words He said to me. I woke up out of that attack and there isn’t anything that stops me.”

Lynch’s fight started at age 11 when he discovered a series of bumps developing on the left side of his neck. He occasionally rubs the four-inch scar that’s hidden by the folds in his neck now as a reminder of his ordeal.

After six months the lumps hadn’t gone away and started to become painful. Countless tests, treatments and visits to various doctors and specialists over the next three years provided few answers and little relief.

“It was so frustrating,” his mother Christeena said.

One year ago Wednesday he underwent the tests at UAB that gave them the answer they feared. The first two of those tests came back clean, but the third revealed the cancer and doctors confirmed it had spread beyond his neck to his abdomen, spleen and chest.

“That literally scared us to death,” Christeena said. “Those are big words.

”We knew there had been something wrong for a while but when they told us how far along it was, it completely shocked us. I don’t know how to put in words how you feel in that moment.”

Because of the cancer’s advanced stage, aggressive treatment was the course of action – nine treatments over four days, 21 different medications and daily self-administered steroid injections to boost his immune system.

Up to that point he was trying to play on the football team. He worked all summer to be ready and already had played in three games when he had to give it up. Yellow Jackets varsity coach Ryan Herring said he was the best lineman on that team.

Lynch was reluctant to tell his teammates he had cancer and worried if he’d ever be the same player when he returned. His parents told him not to worry about he used to be, just concentrate on getting better every day, do the best he could and by the end of the summer he’d be amazed at the progress he would make.

A lot of people were amazed.

“When the tests came back and they said Stage 3, the oncologist said if you can give me a year of your life you will be able to go back,” Christeena said. “It’s pretty much where your mind is K.J.; we’re going to work on this thing together.

“It was very hard for him when he left the doctor’s office. He wanted to play in that next ball game, but wasn’t able to play. He was very upset about it.”

Lynch has always had a big personality, but during his hospital stay his mother said he turned into “a bigger encourager.”

He was determined to win his battle and was going to raise the spirits of all those around him in the process. He regularly knocked on the doors of the other patients — many in more dire situations than he — taking a genuine interest in their circumstances and wellbeing.

It wasn’t unusual to find several gathering in Lynch’s room for jokes and games well into the night to forget about their trouble for a while.

“He had a huge effect on the nurses and other kids there,” Christeena said. “I’d never seen that extent of his personality before. He still keeps up with these kids. It’s hard not to just cry when you see that love in action.”

The treatments lasted into December, but he was determined to continue a family tradition by running in Plucked Turkey 10K on Thanksgiving Day. His treatment the day before the race was a particularly rough one; still, he ran the first half of the race without assistance, rode in the golf cart that was following him after feeling weak, then jumped out and walked the final mile.

He had his final treatment Dec. 8 and shortly after was cleared to play. His last two tests revealed no cancer. All the friends he made in the ward encouraged him to get back on the football field and he went through spring practice with them very much in his thoughts.

When he first got the news he admitted sitting in the car on the ride home looking at the sky and wondering if he was going to make it until the next day. Today, he feels “brand new” and “like a normal person.” He does everything his teammates do in practice and doesn’t expect to be treated any differently because of his ordeal.

“He’ll have those moments where he doesn’t feel like doing things, but we remind him that he actually can do those things and when he does it I think it makes him a little more stronger,” defensive line coach Matt Tanner said. “When he goes full speed, when he gets it in his mind ‘I want to do this,’ he gets after it.

“He doesn’t want to be limited and he doesn’t have to be limited. He’s doing a pretty good job at it because he wants to. He wants to be a part of it and football helps with the recovery.”

Christeena is “totally excited” her son is back playing football with a chance to fulfill his hope of playing on the same field his father and brother. He will dress Thursday night for the game.

“We’re just thankful to God that he is out here; we’re happy to have him out here,” Herring said. “He has shown a lot of courage. It ought to be a pick-me-up for every player in this locker room to see what this boy has gone through and every chance he has gotten he’s here. If that don’t make you appreciate your health, nothing will.

“I think when the kids stop and smell the roses I think it’s a good thing for them to have witnessed and seen him come out here and fight to play football. … I think it’s a real blessing that he’s out here in more ways than one.”

Oxford sophomore K.J. Lynch (R) spends a few minutes with Auburn and former Oxford back Roc Thomas on The Plains.

Oxford sophomore K.J. Lynch (R) spends a few minutes with Auburn and former Oxford back Roc Thomas on The Plains.

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