Video: Touchdowns Against Cancer kickoff
Host Chris Stonebraker interviews members of the Oak Ridge High football team for TAC.The Touchdowns for Cancer campaign to benefit cancer research for
St. Jude Hospital is universally applauded. Everyone desperately wants
to knock out pediatric cancer. But some fights are quite personal. So
are their stories. Here is one of many to be shared.
Like most high school football players, Imoter Mngerem
had a dream to play in the NFL.
When cancer invaded his body as a vital 6-foot, 190-pound junior linebacker at Riverside Military Academy (Gainesville, Ga.)
, those aspirations were put on hold. Though still infected with the disease, the now 19-year-old still seeks entrance into the game's highest league, but from a different angle.
A golden one.
Like the NFL honors Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October by wearing pink, he wants the league to flash gold every September to honor Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. He plans to reach out to the league right away.
"I want to take my future and do whatever I can to help others, like others have helped me," said the thoughtful teen.
Mngerem is passing on the message, one that his former school and current Riverside Military Academy team is doing in his honor. Eagles coach Kelly Davis jumped at the chance to join the MaxPreps/PledgeIt Touchdowns Against Cancer campaign, which kicked off last week and continues through Oct. 1.
Every touchdown scored by his team during those three games — and any scored by teams that sign up throughout the country — will go to the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital to help cure pediatric cancer.Learn more about how you can get involved in Touchdowns Against Cancer
When Davis saw the campaign launched, he naturally thought of one of the most likeable kids he's coached during his five-year reign at the all-boys military academy in the northern part of Georgia.
"He was one of the most popular guys in school — just a great young man willing to help younger guys get better and transition into the school and team," Davis said. "He was definitely one of the big leaders on the football team."
Something was wrong
After a stellar junior season, the Division I prospect with superb strength and speed hit the weight room hard, trying to gain 10-20 pounds of muscle for his senior season. Instead, he experienced flu-type symptoms and within three weeks he lost close to 20 pounds.
"He couldn't even lift," Davis said. "It was obvious something was wrong."
His mother Monica and father Henry took him for tests, but it wasn't until his 18th birthday on May 13, 2015 that he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a relatively common but complex and treatable cancer that attacks the immune system.
By that time, Mngerem had braced for the worst and was in a strong frame of mind to deal with things.
"I knew the diagnosis would change my life," he said. "I knew the dreams I had for the future would be put on hold for a while."
Even before the diagnosis, Mngerem was a giver, Davis said. But cancer has magnified his nature. That's because so many have given to him during his time of need, he said. Besides his parents, younger sisters Dooshima and Sewuese, grandparents Bill and Marian Gardner and Walter Glover, came quickly to mind.
But he also described the support of his oncologist, Dr. Frank Keller, and the countless nurses, counselors and cancer patients at the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston and Scottish Rite, along with Camp Sunshine, an absolute free of charge "Heaven on Earth" for the afflicted and their families.
"You see a wide spectrum of patients at the Sunshine House: Kids having brain surgery, amputations, tumors removed," he said. "We just talk about everything but cancer. It's a chance to get away from everything. Have fun.
"To see the spirit in these kids and older people too — it completely changed the way I think and the way approach life."
While in the middle of chemotherapy treatments last fall, Mngerem returned to the Riverside campus on senior night and was given his old No. 47. Known as "Mo" by teammates, and given his royal blue and white No. 47 jersey, he led the squad out of the locker room and onto the field right before kickoff.
"The team went crazy," Davis said.
Got to get up
The Eagles won that night 21-7 over Strong Rock Christian. It was their only win of the season.
"That was great being back with the team and coaches," Mngerem said. "I love being on a team. It's all the character building. You face all the adversity in the game. It doesn't matter how many three-and-outs you go through, you still have to keep fighting. It's just like facing cancer or a heart attack or a death in the family. You got to get up.
"One thing you realize in football and life is that you can't do it alone."
That is part of the reason Mngerem was so touched when the team honored him by signing up for TAC.
"It means so much that they would think of me," he said. "But this is cause isn't just for me. It's for all the kids, many who have it way more worse than me."
Treatments have gone well for Mngerem. He's finishing up his school work, lifting weights four times a week and now up to a robust 210 pounds.
But there's still a spot on his lung. He's confident treatments will take care of that. He wants to start his college education and rekindle a football career by January and in two years play at the Division I level. Davis said he definitely has that potential.
But even if that dream isn't realized, Mngerem said the pursuit won't be wasted.
"Cancer makes you realize that every day is not promised, so make the most of it," he said. "Don't slack. Don't take a day for granted. Make the most for yourself and others."
That is golden advice.