ARY — C Before Middle Creek's football players exited their home locker room last season, they would look over the doorway and tap a sign that read "Pray for Ray," in honor of Rashawn King, their teammate who was diagnosed with leukemia just months before.
King joked that the sign should now read "Play for Ray."
Or maybe "Play with Ray," since that's exactly what those Middle Creek players will be doing in the fall.
In February, King learned that his cancer was in remission. In June, one year after being first diagnosed, he was cleared to play football again. He has spent the summer practicing with the two varsity teams - the other being basketball - that the disease took him away from as a junior.
King tried to keep a positive mindset throughout his treatments, but the beginning stages wore that mindset thin.
His mother, Kathleen Merritt, said King was in depression after missing the fall semester of school and watching things that meant the most to him - being around friends, playing sports, going to school - be taken away.
"I really wanted to be out there with my teammates," King said. "It motivated me, but then it brought me down. I felt bad that I wasn't out there and capable of contributing to the team and helping them out."
Merritt has three children. The other two children, now ages 21 and 16, were both born premature and had their own illnesses at early ages.
Rashawn was her healthy child, and here he was facing cancer at 17.
But King's words continued to amaze Merritt.
"Nothing good comes without a fight, Mom," he would say.
He'd often add "only I could go through this," as if he was taking on the disease so his family didn't have to.
But what surprised Merritt the most was to hear her son sit down and debate with his doctors at UNC-Chapel Hill about what he wanted his quality of life to be.
King wanted his normal teen life back. And that meant playing high school sports again.
"Just getting my life back on track, doing things a normal teenager would do," King said. "I love sports. I've been playing them since I was little. It's a main factor in my life," King said. "(I) like being able to meet new people and do something that you love to do and perfecting it."
King had his portacath, a medical appliance installed beneath the skin that connects to a vein, removed a few months after his cancer went into remission. A portacath would have prevented him from playing sports because of the complications involved if it was damaged.
The Mustangs' second-leading rusher in 2009 didn't figure he would get the opportunity to play again, because he didn't think he would be in remission just eight months after his original diagnosis.
He asked for the portacath's removal so he had plenty of time left to prepare for summer football workouts.
And he has spent the summer getting back in shape.
Can't be worse
His cancer is in remission, but King is far from done with battling the disease.
Every day he takes about 24 pills as part of his treatment. The amount and type of medication changes every 85 days, but the daily routine is ingesting double-digit pills.
Also for the next two and a half years, King will make a once-a-month trip to UNC hospitals for chemotherapy, which often renders him unable to play athletics for the next 48 hours. But on some days, like Thursday of last week, doctors cleared him to play immediately provided the chemo went well.
The tide first began to change for King when he was able to attend class in the spring semester, where he said he earned straight A's. Although he arrived at school around 10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. each day after having either chemo or blood work done each morning, it was a welcomed change from having to work from home on the computer in the fall.
The doctors gave King strict warnings about returning to football. They're wary of a big blow damaging his organs - particularly his kidneys, which were in poor shape when he first started treatments.
King plays running back - an eternal target for big hits - and safety, where he would be asked to deliver them.
But these hits are better than the lumps he has already taken.
"It can't be worse than what I've gone through," he told his mother.
"When he says stuff like that, what can you say?" she said.
The moment Rashawn eagerly awaits is the same one his mother dreads.
He will be wearing extra padding and a rib protector, but that won't ease Merritt's fears.
"I'm totally terrified. As far as I'm concerned, I'm not for sports, period, at this point. With any parent, if your child has been diagnosed with a form of cancer, you're not going to be for your child running around out there getting hit by another child," she said. "It was just something you just say, 'Hey, you're done with that,' so in my mind, he was done with that. But I'm for my child being happy."
King knows the risks involved with playing again, but he doesn't think he will play much regardless.
Middle Creek football coach Sean Crocker says otherwise.
"The big question is how his body reacts to contact," Crocker said. "... He was a starter before he got sick, so I don't see what would stop him from challenging for significant playing time if he's back close to 100 percent."
Merritt doesn't know whether to sit in the stands with her eyes closed or get as close to the field as possible.
She's imagined the worst scenario happening - Rashawn getting seriously injured.
"I mentally went there and said this can happen and that can happen," she said. "But I have a lot of belief in God, and I believe that Ray is going to be fine. And I really believe that."
Some of that faith comes from what she has been able to learn about her son through his battle with leukemia.
"He is the most courageous young man that I could have been blessed with," Merritt said. "I'm an about-to-be 45-year-old woman, and everything that he's been through - I don't know if I could have endured it (or) mentally wrapped my brain around it to handle it. I've learned that Ray has a lot of faith. I've learned that he does not give up."
She continued: "Ray is a determined young man. He's determined he's going to play a sport. He is determined that he is going to come out of Middle Creek as an honor roll student. He's determined to try to get into N.C. State University and go to school for business."
And to keep beating cancer.
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