Nick Hibbeler stands in the middle of a soccer field with his hands on his knees, trying to quickly catch his breath after the adrenaline rush has subsided.
By SAM McDOWELL
The Kansas City Star
He doesn’t want to miss the action, but the 16-year-old Park Hill High School junior takes a moment away from the game to observe his surroundings. He spots his teammates on the field, his family and friends in the bleachers and a professional soccer player on the sideline. Many of them don shirts and bracelets to support his fight.
Three months ago, Hibbeler was diagnosed with testicular cancer, a disease that he feared would end his soccer aspirations and perhaps his life.
“Some nights I think about dying and I just get wigged out,” he says. “I just don’t know. What if there’s nothing up there?”
After surgery to remove one of his testicles, Hibbeler embarked on a chemotherapy schedule resembling a full-time job. The treatment — five consecutive eight-hour days every three weeks — often leaves him too weak to maneuver around his own bedroom.
As many as 30 enlarged lymph nodes — one of them larger than a golf ball — have made their home inside Hibbeler’s abdomen. He is likely to require a second surgery later this month to remove them.
Soccer has remained a constant in his life. Hibbeler has played in nearly half of Park Hill’s games this fall, one of them only three days after his fourth and final week of treatment.
A sport he once treated as his training ground for a potential college scholarship now serves as his sanctuary and as firsthand evidence that cancer can’t steal everything.
Not even his optimism.
“I don’t know. I think there has to be something up there helping me out,” he says.
A month before his junior year, Hibbeler competed against incoming college freshmen during a three-day camp at the University of Denver. He left with a Division I scholarship offer.
Three days later, Hibbeler was dressed in a hospital gown, awaiting surgery to remove his left testicle after a routine sports physical had revealed a lump.
“I was really shocked that of all people, I was the one who had cancer,” Hibbeler says. “I was just tearing it up (in Denver), so I didn’t think anything could be wrong.”
Scheduled to undergo the operation at 5:50 a.m. on July 31, Hibbeler received a phone call from a former soccer opponent, Ray Saari.
A graduate of Oak Park last spring, Saari was diagnosed with testicular cancer on Nov. 19, 2010. The disease — the most common form of cancer in males between 15 and 35 years old — had already spread to his lungs. Today his cancer is in remission.
“I wanted to make him more comfortable. He needed that feeling,” says Saari, 18, who plays soccer at the University of Tulsa. “I know from experience — once you get diagnosed, you’re very worried. It’s the unknown.”
In September 2012, Park Hill played Oak Park at Sporting Park to honor Saari and raise awareness for testicular cancer. The game was especially meaningful to Hibbeler, who modeled his playing style as a midfielder after Saari.
“He was always a huge inspiration to me,” Hibbeler says. “We have so much in common. I’ve always looked up to him.”
A week after surgery, Hibbeler learned his cancer had spread to the lymph nodes in his stomach.
Inside a third-floor treatment room at the University of Kansas Cancer Center, Hibbeler lies in a hospital bed.
He stretches a soft beanie over his bald head, places a pair of headphones on his ears and covers himself with a heated blanket. His face is swollen, especially his lips — side effects from the previous four days of eight-hour chemotherapy treatments.
Hibbeler asks his mom, Carrie, to keep the lights off in the room. He listens to jazz on his iPad as he tries to fall asleep. Carrie and her mother sit in the dark by his bedside.
“There are times he will only wag his finger,” Carrie says. “He’s too tired to even speak.”
Long silent spells are interrupted only when Hibbeler wakes up to take a pill or use the restroom. He refuses to eat or drink. To walk to a nearby bathroom, he clutches his hand against the wall for balance.
The treatment includes uncompromising side effects that follow him home — fatigue, nausea, a lack of appetite. He feels too weak to walk downstairs to his bedroom, so he spends nights on the living room couch. The recovery period usually lasts into the following week.
The process has repeated every third week for the past three months.
After arriving at the center, he takes an elevator to the third floor, where a dozen cancer patients — each older than Hibbeler — sparsely populate a plain-looking room defined by its silence. One by one, the patients disappear into private spaces reserved for treatment.
On this Friday, Hibbeler instead waits in the lobby, where he has spent more time over the past 10 weeks than the hallways of his high school.
He nervously taps his foot on the carpet as he brushes his hands across his arms for warmth.
“This goes by so slow,” he says. “It seems like it takes forever to hear my name. I don’t like sitting and waiting.
“I try not to think about it. That’s why I sit out here. But when you walk into that room, that’s when it all feels real.”
On the same night Hibbeler learned the scar from his surgery incision had become infected, Park Hill played Lee’s Summit West, the top-ranked team in the city. The players replaced their usual Trojans chant by shouting the name of a teammate who couldn’t join them on the field.
Or so they thought.
Nine minutes into the Sept. 16 match, Hibbeler raced down a long, gradual incline outside the Lee’s Summit West soccer stadium and joined his team on the bench. He laced up his cleats, put his shinguards underneath his socks and then caught the attention of his coach, Josh Marchbank.
He was ready to play.
“I’m not going to take that opportunity away from him,” Marchbank says. “He’s a part of this team just as much as everyone else. …
“By the way, he’s a really good player. It’s different if he’s someone at the end of the bench you want to pep up. But he can come in and impact the game for us.”
Hibbeler didn’t make his usual impact during an overtime loss against Lee’s Summit West.
His dad, Gregg, noticed mistakes indicative of being out of shape.
It wasn’t about the production anyway. It rarely is anymore.
“I almost forget that I have cancer when I’m out here because I’m doing what I’ve always done,” Hibbeler says. “I never realized I could love a sport so much.”
He has missed games and school because of his treatment and recovery process. He has struggled to keep up with his homework, and he dropped a math class after falling behind.
Despite missing considerable time on the soccer field, Hibbeler has scored six goals, surpassing the total from his sophomore season.
His first one was especially memorable.
Hibbeler scored in a 2-0 victory in the season opener against Smithville in the Liberty Kickoff Classic.
He also lost his hair. As the rain started to fall, so did his dark brown locks. He shaved his head later that evening, hoping to stave off embarrassment.
His older sister, Katie, who plays soccer at Baker, cried the first time she saw her brother’s bald head.
“I was scared to see what I would look like,” Hibbeler says. “I was really nervous about losing my hair.”
His teammates put him at ease. The following day, they surprised Hibbeler at practice when they all showed up with shaved heads.
Gregg was laid off from his marketing job last December, less than a week before Christmas. He has been unable to find full-time work, leaving Carrie as the sole monetary provider.
Hibbeler’s first surgery cost $28,000, and the family isn’t sure how much of that will be covered by Carrie’s health insurance. They are also yet to receive bills for his chemotherapy treatments, doctor visits and medicines.
“We really don’t give a (crud) how much it costs,” Carrie says. “He’s just got to get better.”
Added Gregg: “We just look at it like this is an expense, no matter how long it takes. His health is the number one priority. The (finances) weigh on you, but you don’t think about it. It’s just not a priority at the moment.”
In an effort to lessen the burden, friends, family and members of the Park Hill soccer program have started fundraising projects.
They sell purple bracelets — the color symbolizing testicular cancer awareness — with “HIBBELERSTRONG” indented into the silicone gel. The item has become popular among Park Hill students.
Trojans coaches have taken the lead on selling T-shirts with “Fight Like Hibbs” scripted across the front.
Sporting Kansas City’s Aurelien Collin wore the shirt on the Park Hill sideline during one of Hibbeler’s games.
“The support from my team has been awesome,” Hibbeler says. “I pass kids in the hallways who shaved their heads for me, and some of them I don’t even know.”
Five days after Hibbeler played in the season opener, the Trojans won the Liberty Kickoff Classic championship. Hibbeler was unable to play. It coincided with his second week of chemotherapy.
On its way back from the game, the team made a stop at his home so he could celebrate with the trophy.
“He absolutely loves this sport, and we realize what it means to him to be out here and still be a part of this team,” says Harrison Thomas, a junior for the Trojans. “He can’t wait until he gets on the field. It makes him smile when he comes out here.”
Thomas was one of the first phone calls Hibbeler placed after learning of his cancer.
“I definitely thought I was going to lose my best friend,” Thomas says. “I didn’t know anything about cancer. I was shocked. But once he said it was curable, I knew he was going to make it.
“Nick doesn’t lose.”
An angel figurine is perched atop the door frame inside Hibbeler’s downstairs bedroom.
It has gone largely unnoticed for the past five years, but lately he looks up at it before falling asleep, closes his eyes and then prays.
“At first, I wondered how this could happen to me,” he says. “I kept asking, ‘What did I do wrong, God?’ But then I realize stuff happens in life and that’s when your true character shows. I knew I was blessed that I got a cancer I could beat.”
After completing four one-week sessions of chemotherapy, Hibbeler’s tumor markers are down, indicating the treatment is working.
But he has been told he will probably need a second surgery to remove the enlarged lymph nodes in his stomach and back.
This operation, he has been told, will keep him off the soccer field for at least two months, so he has convinced his doctor to postpone it until after the season. Park Hill opens district play Tuesday against Staley.
The surgery also has a 25 percent chance of eliminating the possibility Hibbeler will be able to reproduce. Prior to his initial surgery, he deposited sperm in a sperm bank.
Doctors have further acknowledged that his chemotherapy treatment places him at a higher risk to develop a future cancer.
Three weeks ago, before saying his nightly prayers, Hibbeler opens up about living with cancer. He also talks about death, an outcome that he admits is a possibility.
“Usually I’m laying in bed with all the lights off trying to sleep and then I would think about what would happen if my life would end,” Hibbeler says. “How would people remember me?”
After a brief moment, Hibbeler decides he would prefer to be remembered as outgoing, friendly and athletic. He wants to be known as a fighter.
He takes a quick glance at his angel, then nods his head in a satisfying conclusion.
His final thought includes a smile.
“I hope there’s soccer in heaven.”