Video: Touchdowns Against Cancer 2017 campaign
See how the TAC program and football can unite communities, build brotherhoods and bring hope. Zach Fejeran
felt some unusual bumps on his neck, but didn't think much about it. Neither did his dad, a pediatrician, or his mother, a registered nurse.
But in December 2014, the then-freshman at Claiborne (New Tazewell, Tenn.)
noticed the lumps were growing. And growing. And growing.
"They quadrupled in size in about a week," Fejeran said. "Almost the size of baseballs."
Surgery removed the masses on his 14th birthday, which was a gift to be sure. But then Fejeran got the news no teen expects to hear.
"They said I had cancer," he said of the Burkitt lymphoma diagnosis. "They said I had to see an oncologist the next day in Memphis. I remember wondering if I was going to die."
That's a lot to ponder over an eight-hour drive from Northeast Tennessee. But doctors assured him the lymphoma was extremely treatable. He was young, otherwise healthy and active. And fearless.
At least until the diagnosis.
"When you're young, you feel invincible," Fejeran said. "You also take a lot for granted."
He doesn't any longer.
Almost three years from his original diagnosis, Fejeran has been given a clean bill of health. The now 6-foot, 250-pound tackle is a third-year starter for the Claiborne football team.
He's a team captain, a leader and inspiration.
"Great family and great kid," said Randy Bullen team dad, publicist and statistician. "Zach doesn't have to say a word or contribute a block or big play, and he helps the team immensely."
Friday, he and the Bulldogs (2-2) begin their MaxPreps/PedgeIt Touchdowns Against Cancer campaign.
Every touchdown scored by his team during those three games — and any scored by teams that sign up throughout the country — will contribute to the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital to help cure pediatric cancer.Learn more about how you can get involved in 2017 Touchdowns Against Cancer
"This is very personal to me and hopefully for our team, too," Fejeran said. "Heck, I want to score a touchdown. I never have, but maybe coach will throw in a trick play."
There was no trick or shortcuts once Fejeran was diagnosed.
His nearly four-month ordeal away from home was something he told no one in detail about: The five MRIs, the 12 spinal taps, and the chemo and radiation treatments.
The most important treatment was an attitude; His own belief and will to get back to his humble, but rich, life in Claiborne. In the hospital beds, he dreamed about simple things, like feeding animals on the family farm, embracing his family, attending school and playing football with his second kin — "The brothers on my team."
They were the ones who kept him going, kept him inspired.
Once he returned home he was determined to be more than just an average player. The two-way lineman mustered enough strength to start on varsity by the end of his sophomore season.
He kept that momentum and started last season and now is the leader of a team that has won just six games over the last three seasons.
Only four games into 2017 and the Bulldogs have matched their win total of the last three campaigns.
"We're not going 2-8 again," Fejeran said. "We're doing much greater things."
As is Fejeran, starting with the Touchdowns Against Cancer campaign.
"In many ways I feel like I owe St. Jude my life," he said. "They did everything for my family and me. They paid for everything. I'll forever be indebted."
Fejeran, who last week had blood work done, also is grateful for the entire Claiborne community, the students and faculty and his teammates.
"My blood was perfect," he said. "I feel great and have a lot of motivation to do well with my life. I have so much to be grateful for."