Caught in net of `real life'

Lacrosse: Navy standout Jon Brianas was on course to meet all his goals, but suddenly his path took a detour.

March 17, 2000|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

He is only 21, yet Jon Brianas already recalls a time when life was simple.

A year ago, Brianas was a junior at the Naval Academy, working toward his economics degree, playing the sport he had loved since childhood, squeezing games of Nintendo in between his studies and lacrosse practice, planning the next night out with the high school sweetheart he intended to marry.

"Trying to get better at lacrosse was my biggest worry," Brianas said. "You're playing, you're with your friends, you feel invincible, like you're on top of the world."

Just two days after Brianas played one of his finest games as a Navy midfielder -- scoring two goals in an overtime victory last April over Georgetown -- his simple life took a scary turn.

He discovered a growth no bigger than the tip of a pen on one of his testicles. That same night, doctors at Bethesda Naval Hospital examined him, found the lump to be cancerous and surgically removed it.

Within three weeks, Brianas was back on the field, starting the final four games for the Midshipmen, finishing his best season by helping Navy reach the NCAA tournament in May. His teammates never even knew about his brief bout with cancer.

The reprieve ended during a routine, follow-up exam a few days before Christmas. Traces of the cancer had returned. Brianas had to undergo two months of chemotherapy in an attempt to knock it out for good.

Three weeks removed from treatment, he is plotting his return to the lacrosse field. Doctors have told Brianas he is free of the cancer and have cleared him to play. He has improved his strength and endurance with weightlifting and cardiovascular work and, by next week, he could be running in a full practice for the first time this season.

Navy (3-1) expects him to play his first game March 29 against Air Force.

Take a look at Brianas, and except for the dark hair that is beginning to grow back, one would never know he is a recovering cancer patient. At 6 feet, 175 pounds, he said he is still 10 pounds underweight.

Otherwise, he looks like the strapping athlete he has been since starring at Annapolis High School, before deciding to follow two older brothers into the military.

Listen to Brianas, and you hear a young man speaking with a matter-of-fact serenity, forced to become wise beyond his years.

The days when the treatments left him a physical wreck are fresh in his mind. Constant headaches, blurred vision, ringing in his ears, sores in his mouth, little appetite for food that "tasted like nothing."

The concentration required to do schoolwork would disappear.

The treatments severely weakened his immune system, forcing Brianas to spend much time alone to avoid catching germs that could spark some other serious illness.

"It wasn't easy to stay positive sometimes when I was alone, but I would think I had two options -- let this stuff get to me and get me down, or rise above it and think positive," he said.

"I picked positive. You don't take as many things for granted, starting with your health. I guess this makes you a stronger person."

Listen to the people close to Brianas, and you hear a sense of awe in their voices for his calm and resolve.

His body has been tested in so many ways. There was the follow-up, lymph-node surgery last summer, a move intended to prevent the cancer from spreading. In the middle of his chemotherapy, Brianas was stricken with appendicitis, requiring more surgery.

He also has torn ligaments in both knees, the first the result of a playoff game last May, the second from a pickup football game four months ago. He plans to play with a brace on each knee for the rest of the spring, then have right-knee surgery this summer.

"I don't know how Jon has dealt with it so well. He's not a complainer," said Jennifer Hartman, 23, his fiance. "He's gone through so much. He's rolled with the punches.

"I know this has had a positive effect on us, in terms of how we appreciate each other. I hear people complain about really stupid things now. This is real life."

"Jon would rather challenge pain than feel it," said his father, James Brianas. "He was always the feistiest of my five sons. This has been a critical hurdle for him to deal with. His only option is victory. You don't want to dare him."

Fellow midfielder Andy Beal has been Brianas' roommate since they were freshmen. Beal delivered the news about Brianas to the rest of the team in January. Then he organized a tribute by turning their room into a barbershop.

When Brianas returned from treatment in Bethesda, he walked into a team meeting room, where the squad was sitting. Every head was shaved in his honor.

"The hardest thing was hearing the news before Christmas. I thought I had it beat. Then [seeing all of the shaved heads], I was emotional," Brianas said. "It sure made losing my hair a lot easier."

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