Anthony Myers said that when the neurosurgeon gave him the green light, he immediately felt those pregame butterflies familiar to any athlete.
He hadn’t practiced in more than a month, after all, and the playoff game against Milton Hershey was in just two days.
“I wasn’t really prepared for the game. I didn’t know how much I was going to play in the game. I was just happy that I could go out and play another game during that season,” he said.
Myers, a sophomore at Berks Catholic High School in Reading, Pennsylvania, suffered a seizure at home early in the morning of Oct. 21, a Sunday. He was taken to the hospital, where it was discovered he had a brain tumor. A week later, the biopsy came back revealing that it was stage 3 cancer.
His father, Ed, threw the question out to the doctor as a just-in-case, not expecting the answer he received. The family was in the process of gathering all the information it could before deciding on the next step. Ed mentioned the upcoming playoff game during a conversation with a consulting neurosurgeon, and wondered if there would be any medical drawback if Anthony, a running back and special-teams ace, played in the game.
“The surgeon’s answer was, ‘Let the kid play.’ In those words,” Ed said. “He said, ‘Anthony should live life and do what he loves to do — he should go play football.’ We were kind of shocked at that response.”
What happened next was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, even in a community that was already well aware of the power of Anthony Myers.
Philadelphia Eagles president Don Smolenski, sitting at a small conference table inside his office at the NovaCare Complex on Wednesday, smiled widely when thinking about how his Super Bowl ring disappeared as Anthony milled about Lincoln Financial Field prior to a late-November game against the New York Giants.
“He was wearing my ring. Well, he wandered off,” Smolenski said. “I knew he wasn’t going anywhere, but he was shaking hands with all these guys and he’s got my ring. I think he had my ring for like 10 minutes.”
“That made me a little nervous. That ring I think costs more than our house,” Ed said with a laugh. “But Don assured me that it was insured and that it would be no problem. He spent a lot of time with us and was really generous and thoughtful and considerate.”
The sports world is vast but also intimately connected, as moments like these demonstrate.
A former teammate of Ed’s, John Larkin, knew the executive vice president of Madison Square Garden, Ron Skotarczak, who is tight with Scott O’Neil, CEO of a group that manages the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils. Skotarczak and O’Neil have known Smolenski for 20 years, and reached out to see if he would like to join in a movement of support for Myers. The Reading community where Myers lives had already established Team 17 Strong — that’s Myers’ jersey number — as a portal for that support. Through their outreach, they created a video with stars across sports, including Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright, JJ Redick of the Sixers and Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari wishing Anthony well.
A fellow No. 17, Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery, wanted to be a part of the video, too, and invited Anthony to a game. Smolenski took it a step further by reserving 50 seats on the on-field bleachers for the entire Berks Catholic football team. Anthony met with Jeffery and coach Doug Pederson pregame, and also got to chat it up with Odell Beckham Jr., Saquon Barkley and Connor Barwin of the Giants.
“It meant a lot. It kind of took my mind off of things,” Anthony said. “It was cool to enjoy the game there and being on the field and meeting a bunch of people that I look up to. It’s something I’ll never forget in my life.”
Afterward, Jeffery got the attention of Smolenski in the locker room. Moved by his time with Anthony, he took off his game jersey, signed it, then told Smolenski to make sure it got to Anthony, who was set to have brain surgery the next day.
“He is a great young man. He’s filled with a lot of energy and a lot of passion,” Jeffery said. “I’m in the NFL. I’m living out my childhood dreams. It’s all about being blessed and just passing it along.”
“I thought it was incredible that the family would spend their afternoon with us in such a critical moment in their life,” Smolenski said. “Watching him and just watching how happy he was, how happy he was to just be around his teammates, combined with everything he was going through, you would have never known this young man had stage 3 cancer and was ready to go have brain surgery. He was acting and looking as if he was just a positive 16-year-old young man, and it was very uplifting, very gratifying for all of us who were able to be a part of it and touch him to know that you were sort of boosting him and helping to keep him in a positive spirit.”
The NFL was inspired to get involved, and along with the Eagles, presented Anthony with two tickets to this February’s Super Bowl in Atlanta during a recent appearance on NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football.” Former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook surprised Anthony by coming out onto the set with two gigantic tickets. They sit along the wall in the apartment the Myers family has rented in New York while Anthony undergoes six-plus weeks of radiation at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center a few blocks away.
Anthony plans to take his older brother, Nico, to the game.
“Even going to the Super Bowl period is a crazy experience,” Nico said, “but now that it is with him, it’s 10 times more of a gift.”
The news hit Nico especially hard.
He and Anthony are just 18 months apart and have been on the same sports teams for most of their lives, whether it was baseball, hockey or, of course, football.
“We’re competitive in basically everything,” Nico said. “Playing backyard football, we’d always go super hard. I would always win because I was older, but I think that gave him an edge really because he would always try twice as hard. That’s what helped make him such a good athlete.”
So good that Anthony made the varsity football team at Berks Catholic as a freshman, something that Nico says happens maybe once every couple years.
Anthony plays wing back and Nico, a senior captain, is the team’s center, often paving the way to the end zone for his younger brother.
“For me to be blocking for him when he scored touchdowns, I thought that was cool,” Nico said.
It was on the practice field that Nico learned of Anthony’s diagnosis.
Anthony was at home healing from his biopsy when the call came in.
“I was sitting in the living room with my mom, and then the doctor called and told me that it was cancer. I told my mom I wanted to go to practice with my team,” Anthony said. “That was pretty much the only place I wanted to be, because that is where I feel calm the most, kind of like my safe place.”
When he arrived, his teammates gathered around him and told him how much they had missed him. Then Anthony shared the news.
“He walked up, he had his Penn State hat on backward like normal,” special-teams coordinator Jake Latchum said. “The kids didn’t know but Ant was just comfortable to just tell them: ‘It is what it is. And I don’t want to be anywhere but here.’ It hit me pretty hard. I was happy it was sunny out that day because I had shades on and if the kids could have seen my eyes, it would have been a problem.”
“That day was tough. That was just a hard day,” head coach Rick Keeley said. “Nico probably took this harder than Anthony did. … He cried. He was very upset. He was very emotional about it. It was hard for Nico.”
“I was really sad, to be honest,” Nico said. “But I don’t think a day has gone by where Anthony has been sad yet. He’s got a good attitude about it — a better attitude than me about it. I think that’s really cool.
“We all just came together. The community came together. It really shows what a community can do when a crisis strikes.”
Anthony and Nico got to the field early the day of the district playoff game against Milton Hershey to stretch. Latchum, the special-teams coach, did as well, and he called Anthony over.
“I said, Listen, you haven’t practiced. … I said, I have my depth chart here, and I have you highlighted [as the punt returner] with a slash with another name if you don’t feel comfortable. And immediately he was like, ‘No, no, no, Coach, I’m good. I’m going to be on all of it.'”
Latchum had him field some punts pregame, and Anthony was as sharp as ever.
As game time grew closer, the anticipation built.
“It was a total emotional overload. These kids were ready to just explode,” Latchum said. “Ant went into the big huddle with the kids before we let them loose to do their last warmup. When he spoke to them, they were all just dialed in.
“He said, ‘Seniors, this is the last time you’re going to step on this field. (It was the team’s final home game.) And young guys, you never know when it’s going to be your last time you’re going to step on the field.’ He was talking about himself. ‘We’re going to go out there and leave everything on the field.’ And then they say ‘Saints’ on three.
“These kids wanted to do anything in their power to win, and it was all for Ant.”
Nico offered the final word, backing up his little brother’s message to the entire team.
The scene unfolded like something out of a movie. With Nico blocking, Anthony rushed for a touchdown, then took a punt return 80 yards to the house to propel a 49-21 Berks Catholic win.
“I saw the wall all set up and all of the opponents are in the middle, and I’m like, ‘Oh, he’s going to go!'” Latchum said. “He ran the return perfect. And everyone around him did the right thing. They did their job. I’m getting emotional, I’m sorry.” There was a long pause, then he began again. “Everyone on the field rose to the occasion on that play.”
“It meant a lot. It kind of took my mind off of things. It was cool to enjoy the game there and being on the field and meeting a bunch of people that I look up to. It’s something I’ll never forget in my life.”
on being a guest of the Eagles
“I think it helped bring some closure to his football season this year. He had a great game for us,” Keeley said. “After every game, we go over to our student body section and sing our alma mater, and the kids put him on their shoulders and carried him over to the student section, and we sang the alma mater over there. It was just a real neat thing for him to go through.”
On the day of the diagnosis, after practice was over, the family — Anthony; Nico; their mother, Jessica; their sister, Giavanna; and Ed — all gathered at the house. It was then that Anthony asked his father the heaviest of questions.
“He said, ‘Dad, do you think I am going to survive?'”
“My response was, as being a football coach in the past, I always told my players the whole deal each week was to game plan and work hard. You go out and fight in the game and play for four quarters, you give it a shot and give it the best you can and at the end of the game you look up at the scoreboard and look at the result,” Ed said. “That’s the answer that I gave to him, and that’s what we’ve been doing every day and each week, continually researching and game planning and living and fighting and battling, and that’s how we’re handling it.”
Anthony did not play another game this season after the victory over Milton Hershey. The next game was too close to the scheduled surgery.
The procedure went better than the doctors expected, as they were able to remove upward of 80 percent of the tumor. Anthony is spending his weeks in New York along with members of his family for radiation and chemotherapy treatment, and comes home on the weekends. That will be the routine for the next several weeks. From there, he’ll be on chemo treatment for up to a year.
Anthony has been the definition of strength, by all accounts. He still wakes up earlier than anybody in the household, Nico said, still gets his daily workout in, still wants to go out and explore the city. He consoles as much as he is consoled, knowing that this is difficult for those who care about him, too.
“Attitude is everything in these situations, so I’m just going to continue to be positive, just live life and enjoy the time in New York,” he said. “Do things in the city and not just be sad but be happy about life, just be positive.”
Anthony has rallied a family, a football team and a community. He has inspired the Eagles and the NFL to bring him close. And though there are no guarantees with what lies ahead, he has already proved capable of big feats.
“He’s fighting the cancer. He’s not sitting back feeling sorry for himself. He’s going to give all the what-for he has to try and beat this,” Keeley said. “He knows he’s not in this by himself. And if anybody can beat this thing, it’s going to be Anthony.”