Smithfield Boy's Wish Comes True in Florida as He Watches

Smithfield Boy's Wish Comes True in Florida as He Watches

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SMITHFIELD, Utah (AP) -- Sweat beaded on Tyson Busenbark's bald head as the Tampa Bay sun beat down upon him. The heat was hell on a body so frail from disease.

But even with a victory in the bag, he refused to seek shade. Not on this day. He had a game to watch. He had to endure.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost their first 26 games as an NFL franchise. From 1983 to 1996, the much-maligned team suffered 14-straight losing seasons. But when the team on the back of a new head coach and a rookie quarterback won the Super Bowl in 2002, Busenbark let everyone know about it.

"Ever since I was a little kid, I liked them," the 17-year-old Smithfield boy said. "I've liked them through the bad times and the good times."

So early in life, Busenbark knows too much about getting through those bad times.

The cancer in his stomach began spreading three years ago. It crawled up his back and started wrapping around his 14-year-old spine.

A malignant peripheral-nerve sheath tumor, the doctors called it.

The first operation came in April of 2006. From his tiny body, surgeons removed a tumor the size of a football; somehow, it always comes back to football.

Busenbark loves the sport. As a child, he longed to play it, but he was always too small. He jumped at the opportunity when Sky View High School Head Coach Craig Anhder offered Busenbark a job as the team's manager during his sophomore year.

Anhder watched as his new manager spent countless hours in the film room, doing whatever he could to help the team.

Eventually the cancer returned, and Busenbark was forced to cut back the time he spent with the team. As he prepared for another operation, players wore his initials on their bodies during games. It reminded them of his strength, a strength Anhder likes to see in a player.

"I talked to him after a chemo session. He said, I'm going to do it, coach," Anhder said. "That's why a lot of the kids relate to him. They want to duplicate his toughness."

Busenbark went to fewer and fewer games, and soon enough he was too ill to last through an entire school day. But he still had football. He still had the Bucs.

So when the Make-A-Wish Foundation came calling, Busenbark set his sights on Tampa Bay. More than anything, he said, he wanted to see the Buccaneers play.

It took nearly a year for people from the foundation to review his application. They interviewed Busenbark and his doctors, carefully looking over medical records. Basically, he had to prove that the breath he just took could be his last.

Even when the foundation gave him the OK, there was the question of his health.

The treatments made him sick, but the thought of sitting in that stadium gave him strength, Busenbark said.

"This trip has been what's kept him going," his mother, Susan McClellan, said. "Something to look forward to, something to push him."

Earlier this month, his wish came true. Busenbark boarded a plane for Tampa Bay on Sept. 13.

He attended a Friday practice wearing the replica "No. 1 Fan" jersey given to him by Make-A-Wish. Tampa Bay Head Coach John Gruden shook his head when he saw it. He walked into the locker room and handed Busenbark a jersey out of Cadillac Williams' locker. The third-year running back is Busenbark's favorite player.

Williams signed the jersey when he ate lunch with Busenbark that day. The two talked about pool and shoes and football. With his ribs bruised, Williams was questionable to play against the Saints on Sunday and Busenbark asked if he'd see Williams on the field.

"I'm going to play," he promised.

Back in his hotel room, Busenbark chuckled at images of Gruden on the evening news. Only the 17-year-old knew Gruden's disheveled look was the result of another gift to Busenbark: a visor the coach usually wears.

Busenbark sat front-row on game day. Before kickoff, players checked on how he was doing and Saints Head Coach Sean Payton walked across the field to shake his hand.

The game itself was just as sweet, Busenbark said. The Bucs beat the Saints 31-14. Williams, bruised ribs and all, scored two touchdowns one more than he scored during all of last year.

After the win, Busenbark said the team gave him hope of another championship.

"I think they can do it if they work hard. Take it one week at a time," he said, sounding like Gruden himself.

Busenbark is back home in Smithfield this week, back to reality. His cancer has returned and this time doctors won't be able to operate. Busenbark said he is preparing himself for another round of chemotherapy.

"That's the worst part," he said. "It kills your taste buds. Everything tastes like cardboard. You don't want to eat even though you have to."

But the effects of the dream escape still linger in his words. He has sincerity in his voice and hope in his heart.

He wants to get back to school. He misses being around his friends and his team. He wants to grow up to be a trainer for a team. Most of all, he wants to hold on.

"I'd like to last as long as possible," he said. "Keep throwing punches."

Busenbark said he will endure, as he has done before during chemotherapy and the Tampa Bay sun. He'll take things one week at a time, just like Gruden would say.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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