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The Emotions of Sports: Playing through the pain

One athlete trusted that his body would heal from cancer, while others fight through daily pains

Posted: July 31, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: July 31, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Former Golden Valley High basketball player Taylor Statham battled cancer after graduating from high school. After his battle with the disease, he got back on the basketball court and is now continuing his playing in college.

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Playing through pain isn’t an option for athletes. It’s a requirement.

And not just physical pain, either.

Golden Valley High graduate Taylor Statham has had to deal with all sorts of pain over the past few months.

Last November, while playing for Westwind Prep Academy in Phoenix, Statham slid over to take a charge. The other player kneed him in the groin, which is painful enough under regular circumstances.

Only this time, the pain didn’t go away.

“At first, I was going crazy,” Statham says. “Usually when you get racked there, it hurts, but it hurt a lot more. Sometimes I’d be limping because I could barely walk on it.”

It turned out to be much more serious than Statham or his family imagined.

Doctors in Phoenix told Statham that he had testicular cancer, and he had surgery in Encino to remove the tumor the day after Thanksgiving. While the operation was a success, Statham had to rest for a few weeks before he could play again.

There was pain of having to watch his teammates and not be able to help them. The pain of missing tournaments that could increase his exposure to college programs.

“That was the worst feeling in the world,” Statham admits.

When he returned to the court, Statham was a shell of his former self, but the circumstances kept things in perspective. Ironically, the blow to the groin might have saved Statham’s life.

“It was really a blessing in disguise,” he says. “When they found it, my tumor was in the early stages. It didn’t have the chance to spread but it was really aggressive. If they hadn’t found it for a month or two, it wouldn’t havebeen as easy as it was.”

Not that Statham would characterize his chemotherapy as “easy.” He began the process in January, and every day he’d be hooked up to an IV for anywhere from five to eight hours.

His chemotherapy ended up lasting almost three months. After the first few weeks, he says his blood tests came back “shaky,” so he underwent a second round. Throughout the process, he lost about 30 pounds.

It was yet another type of pain he had to deal with.

“When I would come home, I would be so drained,” he says. “You’d have all these chemicals inside, and I’d be going upstairs and throwing up and being sick.”

But Statham says his family and friends provided him a wealth of support. With that in hand, he fought through the pain and suited up for Westwind in one of the last games of the season in late March.

In his first game back, Statham says he had 25 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists.

It exhausted him to play that well, but Statham has taken his painful experience and turned it into a positive. Now 100 percent cancer-free, he’s headed to Cal Baptist on a full scholarship.

He’ll never take basketball for granted.

“The experience taught me you never know when basketball could be taken away from you,” Statham says.
That’s why Canyon High graduate Nikki Leon played through pain at every turn.

Her basketball career is over, having played at Cal State Bakersfield after graduating from Canyon in 2008. A former forward, Leon played physically and banged around with opponents on a nightly basis.

During her Canyon days, she was known as arguably the Foothill League’s toughest girls basketball player.

She suffered a litany of injuries, from concussions to sprained ankles. Through it all, she kept right on playing.

“Even if I’m at 75 percent,” Leon says, “I want to give it 100.”

She says her competitive mentality was the biggest driving force to play through pain. Leon also thinks most athletes are the same way.

“A lot of the time, we push way too hard,” she says. “Even though we love (playing) so much, (injuries) could linger on because we don’t let ourselves heal. It’s just the risk we take knowing every game could be your last.”

Football players also get used to pain – and how to play with it – quickly.

“Don’t think about it,” says former Saugus High wide receiver and defensive back James Weiner. “Your mind tells your body what hurts.”

And there are different kinds of hurt, too. Leon says that when she sprained her ankle, it limited her explosiveness and movement. When she dealt with head injuries, on the other hand, she struggled to focus and even developed nausea.
She learned to build a threshold no matter what injury she was dealing with.

“I had to give myself physical therapy on my own time,” she says. “I just built it up. The first time, it was the worst thing in the world. The second time, I knew how to reduce the pain.

“I never wanted anybody to get the satisfaction of putting me out.”

Weiner had to learn how to build a pain threshold, too.

“I used to hate pain,” he says. “I used to be a little wimp about it. When high school came, I learned you have to play through it.”

Pain is a reality of sports. Athletes have to get used to the fact that they’ll rarely, if ever, be 100 percent healthy during competition.

As they push through the pain, they let it linger – not in a bad way, but in a way that teaches them to deal with it.
“If something like this can’t stop me,” Statham says, “nothing should be able to.”

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