Nothing was more important to Garrett Radcliffe than playing football for Hereford High.
Growing up, the Freeland resident couldn't play the sport simply because he was always too big for his age.
"He never got a chance to play football with his buddies," said his father, Jeff. "I didn't want to put him up there as a 10-year-old with 13-, 14-year-olds and have him get run over. But he always wanted to play football."
So midway through Garrett's eighth-grade year in 2008, he jumped at the opportunity to take the bus from Hereford Middle School to Hereford High to lift weights a couple of days per week in preparation for joining the Bulls' football program the following season.
That summer, he participated in a Hereford High preseason conditioning camp.
After just two practices, his football dreams came to an abrupt halt when Radcliffe began experiencing severe fatigue and extreme pain. Doctors at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson found tumors in his lower spine and right hip.
He was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma at John Hopkins Hospital in August.
"I wasn't too worried about it at first," Garrett said. "I have seen people get this and be done (treatment) in six months like the doctors told me."
But his optimism faded when it was discovered his condition was worse than doctors initially thought — it was in the most advanced stage.
Over the next two years, Radcliffe underwent intense chemotherapy and radiation treatment for the first two tumors as well as a third one that was found in his sternum in March 2009.
In July 2010, he underwent a bone marrow transplant that finally put him on the road to recovery — and back to football.
This fall, the 5-foot-9, 252-pound Radcliffe rejoined the Hereford program as a reserve defensive lineman and played in his first game against Woodlawn High on Sept. 9.
Dr. Ajay Gopal, an expert in Hodgkin's lymphoma from the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, said the treatment for this type of cancer is "very intensive
"It can be a challenge to be an athlete after these type of treatments," he added. "So, I think it's really a credit to this young man, who probably pushed himself to obtain his level of performance."
The presence of Radcliffe, a senior, may have been more important to Hereford coach Steve Turnbaugh and his players than any game or victory.
"It's pretty amazing he is here today," Turnbaugh said. "This young man has endured more than any person can endure in a lifetime. To put it in perspective, considering what he has been though, a football game is just a football game."
Jeff Radcliffe is convinced that his son's determination to return to the football program helped him endure two years of painful treatment.
"He loves being part of the camaraderie of the team," said his dad, noting that Garrett played soccer and basketball growing up in the Hereford and Prettyboy rec programs. "He thought he would really get the chance at the high school level. It's been a grind for him to get back."
Some hurdles still remain on the younger Radcliff's long road to recovery.
"He's had some lasting effects from the radiation," Jeff Radcliffe explained. "He has damage to the thyroid and lung. The thyroid and lung are just not going to recover."
As a result of the lung damage, the youngster's stamina has been reduced.
Even so, after he passed a bone density scan this summer, his doctors gave him the OK to return to football.
His father recalls that a little more than a year ago there were some doubts as to whether his son would live.
Yet, the bone marrow transplant that was so hard on his system ultimately saved his life.
He spent a month at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which forced his parents to temporarily move to Canton in order for them be on call during emergencies.
"At one point after the transplant, Garrett had gotten pneumonia, and his oxygen dropped (to dangerously low levels) in his blood," Jeff recalled.
"At that point it was borderline; he could go either way," he added. "They had machines forcing air into his lungs, and they had him on eight or ten different antibiotics."
But all those ordeals feel like ancient history to the 17-year-old, especially when he's on the field. He loves to talk about the Woodlawn game, a 42-0 Hereford victory.
"I was so excited to play, and all my teammates were excited," said Garrett, who carries 3.6 grade-point average and plans to play basketball this winter for Hereford. "I almost got a sack in the game. I got my hand on the quarterback and made him throw an interception. That was awesome."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun