Last May, Parkwood High football player Andy Giarla had surgery to remove a golf ball-sized tumor that sat just above his neckline. Just after his neurosurgeon successfully removed it, the doctor said Giarla had Stage 4 brain cancer, which is the most advanced and usually indicates it has spread to other areas of the body.
Giarla, 17, says he was told he had a 30 to 50 percent chance of survival.
“It was one of the worst moments of my life,” he said.
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All Giarla could think about was playing football again. And just four months later, he put on his No. 71 jersey and, as he puts it, got to be “out here with my brothers.”
Giarla, who has been cleared by his doctors to play, was in on 10 plays at center in Parkwood’s 27-20 win against Jordan-Matthews on Thursday, completing what many around the Parkwood community view as nothing short of a miracle.
“It’s unbelievable to me,” said Giarla’s father, Rick. “When you’re first told your son has Stage 4 cancer and it’s a bad cancer and they don’t paint such a rosy picture for him. ... ”
Rick Giarla’s words trailed off, his voice cracked.
“And now, 3 1/2 months later, he’s back on the football field,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable, man. He’s living his dream.”
For years, Andy Giarla, the youngest of six children, has been one of Parkwood’s best players and best students. He carries nearly a 4.0 grade-point average and takes honors classes. He took a freshman-level math class in eighth grade. Last season, Giarla started at offensive tackle for the Rebels, who reached the state quarterfinals for the first time since 1972 and reached its first state semifinal.
In January, Rick Giarla took Andy to the beach during the Martin Luther King holiday. Andy began to scream in pain from a headache.
“When it started,” said 17-year-old Parkwood senior Jonathon Griffin, “it was really bad. It was crazy. We didn’t know what to think. He was going through so much pain and he was screaming and stuff. We were just all scared.”
Griffin had been one of Andy’s best friends since middle school. He couldn’t recall his friend having this type of headache before. Rick Giarla said migraines run on Andy’s mothers side of the family. And Andy had another bad headache two weeks later, followed by another. A CT scan in late February came back clean.
But the headaches didn’t stop. Rick Giarla took his son to the emergency room three times.
Finally, on May 19, Rick Giarla picked up Andy early from school to go see a neurologist. An MRI showed the large tumor at the base of his skull above the top of the neckline. On May 21, doctors removed the tumor and later told Andy and his family that he had cancer.
“Put yourself in my shoes, his mother’s shoes,” Rick Giarla said. “If you heard that, it literally scares the hell out of you. I choke up now. It’s tough. All these negative things start going through your head. But he took it better than anybody else.”
The family was gathered at Charlotte’s Levine Children’s Hospital and Rick Giarla was feverishly answering texts and returning calls. One of his good friends called to tell him a story about how the friend’s brother had the same surgery and diagnosis as Andy, and seven years later, is still around to talk about it. Rick Giarla related the story. Andy’s 42-year-old sister and 40-year-old brother told him about friends they knew who had beaten cancer, too.
Finally, Andy asked them all to stop.
“I don’t want to hear any more stories about other people beating it,” he said. “I want to write my own story.”
Love for football
“When the doctor told me I had cancer, it didn’t faze me in the least,” Andy said standing at practice Wednesday afternoon. “When he told me I wouldn’t be able to play football, I got a tear in my eye. I love being out there with my (football) family. Being able to play with them is the greatest feeling there is out there for me. So I don’t want somebody else’s story to define me. I want this to be what I did, not what other people have done before me.”
Andy remembers his stay lying in the hospital after surgery last spring and being greeted, so often, by his teammates and friends. He would promise them all the same thing, that he would be back. That helped him get through 12 weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. That helped get him back to practice full-time about three weeks ago. Andy still has to go through chemotherapy on a schedule of five days on and 23 days off for about a year, but doctors said he’s strong enough to play now and will continue to monitor his progress.
The Parkwood school community, which has put a Facebook page and hosted fundraisers to offset medical costs, couldn’t be more excited.
“To play football has been Andy’s dream the whole year,” Rick Giarla said. “The first question out of his mouth to the surgeons was, ‘How soon can I get back to the football field.’”
Parkwood coach Lynn Coble said he’ll be cautious with how much Andy plays. He said the coaching staff is trying to get Andy’s conditioning better. Coble has been awed at Andy’s dedication to not miss practice during this ordeal. Coble said Andy has missed only one or two days, even though he couldn’t do much.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” Coble said, “and I’ve never been around anything like this.”
‘He’s a strong kid’
Griffin, Giarla’s good friend, said he is amazed at how quickly everything’s changed.
“It’s kind of hard to grasp,” he said. “It happened really fast. He’s fine. Then all of a sudden, he has a tumor. I’m shell-shocked. And then he gets cancer. It’s scary, man...
“He’s a strong kid, though. I knew he would do it from the start. He’s really passionate about football and he wanted to come back. I always knew he was going to pull through, but it’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?”
Andy Giarla thinks so.
“God’s definitely been on my side the entire time,” Giarla said. “But the motivation to be back out there has come from my teammates, too. Without them, I wouldn’t have the strength to do this every day, to keep fighting every day, to play again. This is definitely the best feeling there is – to come back and be with my brothers.”