High School Sports

After lump, cancer and radiation, courageous high school football player returned for the playoffs

Davidson Day wide receiver Daekwon Camp missed most of his high school football season because of cancer. But after surgery and radiation therapy, he was cleared to play Friday night in the state semifinals at Charlotte Christian.
Davidson Day wide receiver Daekwon Camp missed most of his high school football season because of cancer. But after surgery and radiation therapy, he was cleared to play Friday night in the state semifinals at Charlotte Christian. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Thanksgiving came early for the Williamses this year.

Last Sunday, Davidson Day junior wide receiver Daekwon Camp and his family sat down for turkey and all the trimmings. Everybody laughed and traded stories. You would’ve thought it was the fourth week of November, except it wasn’t.

Camp asked his grandmother, Lincoln County NAACP president Debra Williams, for an early version of his favorite holiday because he knew in a few weeks, when the rest of the country eats too much turkey and watches too much football, that he wouldn’t be able to taste food, much less swallow it.

When you’re getting daily doses of targeted radiation to your throat, like Camp does every day, doctors say you can expect mouth sores and difficulty swallowing. You can expect to lose weight and to, well, just feel tired and lousy.

So instead of waiting on all that and missing his favorite day, Camp wanted his grandmother to whip up a big meal with family and enjoy it while he still could.

“The doctor told me by Thanksgiving I wouldn’t have an appetite,” said Camp, who played his first high school football game in two months Friday night when Davidson Day played a state semifinal at Charlotte Christian. “So I wanted to spend time with my family (Sunday) because I know that when Thanksgiving really rolls around, I (will be) too tired to talk to people and won’t always be in a good mood and everything.”

This is what cancer does to a teenager, and as his grandmother said, cancer isn’t fair.

Camp, 17, has a rare form of cancer that accounts for about 1 percent of all cancer diagnoses, according to the American Cancer Society. This cancer of the saliva gland occurs at a rate of 1 per 100,000 U.S. citizens.

“What’s crazy,” said Davidson Day coach Chad Grier, “is we thought it was nothing. He had a little lump on his throat. At first the doctors said it was just a saliva duct that was clogged. They (drained) a little from it and said, ‘He’ll be OK.’ ”

This all happened late last summer, just as the team was preparing for the season. At team camp, the lump changed shape and grew. Camp had originally gone to the doctor on a Wednesday. Team camp was Friday. By the next Monday, Debra Williams got a call from school.

You need to come and get your grandson. Something is wrong.

Williams left work and hurried from Lincolnton to Davidson. She saw the lump had grown, and she took him to the pediatrician. The pediatrician wanted to monitor Camp’s lump, but Williams once had a swollen lymph node in her neck. She remembered her doctor telling her that if it was soft, don’t worry. But if it was hard....

She felt Camp’s neck.

That golf ball-sized lump was firm.

So Williams took him to an eye, nose and throat specialist who did a biopsy but couldn’t tell what it was. So he sent her to a specialist at the Levine’s Children’s Hospital. By then, Davidson Day had played its first game and was about to play its second, Aug. 26 at home against Arden’s Christ School.

At 10 a.m. that morning, the specialist called with the news: The lump was cancerous and the hope was that the cancer had not spread. The plan? Surgically remove it.

“The doctor said, ‘If you want to bring him up here, I’ll tell him,’ ” Debra Williams said. “I said, ‘No, I’ll tell him after the game.’ ”

That night, Camp caught an 86-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Sam Hartman – who had a baseball-sized growth removed from his neck in July that was caused by a bacterial infection. After the game, his grandmother met Camp on the field, and she delivered the news, and...

“I told her I was fine with it,” Camp said. “I told her it’s fine. I knew God has a plan and I could get through it all.”

The next week, Davidson Day played a home school team called the Hickory Hawks. Before the game, both teams met at midfield and said a prayer for Camp, who was going to have surgery a few days later. Davidson Day won the game 55-6. Camp returned the opening kickoff 33 yards. He had a 9-yard run and two catches for 5 yards.

Watching all this, his high school coach’s heart was breaking.

“It’s equal parts devastating and motivating to see a young man take all this in stride,” Chad Grier said. “It would be easy for him to wallow around in self pity for what he doesn’t have or what’s been taken away.”

The surgery the following week, in early September, was successful. But doctors discovered the tumor had wrapped itself around a facial nerve and some lymph nodes, which were removed. They didn’t prescribe chemotherapy, but did ask him to undergo the targeted radiation in case there was some remaining disease that they had missed.

So every day, before school, Daekwon Camp gets his radiation and then tries to be like all the other students on campus. But he’s always tired and not often hungry. At 5-foot-9, he’s lost about 14 pounds and is down to about 140. Until Friday, he hadn’t played in two months.

However, the prognosis is good, the family says. Camp is three weeks into a seven-week radiation treatment regimen. If scans are clear after that, well, Thanksgiving can be on Thanksgiving next year and Camp can finally get back to enjoying the taste of his favorite foods – Cocoa Puffs cereal and pepperoni pizza. And he can return to playing his favorite sport and pursue his dream of playing in college.

That dream has helped him through all this, too. He continued coming to practice all season, sometimes just lying on the field and resting while teammates worked with their position coaches. Doctors recently cleared Camp to do whatever he felt like doing, so on Tuesday he felt like putting on pads and playing football again.

Camp suited up Friday night and entered the game for one play, a kickoff. Unfortunately for him and his teammates, Davidson Day would lose 28-27 to Charlotte Christian in the state semifinal.

“He’s maintained his sense of humor,” coach Grier said. “And he just (wanted) to play in the playoffs. That’s incredibly motivating and incredibly inspiring.”

Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr