By Jonathan Deal
— "Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart and it cannot touch my soul."
ELKMONT - When Rhett Bailey scored for Elkmont to tie the score in Friday night’s game against West Limestone, it was more than six points on the scoreboard. For Rhett and his family, it was a storybook ending to a tumultuous 18-month journey.
A junior at Elkmont High School, Rhett was diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma in April 2011 and told soon after he would never be able to play contact sports again. On Friday night, Rhett not only played football again, he caught a 60-yard touchdown pass on his first play back.
“It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I never thought I’d be able to go back out there,” Rhett said. “I couldn’t sleep for a couple of nights leading up to it. Once I got out there, I had such an adrenaline rush. I ran straight to my family that was right there after I scored. I saw my mom and dad crying, my grandparents crying. It wasn’t really about scoring a touchdown. It was about how the power of prayer works.”
After three major surgeries, five rounds of aggressive chemotherapy and lots of prayer, Rhett went to see a vascular surgeon last week for an update on the blood clot that kept him away from the game he loved so much.
“We went to the doctor’s office, expecting to hear that it was still there,” Rhett said. “They told me that the blood clot was gone and I was cleared to play again.”
Bailey made the most of his first game since his freshman year. The junior wide receiver made his debut in the second quarter, lining up alongside his brother, Jared, near the visitor’s sideline, trailing West Limestone 14-8.
“I asked my brother what the play was because I didn’t hear it,” Rhett said. “I saw what the play was and I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe they are going to me the first time I’m back out here.’ I ran my pass pattern and caught the ball. I just saw that goal line and me. I had such an adrenaline rush I knew nobody was going to touch me from there. “
Rhett Bailey’s emotional return to football wasn’t an easy journey. It began with a visit to the Limestone Hospital ER in April 2011 with what Bailey thought was a stomach virus. Initial tests revealed Rhett had bowel intussusceptions and enlarged lymph nodes that doctors worried could be cancer.
After a night spent with tubes inserted into his nose and stomach, Rhett was moved to Huntsville Hospital for Women & Children where specialists immediately recommended a biopsy and surgery to remove a large lymph node from his abdomen.
The next 48 hours would be something Bailey later described as “a really bad nightmare.”
Bailey’s condition quickly deteriorated, as did the weather. The Elkmont freshman was experiencing the most pain he had ever endured as tornadoes ripped through the state outside his Huntsville Hospital room.
It was April 27, 2011, and the hospital was in the same chaotic situation as the rest of North Alabama. The machines needed to complete Bailey’s diagnosis were struck by lightning so Bailey was moved to St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
“If I could have picked a night to have died, it would have been that night,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep because I was throwing up so much. It was burning up in the room from the power being out. I was looking outside and it was stormy, ambulances going everywhere. My nurses couldn’t get to me because there were so many other patients.”
Upon arriving in Memphis, doctors and nurses immediately began treating Bailey, but the 15-year-old was getting worse at a rapid rate. The next morning, cancer soon became an afterthought when it was revealed that a blockage was cutting off all Bailey’s blood flow to his intestines and emergency surgery was required.
After intensive surgery, Rhett emerged from the life-threatening situation without his appendix, 15 centimeters of his intestines along with the original blockage. But that was just the beginning.
Long road back
The teenager survived that night only to find out he would be in for another fight for the next four to six months battling cancer. His mother and father would spend the next four months at their son’s bedside in a Memphis hospital as Rhett fought lymphoma cancer.
“I had to decide at the beginning whether I was going to get down on myself and wonder why that was happening to me or I could step up and hit cancer harder than it hit me and keep a positive attitude,” he said. “I took the second choice. I decided that I wasn’t going to let cancer beat me. It may make my body weak, but it wasn’t going to keep my spirits down.”
While Bailey’s mother, Missy, said the survival rate for the type of lymphoma Rhett was diagnosed with was “80-90” percent, it required an extremely aggressive type of chemotherapy that was administered seven days a week. Missy and her husband spent the next four months traveling between Memphis and their Elkmont home, to take care of Rhett’s seven younger brothers and sisters.
“The hardest part was knowing that the chemo was killing everything about him,” said Missy. “Your child doesn’t look like your child anymore. It’s so scary not knowing the outcome. You try not to, but you think, ‘What about the other 10 percent?’ It’s difficult because you are trying to keep him positive the whole time.”
Doctors originally told the Bailey family they would be lucky to make it home by Thanksgiving. But Rhett had other ideas. In less than four months after beginning chemo, the Baileys were back in their Elkmont home by the end of August.
Sports ‘not an option’
Although his body had fought off cancer in the span of one summer, Bailey was not ready for any strenuous activity. But that wouldn’t keep Rhett away from helping his friends and teammates at Elkmont.
During his sophomore year, Bailey was able to practice with the basketball and baseball teams and dress out during games. And although he was extremely careful to avoid contact, Bailey wore a bulletproof vest to protect his abdomen.
While Bailey sat patiently watching his Elkmont teammates, he was still told he would not be able to compete the way he once had due to a blood clot that might cause him to bleed out if it were disturbed.
All that changed with Rhett’s latest doctor’s visit of course and the junior is making the most of his opportunities.
“We told him we would start working him in,” said Elkmont head coach Sean Holt, who is also Rhett’s uncle. “You’re looking at someone who started as a ninth-grader, offense and defense. We knew if he ever came back, we would start working him in. It’s not that we were going to get him the ball the first play, but we thought we had an advantage with him against whoever was covering him.”
Removed from football for the past two years, Rhett didn’t miss a beat. He scored the first time he touched the football, drawing a standing ovation from both sides of the crowd that knew his story.
“That was unreal. It was like something out of movie,” said Missy. “It was amazing. I had already cried all the way through warm-ups. Just seeing him doing what he loved before he got sick was special. When he scored, we were all overcome with emotion.”
While he was excited to score a touchdown, Bailey is staying optimistic, happy just to be out on the field with his friends again.
“It will be hard to follow that up,” he said. “I’m just hoping to get out there and do the best I can and encourage the players on our team to not take anything for granted. No matter what the issue is, if you just look to God and have hope you can get through it.”
Although Elkmont went on to lose the game 41-14, Bailey’s touchdown in the second quarter was a victory over something much bigger.