Kellan McCullough avoids using cancer as a crutch.
He doesn’t count the firsts he’s accomplished since beating non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December, refusing to let the disease define him. But Sept. 7 meant something more.
Only 364 days after his cancer diagnosis, the Borah High senior booted a game-winning field goal as time expired to lead the Lions to a 31-29 win at Meridian. The 18-yard kick set off pandemonium on the Borah sideline as it capped a late comeback and earned Borah its first 3-0 start since 1997.
McCullough spotted offensive coordinator Kevin McCarthy, the coach he remains the closest to, minutes later outside the locker room. The 17-year-old started to remind McCarthy of the anniversary. McCarthy cut him off. He didn’t need the refresher. And he warned McCullough not to cry because he’d follow suit.
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Instead, they hugged.
“It was the first moment where I felt,” McCullough said before pausing, “not back to normal, but closing in.”
Normal still remains elusive for McCullough. He’s cancer free and it has little chance of returning, doctors tell him. But the effects still linger.
The steroids he took during chemotherapy packed 30 pounds onto his 5-foot-10 frame. While he’s reclaimed his starting spot on the Borah soccer team, the kicker and hurdler admits he’s yet to recover his speed, explosiveness and strength from a year ago. Some days, it all comes rushing back. Other days, his body feels like someone else’s.
But after cancer robbed him of his junior year’s soccer and football seasons, he soaks in every moment back in uniform.
“It’s very euphoric for me to be on the field. I love everything about it,” he said. “When I say who I am, I’m an athlete. Throughout chemo, I was on the team, but I wasn’t an athlete in my mind. So it’s great to be able to say who I am and have it actually mean something now.”
A FATEFUL TEXT
McCullough first felt a pain in his neck a week after school let out in spring 2017. He figured he’d strained a muscle, and the pain left after a week. But a growth soon sprouted.
He and fellow lifeguards at Boise pools joked about it all summer. As the lymph node swelled to 10 centimeters in diameter by August, his mother rushed him to the doctor. It took three weeks and four separate doctors to finally diagnosis the growth as stage three non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer in the infection-fighting cells of the immune system that had spread to his spleen.
Still waiting for a diagnosis, McCullough’s mother sent him a text message Sept. 8 during his pre-calculus class. She said she was pulling him out of school to have lunch with his visiting grandmother from New York.
McCullough didn’t buy it. He knew it meant the diagnosis had come in — cancer. His mind raced for five minutes as the word rattled around his head. He started hyperventilating and verged on tears before snapping out of it.
“It wasn’t specific things of like, ‘I’m going to die,’ ” McCullough said. “It was more that thought, ‘I have cancer.’ That word, you can tell people and they get uncomfortable.”
That afternoon he went into the hospital for three days worth of scans, bone marrow tests and to have a portable IV installed. After his initial five minutes of panic, he flipped his mindset. He always hated losing more than he liked winning. So he turned the intensity that makes him a lockdown defender for the Lions’ soccer team onto his cancer.
“When he was going through this, we said to him we don’t wish this upon anyone,” Borah football coach Jason Burton said. “But if it was to be someone, we’re glad it’s you because you can definitely beat this.”
CHEMO CAN’T SIDELINE HIM
McCullough began a trial chemo run that first weekend before going through four rounds of 24-hours-a-day doses for five straight days. He lost all his hair from head to toe.
McCullough said he actually enjoyed losing his leg hair, adding he now understands why girls shave their legs. The hair on his head grew back in curls, which McCullough described with the dark humor that kept him going throughout his fight with cancer.
“People are like: ‘It’s so much better. It looks really good curly,’ ” he said. “Did I just look awful for 16 years with straight hair and no one said anything?”
Determined to get back on the soccer field, he played 15 minutes against Eagle after his first round of chemo last fall. After his second round, he saw two minutes of action against Centennial before earning a yellow card and sitting out the rest of the season, accepting he couldn’t physically keep up.
Doctors warned him bacteria lurking on buses and in grass fields could sneak through his weakened immune system. But once the Lions’ soccer team switched to artificial turf fields during the district and state tournaments, he took his place on the sideline as a cheerleader while Borah made a state championship run.
“Everybody was pretty supportive of him and they were glad to have him back around,” Borah soccer coach Jayson Transtrum said.
McCullough even tried to return to the football team, going through warmups in full pads before the Lions’ regular-season finale at Eagle. He blasted the ball like never before during pregame, then tore a quad muscle in his leg.
He broke down in McCarthy’s arms, one of the lowest moments during his battle with cancer.
“It was just one more thing,” McCarthy said. “He had his hopes up and he was going to do this, and he couldn’t. It was tough.”
But on Dec. 28, he walked out of St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute officially cancer free. And he found himself back in McCarthy’s arms a year later celebrating.
‘I GOT THIS’
After Friday’s 35-32 win over Timberline, Borah sits 4-0, its best start since 1995. But that historic start found itself in jeopardy Sept. 7 as the Lions trailed Meridian 29-28 on the road with 3 minutes, 38 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Jake Standlee engineered one last drive, getting Borah to the 9-yard line with 53 seconds left. Austdan Phomphackdy appeared to put the game away with an 8-yard run up the gut, but referees ruled him down at the 1, bringing up fourth-and-goal with 3 seconds left.
Burton chewed out both of his kickers, McCullough and Eden Makaafi, because they hadn’t tested their field goal range in pregame warmups. But down by one and with enough time for one last play, McCullough walked up to Burton and told him: “I got this. You can trust me.”
Meridian called one last timeout before the snap to try to ice him. He declared himself un-iceable in the Borah huddle. But a week later, he admits his nerves pulsated.
“I’m in my stance and I remember my back leg shaking,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone could see it, but my leg was just quivering and I’m saying: ‘Don’t mess this up. Everyone is going to hate you. It’s easy. All you’re going to hear about is how close this is. Don’t mess this up.’”
He didn’t, sneaking the kick off just in time before a Meridian defender came unblocked off the right edge. Teammates clamored to chest bump the man of the hour, and defensive line coach John Meldrum plucked McCullough off the ground for a bear hug.
A year after his cancer diagnosis and nine months after his final chemo dose, McCullough was finally back where he belonged. Back to normal.
“I feel like I beat cancer not because I came out physically (good),” he said. “Everyone tells me I look good. I personally feel like it beat me physically, almost. I’m not as strong, not as fast. Everything about how I play from soccer to football is different.
“But I feel like I beat it because I’m more or less the same person. I don’t think I let it change who I am.”