Taking their best shots at leukemia

With inspiration at hand, 14 teams help the cause in McDonogh tournament

College Lacrosse

October 05, 2003|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

Standing on a hill and shading his eyes from the sun that had just broken through the clouds, Air Force freshman Ryan Rafter couldn't help but smile.

Fourteen years ago, Rafter was found to have leukemia, but he has been in remission for four years, and just three hours earlier, the Babylon, N.Y., native had scored his first college lacrosse goal against Quinnipiac.

And perhaps most important to Rafter, Nicholas Voyton was there to see it all.

Nicholas, 9, who was found to have leukemia seven years ago, was the honorary captain of Rafter's Falcons yesterday in the sixth Price Modern Lacrosse for Leukemia Tournament at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills.

Wearing an autographed Falcons jersey and gloves and sporting a lacrosse stick he was given at Air Force's team dinner Friday night, Nicholas barely left Rafter's side throughout the tournament, which consisted of 14 teams playing three games each.

Said Nicholas, a Clarksville resident: "He was talking to me and my dad about what happened when he was younger, and he's been through the same things as me."

"I told him what I told everybody else: `Never give up and keep fighting,' " said Rafter, who spoke after the tournament about his battle with leukemia. "I fight for everything I get and I work hard, and that's how these kids are. [Nicholas is] a strong, energetic kid, like he should be, and it's amazing to see him out here."

The world of college lacrosse joined forces yesterday in the fight against blood-related cancers as final four participants Syracuse and Johns Hopkins and state teams Loyola, Towson, UMBC and Division III Washington College took part in the fall invitational.

Though attendance was not as good as in years past - a likely result of the morning rain - the tournament still raised $80,000 for the Maryland chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, whose mission is to find cures for leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease and myeloma, and improve the quality of life for patients and their families.

"Out of all the bad, a lot of good has come out of this, too, and this is obviously the best," said Pam Rafter, Ryan's mother, who called her son's playing college lacrosse a miracle.

This day was also about the wide grin of West Baltimore native Justin Knight, 11, who was found to have leukemia in 1998.

When introduced along with the rest of the honorary captains, Knight, a veteran of the tournament, broke out in a dance, even causing the seemingly permanent game face of Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala to break out in a grin.

Knight, wearing an oversized Hopkins autographed helmet and jersey, asked to be paired with the Blue Jays because he was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital and he considers Jays midfielder Kyle Harrison his favorite player.

"We didn't play well at all today, but as long as Justin had a good time, that's what this is about," Harrison said. "I always idolized Michael Jordan, and for somebody to look up to me and say, `You're my favorite player,' you can't really describe that feeling."

The day was also about passing the word on the continued progress in the treatment of blood-related cancers, which strike an estimated 106,200 Americans each year. In six years, the tournament has raised more than $600,000 for research and patient services.

Said Walter Regner, a Baldwin resident and the father of Nicholas Regner, 9, a leukemia patient who served as the captain for Butler and Colgate: "Things have improved leaps and bounds, and I have a son who is living proof."

"Everybody is much better off now than when I was going through it," said Michael Gerst, 16, a varsity lacrosse player at Fallston High who has been in remission from leukemia for six years. He was an honorary captain for Albany. "These events definitely help."

And the lacrosse community seems just as glad to give that help.

"It's lacrosse's big day to give something back," said Milford Marchant, longtime lacrosse supporter and chairman of Price Modern LLC, the tournament's sponsor. "Lacrosse is all about kids, so this was a natural fit."

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