Editor’s Note: Off the Sidelines is a new monthly feature that highlights local athletes.
Coby Weston says he has always been a positive person. The senior enjoys going to classes at Athens Drive High School and standing on the sideline during Friday night football games with his teammates.
But he can’t always be there.
A few weeks into preseason practices, Weston, 17, went to the hospital because he was coughing so much he sometimes vomited. The doctors found a baseball-size tumor lodged in the left side of his chest.
Weston was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that compromises the body’s immune system.
Weston is a popular student with a gentle, wide smile. Now, his classmates are the ones offering him encouraging words.
“People are just looking at you differently and talking to you differently,” Weston said. “They know that I wouldn’t want people to be like, ‘I’m so sorry and I feel so bad for you.’ They tell me that they’re being inspired through me.”
Something was wrong
Weston’s parents were familiar with exercise-induced bronchospasmsand had hoped their son would only need an inhaler.
As a precaution, a doctor took an X-ray, which revealed the tumor.
Hogkin’s lymphoma is most common in people in their 20s. Another football player in the Triangle, Smithfield-Selma senior Quantez Leach, also has the disease.
Weston was entering his second year as a reserve varsity offensive lineman at Athens Drive, but playing now was out of the question. So he planned on being on the sidelines.
Things changed before the first game.
“We were getting ready, having our team meal, he’s getting ready to go to Greenville and J.H. Rose (High) and his mom calls him on the phone right before we get on the bus for (the) team meal and says, ‘You need to get to the hospital right now,’” recalled Athens Drive head coach Chris Martin.
Weston needed chemotherapy as soon as possible because the tumor was close to his heart and lungs, which caused the coughing.
Weston will undergo chemotherapy at least until October. He has already lost 15 pounds, dropping from 190.
Getting on the field
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is one of the most treatable cancers. The 10-year survival rate is 80percent, according to the American Cancer Society.
If all goes well, Weston could be back pitching for the varsity baseball team this spring.
He’s shown his optimism and determination. He hates needles, a fear not assuaged when he needed his bone marrow taken without anesthesia – with a needle he told his parents was “the size of a screwdriver.”
One morning, he underwent his chemotherapy treatment a few hours early so he could go to the first home game of the season.
“I’m a fighter,” Weston said. “I want to beat this and get back to being as normal as possible and get back to being myself.”
He’s feeling better, he said. His cough is gone.
“All the nurses and doctors love him,” said his mother, Melissa Weston. “You see his smile, and you think about what he’s facing and going through and people gravitate to him. He’s a natural leader, and people are really inspired by his strength. It’s a powerful thing to watch.”
Athens Drive football players have been quick to show their support.
Weston got a card from the team that read: “It’s not your cancer, it’s ours.”
“When you’re in the locker room, there’s not a lot of that tenderness going on,” said Dan Weston, Coby’s father. “For them to say something like that… they mean it. Because they’ve been over here (at) onthe house and at the hospital on a daily basis, and sometimes it’s to the point where there isn’t enough room for everybody.”
Friday’s game against Leesville Road showed how deep that support runs. T-shirts were on sale that displayed: “We believe. We fight. We win. We are Coby Strong.”
Money from sales of the shirts and purple ribbons goes to the UNC Children’s Hospital, where Weston is being treated.
Many teammates and classmates shaved their heads with Weston, who hadn’t yet begun to lose his hair.
The Athens Drive marching band’s theme this year is “Hope for a Cure,” decided before Weston’s diagnosis. Two band parents also are battling different forms of cancer.
“It takes on a whole new meaning for everybody,” said Shannonndoah Deaver, president of the school’s booster club.
On each Jaguars player’s helmet is a violet sticker with Weston’s No. 74. Violet is the color associated with Hodgkin’s disease.
“This isn’t tragic. This is a journey that we’re on that’s going to be tough, but Coby is strong,” Melissa Weston said. “He truly is ‘Coby Strong.’”
Athens Drive sometimes struggles for a sense of community because it has students from east Cary and west Raleigh. But much like Middle Creek – which has students from six towns and rallied around Rashawn King, a 2012 graduate that had leukemia his junior year – its people have pulled together.
Weston said he loves school and always has. He’s come to appreciate his friends there even more.
He will be there as often as he can, still smiling wide in the hallways.
Blake: 919-460-2606; Twitter: @JMBpreps