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Tackling a tough opponent

The Baltimore Sun

As their coaches shout instructions, the boys in shoulder pads and helmets go through their practice routines. Among them is Ricky Knight, 10, a slight boy with freckles and brown eyes.

His coach, Frank Curley, said Ricky is doing great. "In two weeks, he has gone from not playing to being the starting cornerback," he said. "He's worked himself into a starting position. He's not hesitant to tackle anyone of any size."

Which, given the circumstances, makes sense, for Ricky already has tackled a more difficult opponent. The sixth-grader from Elkridge Landing Middle School is recovering from two surgeries and a summer marked by chemotherapy and radiation treatments after learning in April he had a brain tumor.

With the OK of his doctors and parents, Ricky is back on the football field, playing for the American Team of the 8-10 Elkridge Hurricanes.

Like the other kids, Ricky, who says his favorite part of the game is "tackling people," practices for 90 minutes three times a week and plays a one game a week. As a cornerback, he said his job is to "stay on the outside the keep the runners on the inside."

Throughout Ricky's ordeal, sports have been a welcome distraction, said his father, Rick Knight, who was a cornerback himself in high school and at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

Ricky started playing football a year ago, said his father, and quickly developed a knack for the game. Mike Lettieri, his coach for the 2006 season, described Ricky as "tougher than a railroad spike," the kind of player who simply refused to let anybody get by him. "Nobody ran outside on Ricky," he said.

The first sign of trouble came in April. Ricky was watching a video, Night at the Museum, with his parents and two siblings when the left side of his body started twitching.

"We called the paramedics," said his father.

By the time the ambulance arrived, the shaking had stopped. But it turned out Ricky was very sick.

"I'd like to say we've gotten used to it," Knight said, standing on the field and watching his son's practice recently. "But it's still sort of a shock."

Ricky had two operations within a month: first a biopsy, and then surgery to remove about 75 percent of the tumor. "He's got a nice scar on his head," Knight said.

After the surgeries, Ricky finished out the baseball season. He attended a week-long basketball camp and traveled to the beach with his family before undergoing six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation.

Though Ricky lost his hair, Knight said his son stayed strong during the surgeries and treatment.

In August, Ricky started sixth grade at Elkridge Landing Middle School, wearing a bandana to cover his bald head. When football practice started, he and his father would go to the field to watch Ricky's old teammates. Ricky missed the first two weeks of practice, but now he's back on the field with the rest of his teammates.

"I was hesitant," his father said. "But if there was any chance he could get hurt, I wouldn't let him be out there."

Knight said Ricky's doctors have given the OK for Ricky to play sports. And Ricky's coach, Curley, said he doesn't hold back with Ricky.

His teammates have supporting Ricky by wearing his number, 28. In July, Dennis Chesgreen, owner of Shear Brothers in Elkridge, held a hair-cutting fundraiser that took in more than $4,000. Though the Knight family has health insurance, it doesn't cover everything, Knight said. After Ricky's treatment is over, he hopes to have some money left to donate to cancer research, he said.

Meanwhile, Ricky will have an MRI later this month, and may require additional chemotherapy. But on a warm September night, his main concern seemed to get getting out on the field and playing some football.

"It's good medicine," Knight said.

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