In two seasons as the top scorer for the Franklin High varsity lacrosse team, Eric Boyle was one of a kind. An extremely hard-working leader, Boyle was so talented around the crease that coaches created an offense to run through him.
At 6 feet 2, 220 pounds, Boyle led last year's 14-3 squad with 51 goals and 13 assists. He was so eager to build on those numbers this spring that he dedicated his offseason to the sport he started playing in a Reisterstown recreation league when he was 5.
Boyle spent his fall afternoons practicing his array of shots.
But that all changed in mid-January when the All-Baltimore County first-team selection began to feel aches in the pelvic and stomach areas, and severe pain in his hip and left leg any time he moved them.
"I felt like I had a stomachache all the time," said Boyle, who was wheeled into the emergency room at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Boyle was initially diagnosed with a virus and mononucleosis, but on Feb. 11 doctors determined that he had osteomyelitis, which is an infection of the bone caused by bacteria that moves through the bloodstream.
The Reisterstown resident has no idea what caused the infection.
"It could have happened when I was playing rec basketball," Boyle said. "I could have fallen and got a microscopic cut and that infection could have just slid in. It attaches and attacks."
Six weeks of intravenous antibiotics ensued, along with numerous pain killers -- and that was just the beginning of nearly six weeks at Hopkins and more than two more at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.
Boyle had the first of two surgeries on Valentine's Day.
"They went in and washed out the hip area and they knew there were pockets on the pelvis," said his mom, Jacquie Boyle. "Our doctor told us he would most likely need two or three washouts and they would do as many as he needed to try and speed the process up."
Boyle improved after the first surgery and he was eating better, but he took a turn for the worse when his blood pressure skyrocketed and he developed a fever.
Two weeks later, he underwent another washout and his symptoms reversed.
"His blood pressure went down to 70 over 35, his heart rate was 70 and his temperature was around 93," said his mom, who thought he was headed for the intensive care unit. "They put him on another antibiotic and flooded him with fluids and they had to put him under one of those bear-hugger warmers."
The washout surgery was not without complications.
While some bacteria is released, some dead bacteria stays in the system and the body goes into overdrive to fight it off.
They took additional blood work and Boyle was visited by a cardiologist and endocrinologist to make sure his body was functioning normally.
He was bedridden for 4 1/2 weeks and had to wear a traction brace that weighed about 6.5 pounds for his hip.
Franklin coach Joe Madigan was disheartened as Boyle's condition worsened, especially after the initial diagnosis of mononucleosis.
"I knew when he came back from mono he would be fine. I had no doubts about that," Madigan said. "But, as the news got worse and worse, it was just heartbreaking for everybody. But Eric had a good attitude, always positive, always laughing."
"I was just going to take it day by day because I knew it was going to be a long road," Boyle said.
"The doctors at Hopkins said he has an incredible tolerance for pain," said his mom, who watched her son lose 50 pounds.
When Boyle was transferred to Kennedy Krieger, [his therapists} thought he would be there for eight weeks, but Boyle was out in less than three.
"They said, for walking and being functional on one level, I could get out April 10, and if they wanted me to do stairs, it was going to be like May 8, and I was doing stairs by April 3," said Boyle, who was officially released on April 5.
But on April 2, before Franklin's 9-2 win at Catonsville, the attackman surprised his teammates.
"I didn't tell anybody," said Boyle, who left Kennedy Krieger three days before his slated release date to go to the lacrosse game.
Thanks to a therapeutic leave of absence, Boyle wheeled down the track at Catonsville toward his teammates and received an emotional welcome.
"I've coached soccer, basketball and lacrosse for five years and I've never seen a more emotional group — just all kinds of different emotions," Madigan said.
"We were all surprised," Franklin senior midfielder Jarvis Hardy said. "We were happy that he was just out there to support the team and we all started tearing up, too. That kind of boosted our confidence."
Senior goalie Matt Lindenbaum said: "It definitely gave us a big boost, because all season we've been saying we were playing for him, and to have him there with us just gave us even bigger motivation, especially considering the fact we know how bad he really wanted to be out there. It made us really cherish how much we should actually appreciate him being out there."
Junior defender Ross Milner added: "We had no idea he was going to be there. He's a lot of our best friends, and it was awesome seeing him. I got teary-eyed."
"There were a lot of tears that day," said Boyle's mom. "Coaches were crying and parents in the stands were crying."
It was emotional for Boyle, too. When coach Madigan asked him to speak to the team, he was too choked up to do it.
Catonsville coach Aaron Stubbs, who coached Boyle for three years on the Chesapeake Rock summer club team, gave him a warm hug. "He is a great kid, and he is easy to coach," Stubbs said. "He works hard and is a student of the game."
Boyle has attended all the home games since he was released and a couple of away contests.
"I have higher expectations than people that are on the team," Boyle said. "In my opinion, I think we can win a state championship, but a lot of the kids don't have that mindset yet."
Coach Madigan knows how much his absence on the field has meant to his team, whose only losses have been to Dulaney, Towson and six-time state champion Hereford.
"If he is on the field this year, we are not even comparable to this team," Madigan said. "I still have a lot of confidence in this team, but it is not even close."
Madigan coached Boyle on junior varsity as a freshman and joined him again when he was named varsity coach for the 2013 season.
"He's the best I've ever coached, and he's the best I've ever coached against at crease attack," Madigan said. "He can just finish and players have trust all the time to throw the ball at him and somehow he would always put the ball in the back of the goal."
Setting an example
Boyle's appearance on the sideline has been an inspiration to third-year varsity player Milner.
"It makes you realize that you might not have a next game — that ground ball might be the last ground ball and that shot might be your last shot," Milner said. "It can happen, and the next thing you know you are in a wheelchair for eight months."
Goalie Lindenbaum remembers trying to stop Boyle's shots in practice, which came from either hand.
"You never know where he is going," he said. "He's really crafty with his stick and he throws a lot of fakes, and he is always really aware."
There is no timetable for Boyle's return to the field, but he did return to school in his wheelchair on April 23 and is taking his two remaining classes.
He plans to go to the prom on May 17 and hopes to walk across the stage on crutches for graduation.
He planned to play lacrosse for Division III Hampden-Sydney College next year, and has talked to his coach about getting a medical redshirt. His future teammates have mailed him a stack of about 25 handwritten letters telling him that he is a part of the team.
For now, Boyle is happy with the routine things in life that people sometimes take for granted.
"I like just being back out with everybody, like going to my friends' house and doing normal things again," said Boyle, who will eventually need a hip replacement.
But before that, he will continue therapy. As his bone begins to heal, he will look to his first goal with a lacrosse stick, which is "basically, just getting back practicing."
"My husband (Jeff) and I have said we are not telling him he can't do anything, because who knows what he will be able to do," Jacquie Boyle said.