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Hammond High School junior and basketball player Essien Ture, whose basketball career was threatened last year when he lost nearly half of his right leg, will be given an Ed Block Courage Award on March 16. (Jon Sham/Baltimore Sun video)

One year ago, Essien Ture was a talented if unspectacular basketball player at Columbia's Hammond High School, hoping to make the varsity squad in the fall.

Today, after enduring agonizing foot pain, a grueling series of tests and surgeries that culminated with his right leg being amputated below the knee and a remarkable return to Hammond's basketball team, the 16-year-old has become an inspiration.

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The 16-year-old's quiet grit and determination have wowed his family, his friends and coaches and a national organization that honors courageous pro football players and, later this month, also will honor Essien.

"He's inspiring — just an amazing story," said Mike Lerner, Hammond's athletics and activities manager, who nominated Essien for the award. "Nothing stops this kid.

"That's what high school athletics is all about. You see what you want to do, you have a goal and nothing gets in your way, you're going to give it everything you've got. Essien does that every single day."

"We think it's remarkable what he's been through and what he's been able to accomplish," said Paul Mittermeier, of the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation, the Cockeysville organization that will honor Essien. "We just want him to stand up at our gala and be recognized."

Essien has been playing basketball since he was a 4-year-old growing up in basketball-rich Prince George's County.

"It's second nature, I guess," said the soft-spoken high school junior during a recent interview in his Columbia home. "I like to draw, I like video games and I like playing basketball — all the time."

After he and his mother moved to Columbia three years ago, Essien tried out for the basketball team. He was a guard on the junior varsity team as a freshman and a sophomore, and was looking forward to playing varsity basketball as a junior.

Mysterious pains

In the spring of 2014, Essien decided to try out for the track team, and, according to Lerner, immediately impressed the coaches with his speed. But before the first meet, he was slowed by pains in his right foot.

"It was nothing out of the ordinary, just his arch hurting," recalled Teresa Gruchacz, Hammond's athletic trainer. "We thought it was just some inflammation. … But it spiraled downhill from there."

When the pain persisted, his mother took Essien to an emergency clinic and then to Howard County General Hospital. At the hospital, doctors performed a series of tests and eventually cut two gashes in his calf to release the pressure and improve his circulation. But nothing helped, so they sent him to Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore.

There, Essien endured more tests, more pain and more surgeries before finally being diagnosed with popliteal artery entrapment, a rare vascular disease in which the main artery in the leg is misplaced behind the knee, which restricts blood flow to the lower leg. Essien's leg was riddled with blood clots.

Doctors tried more surgeries, more procedures, more tests. When his toes turned black with gangrene, they amputated the front of his foot.

"There were so many surgeries," said his mother, Jewel Taylor. "The whole way through I was just hoping the next surgery is the last one."

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But the pain persisted and finally, after weeks in the hospital, doctors gave Essien the bad news: They needed to cut off his right leg a few inches below the knee.

"I was mad, I was sad. Both," Essien recalled.

"But he was a trooper," Taylor said. "He knew that if they didn't take the whole foot, he might not survive. He said, 'I don't want to die.' "

Throughout his ordeal, Essien got unending support from Hammond High. His principal called regularly for updates. His track coaches, basketball coaches and his trainer came to visit.

"It was really cool," Taylor said. "He had a lot of support."

Essien was released from the hospital in early May. Unable to return to school that year, he and his mother endured an endless summer of makeup class work, medical appointments and physical therapy.

By early summer, Essien had added basketball to that list. Even before he got his first prosthetic leg, he'd sit on a cooler in his garage, taking shots. After he was fitted for a new leg, he went down to the neighborhood park and played basketball with friends.

Essien is not sure if he'll try track again, but there was never a question — even in the hospital — that losing part of his leg would stop him from playing basketball.

"That was all he talked about," his mother said. "The whole time. It's 'when can I play basketball.' "

Asked when he decided he would play ball again, Essien said, "The day before they cut off the foot."

Making the team

Hammond's head basketball coach, Mike Salapata, coached the junior varsity team at Oakland Mills last year, so he had seen Essien play.

"He was a pretty good player," Salapata said. "But I actually had no clue what had happened to him."

In October, before tryouts, Salapata met with all the interested team members, including Essien. "He came to me and told me what had happened, and said he wanted to try out," Salapata said. "I said, 'Of course.' "

Essien could still shoot, always his strength on the court, but he had just started wearing his permanent prosthetic leg and was getting used to it. He tired easily and was clearly nervous, backing away from contact.

"But you could see the potential was there, that once he got past the mental hurdle, he was going to be OK," Salapata said.

When it came down to the final cut, Salapata decided to keep Essien on the team.

"It was almost like a redshirt year," he said. "He'd be part of the team, play a little, practice with them, get comfortable, so that by his senior year, anyone who didn't know his story wouldn't know" he had a prosthetic leg.

Essien did not want any special treatment on the court, and Salapata said he didn't get any.

"I had a conversation with the team, with him there. I told them he was no different, that the only way he can get back is for him to be treated like anyone else," Salapata said. "That's the way we did it. … As far as teammates, he was as part of the team as anyone else."

During the season, Essien improved dramatically, Salapata said, and by the end he was participating in all of the drills. But he only appeared in a couple of games, and then only for less than a minute. For the season, he said, he took two shots and made one.

Salapata said he limited Essien's game minutes to give him time to get used to his prosthetic leg, both physically and mentally.

Taylor praises the decision.

"I was not going to keep him from playing basketball, but I was so happy that the coach did not play him that much," she said. "I don't think he was near 100 percent ready to be out there playing with the guys for a long period of time."

Essien, not surprisingly, has a different opinion. He concedes that getting used to playing on a prosthetic leg was hard, that he had trouble making sharp cuts and that by the end of the day, his leg ached and he was tired. But that didn't quell his desire to play.

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"I wanted to play every game," he said.

He might get his wish next season. Salapata is expecting big improvements from his team, which won only three games this year, and from Essien.

"I'm hoping that he is one of our seven or eight key players next year," he said. "He's a good kid. He gets frustrated at times, but I think anybody in his situation would get frustrated from time to time. But I give him all the credit in the world for his attitude, his effort."

Honored with NFL stars

On Monday, March 16, Essien, his mother, aunt and grandparents will attend the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation's annual gala at the Baltimore Hilton. The foundation is a nonprofit that helps abused and neglected children and the annual gala honors one player from each NFL team who has demonstrated courage, typically in the face of an injury or illness.

This year, for the first time, the organization also will honor high school athletes who demonstrated the same type of courage. Officials solicited nominations from high school athletic directors throughout Maryland (the program might be expanded nationwide in the future), and Essien was one of three young athletes selected.

"When I heard what had happened with Essien, what his story was, I knew I wanted to highlight him and show others what they can overcome, too," the foundation's Mittermeier said.

In typical low-key style, Essien is reserved about the award.

"I know they're honoring me for going through it, but I'm used to this now," he said. "It's just something I have to live with."

His mother, also typically, is more effusive.

"I was proud when [Lerner] called and told me he was going to nominate him, because he'd been through a lot," said Taylor, who works as an IT specialist for NASA, in Greenbelt. "He's been through a lot, and I thought it was cool that people recognized the level of effort that he was putting in to get back to something that he loves to do.

"So, yes, I was very happy when I got that phone call."

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