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Courage blitzes cancer

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"We jumped his butt pretty good," Swank said. "He looked at me and said, 'Coach, I've never been so happy to get yelled at. It means I'm back.'"

A year ago at this time, no one dreamed Matt Hobby would ever be back. Except for Matt.

All year, bumper stickers around Pope proclaimed: "Go Matt Go." A Lance Armstrong-style bracelet urged: "Stand Tough."

The rallying cry wasn't so much to get Matt on the gridiron again, but a plea for him to live.

Tonight, Matt, a junior, will put on the blue and silver Greyhounds uniform and step back onto the field.

Football is much more than something to do on Friday nights.

It's his reason for living.

The last 12 months have at times been hell for the Hobby family.

Matt, now 17, weighed 225 pounds before he was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, an adolescent cancer that strikes about 300 kids a year, usually starting in a bone and aggressively spreading. In six weeks, he was down to 195, and that wasn't as low as he'd go.

The cancer quickly spread to his pelvis, lungs, pancreas and lymph nodes. Doctors optimistically scheduled a year of chemotherapy. They were giving Matt a 20 to 30 percent chance of surviving.

But kids have beaten the disease, and Matt's family was convinced he was going to be one of those. How could they believe otherwise, when Matt was staying so strong and positive?

But scary words like "chemotherapy" were being replaced with scarier words like "bone marrow transplant."

Matt knew the prognosis wasn't great. But that wasn't part of the daily thought process. Getting better and playing football again was.

"When it was first diagnosed, we were all sitting there with the doctor, talking about a lot of bad stuff," his mother, Pam, said. "Then Matt looks at the doctor and says, 'Can I play football next year?'"

The doctor remained mostly silent.

During the initial round of chemotherapy, Matt did as much normal living as he could.

That meant heading to the football field as many afternoons as possible. Not to practice, but to support --- or harass --- his teammates.

At the end of drills, when players normally would shout something like "1-2-3 Greyhounds," it became "1-2-3 Hobby." 'Hard-core stuff'

About the time his teammates were enjoying homecoming last October, doctors in Atlanta sent the Hobbys to New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

They were told they were running out of time. A decision on future treatment needed to be made.

The recommendation: Go to Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center for a radical and painful experimental treatment that could save Matt's life.

"That was so overwhelming, deciding what to do," Matt's mom said. "We knew we couldn't go back [once a decision was made], but these are decisions that when they are your son, it's just so hard to do."

Added Matt's father, Jud: "We were at the frontier, but the odds weren't good even with this."

Twenty-eight kids had undergone similar treatment in Seattle. Thirteen had survived five years.

In January, Matt underwent three rounds of a brutal form of chemotherapy "that poisoned him almost to death," his dad said. The chemicals --- the "hard-core stuff," as Matt called it, killed every cancer cell in his body --- and many of the healthy, life-sustaining cells.

When the radical chemo was finished, it was time for the bone marrow transplant.

As for the pain, the worst was yet to come.

Doctors had warned the Hobbys that they had to bring Matt to the brink of death before attempting to revive him. As predicted, soon after the transplant Matt hit rock bottom.

His dwindling white blood cell count hit zero. He was uncomfortably groggy during the good times, in severe pain during the bad ones.

Eventually, his system had enough.

His mother kept a journal:

"With Matt's extremely rough chemo combination, controlling the pain . . . was very difficult. . . . Throughout each day, Matt continued to be calm, brave and stoic, making the doctors wonder if Matt EVER complained! Given the terrible assault on his body, his humor and tenderness somehow remained intact.

"On the morning of Jan. 12, when Matt was very miserable with 0 white blood counts, he offered me a 'good morning' hug, which, as moms know, 16 yr. old boys are very stingy with. A little later, after I was surprised with a second hug, he told me I didn't have to ASK for a hug this time 'cause it was my birthday! Matt did not forget, even on one of his hardest days." 20 days on the edge

Doctors had tried to prepare the Hobbys for how bad things would get. With luck, they said, it would start getting better after things bottomed out.

After the stem cells grafted properly, and after undergoing six more weeks of radiation to kill off unseen traces of the cancer, Matt was given an initial clean bill of health.

He has since gotten a three-month and a six-month all-clear report.

Now a 185-pound third-string defensive end, Matt said it was those 20 days in January that were the toughest.

"I was in a hospital bed for 20 days, unable to eat or drink anything because I'd throw it up," he said. "I couldn't move. My mouth was so dry and I couldn't drink anything.

"When it had killed off everything, they put the stem cells they had taken after chemo and put it back in me. It was simple: If it took and the cells grafted, I was probably going to be OK. If they didn't, I was a goner, right then."

Today, as far as doctors are concerned, he's in remission.

"I think they think it'll stay that way," Matt said. "My parents chose the harshest form of treatment possible because they wanted to beat it once and for all." Question of faith

Throughout their ordeal, the Hobbys, who had been Methodist churchgoers, have put their faith under a microscope.

Why did Matt get such an awful disease? Harder to answer: Why has he survived when so many haven't?

"I grapple with why he was more special than the others," Pam Hobby said. "It makes it hard to maintain faith. Still, our faith played a part in all of this. We have really been blessed."

Through community fund-raisers, more than $17,000 was given to the family to defray medical expenses. All of those trips back and forth to Seattle were paid for, too.

"We couldn't have made it without all the help we got from the Pope family," Jud said. "They were amazing. It really touched us and sustained us."

Matt talks a little easier about faith than his parents do.

During the depths, Matt occasionally would think about dying. He wouldn't let on that he was thinking that way, but he was only human.

"I knew that if I did die, I'd go to heaven where things were going to be a lot better," Matt said. "My faith kept me going, along with wanting to get back on the football field." His lifesaver: Football

Matt might not get on the field tonight. He didn't play in Pope's opening game at Kennesaw Mountain. Earlier this week, he was moved from defense to offense, but is listed way down on the depth chart. He's still not at full strength.

But he feels football did as much to save his life as anything. Dreams of stepping back onto the football field kept him motivated.

"I fully expected this," Matt said. "Never let myself think about not making it back. That's what got me through it, the goal of playing football again."

Doctors didn't take Matt seriously when he said he'd play again, his father said.

"They didn't tell him he couldn't, but I'm sure they would have rather him not," he said. "They didn't think it was possible to get in shape this quickly. They were concerned about bruising if he took a hard hit, but said they were concerned about that only because they didn't think his blood count would be where it needs to be this quickly. It's been checked, and they are fine. Otherwise, we wouldn't have let him play."

Yeah, his parents worry, but not enough to keep him away from what kept him going. His coach is simply going on what he has been told by the family: Let him go hard during practices, taking and delivering hits.

"He has been live during practice, and I have no reservations about playing him," Swank said."We're counting on him for next year. Anything before that would be a bonus."

So if Matt doesn't get in the game tonight, he knows life will go on.

"It's hard to be where I am, but let's face it, I have physical limitations right now," he said. "I'm 185 pounds and was benching 135 when I first got back. It's hard to compete against my friends who are benching 330, so the best thing I can do now is practice hard and get those guys ready for game week.

"I know I'm not the better player, and I want what's best for the team, not what's best for me. I'm just glad to be back."

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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