The last 18-plus months facing the COVID-19 pandemic has been a strain on just about all of us. It has been an emotional roller coaster, filled with highs and lows.
Teenage kids have seen their senior years altered in major ways, missing out on social events and traditional graduation. Sports, and well normal life, was put on hold.
For typical teenager Nate Morgan, a Ballistic United Soccer Club player, the strain of the pandemic became almost trivial when he was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2020.
Morgan’s battle with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare type of cancer that occurs in bones or in the soft tissue around the bones, started in August of 2020. Morgan felt a pain in his elbow while going through a strength workout, but as an elite athlete, cancer was the furthest thing in his mind.
“The pain started going from my elbow to from my wrist to my shoulder,” said Morgan. “I thought it was just tendonitis and my mom got me an acupuncture appointment. Every time I had an appointment, the pain would go away.”
But it always came back.
The little bump on Morgan’s arm in August turned into a firm bump in September, and by October it was larger with increased pain.
“It was getting really annoying,” said Morgan, who was a student at Skyline High School in Oakland at the time. “We got an appointment with my primary care physician on a Zoom call. As I was telling the doctor about what was happening, she got more and more concerned and ordered an ultrasound.”
At this point, everything accelerated.
“A couple of days later I had the ultrasound,” said Morgan. “My primary care doctor was getting live feedback during the test. I had practice at 6 p.m. and this was supposed to wrap up by 5 p.m. Right after the test (the doctor) made me stay at the hospital and get an x-ray. I was getting pissed because I wanted to get to practice.”
After the x-ray, Morgan’s mother got a call from the doctor and was told her son had a tumor. The family got another call for an MRI the next day.
“They said they were not certain it was cancer, but they were pretty sure,” said Morgan. “When cancer got thrown in, I could not believe it.”
Just one week after thinking he had a bad case of tendonitis; Morgan was in San Francisco getting a biopsy.
“I thought what’s the worst that can happen,” said Morgan. “When they got the results, we had a meeting with three doctors, and they told us it was Ewing’s sarcoma. My mom was crying, and I was hearing the five different types of chemotherapy that had a grocery list of side effects.”
That day was Oct. 26 and a happy teenager’s life was turned upside down. It needed immediate treatment to help with the 56 percent survival rate.
“I was 17 and I hadn’t even started to process it,” said Morgan. “But after one chemo session I did. I slept 16 hours and felt like garbage.”
Next came a showing of the personal resolve Morgan possesses. He wanted to address his teammates in person.
“I had my first chemo on a Thursday and came home Friday,” said Morgan. “On Saturday the team had training and I wanted to tell them what was going on. It was painful, but I went and talked with them.”
It was something Morgan felt like he needed to do, and it was also a time where his perspective on life changed as well.
“It definitely took me down a couple of notches,” said Morgan. “The doctors told me it happens to like one in a million teenagers. They helped me do a good job of not blaming myself.”
Instead of getting down and negative, Morgan took it was a chance to mature.
“It was going to be an opportunity to grow. I hadn’t really struggled in my life,” explained Morgan. "This was going to be about how am I going to handle being put in a struggle.”
He took full aim at the treatments with the vigor that had made him a talented soccer player. There were 14 rounds of chemo and according to Morgan, the doctors told him that most teenagers space out the treatments.
Not Morgan, as he hit them every two weeks. Along the way there were some low points.
“March of 2021 was the worst,” said Morgan. “I will always have the image of getting hooked up to the chemo and while it was going on, heading to the radiation room. I felt like crap, and I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. With chemo it seemed like one step forward and two steps back.”
Amazingly enough, Morgan was attending soccer training in between his scheduled chemo treatments. The light at the end of the tunnel began to get bigger and bigger.
Morgan’s strength and resolve was evident to all associated with Ballistic.
Jerry Losson is the MLS Next Director of Coaching for Ballistic United and is one of many that marveled at Morgan’s demeanor throughout the process.
“Nathan is a young man that you want to help and fight for because he is always going the extra mile for himself. He has never played the victim before, during or since his battle with Ewing’s sarcoma,” said Losson. “He simply puts his head down and goes to work and forges forward to improve himself and is an example of perseverance for his team mates. I am so very proud of this kid and even prouder to be able to work with him.”
The darkness was diminishing, and the finishing line finally arrived.
“It was June 21, 2021, when I rang my bell – I was done with my treatments,” said Morgan. “They did some scans on July 5 to see if I was really done. Everything looked great and the doctors said congrats, you don’t have to come back in two weeks.”
With a new lease on life, Morgan needed to readjust.
“It took me maybe a week to want to jump back into it,” said Morgan. “When I did, I was very happy with how my body responded.”
The first step was a big camp at Stanford where college coaches were looking up close at potential players.
“That was heartwarming,” said Morgan. “I could only go two of three days, but the coaches and everyone there were so great, encouraging, and understanding.”
Morgan felt he was at about 70 percent in July, and then 80 percent by August when he started practice with his new Ballistic team.
There was just one problem – teenage vanity.
“At that point I didn’t have much hair,” said Morgan of the chemo/radiation side effect. “I played with a beanie on the first week because I didn’t want to make a bad impression on my new teammates.”
The driven Morgan continued to work hard, both on the field and in the gym. By October he felt like he was back to 100 percent.
Looming in the future was the first MLS Next Fest in early December in Southern California. It was an event that brought the best players in the nation together for four days and would be played in front of college coaches and pro scouts.
“Leading into it I wanted to focus on my fitness,” explained Morgan. “I wanted to recover quickly as I knew we would have three games in four days.”
He ended playing 3.5 games in four days as Morgan was one of only two players from Northern California selected to the West All-Star team at the Fest.
“Considering where I was a year ago to where I am now, it was amazing,” said Morgan. “I knew I was going to play 45 minutes, so I went out and gave it 100 percent.”
It was almost too much effort.
Just 10 minutes into the game, Morgan had a 50/50 challenge with an opponent and was initially given a red card which meant ejection.
“My coaches, who I had just met, went nuts,” said Morgan of the West team coaches. “The ref ended up giving me a yellow card (warning) and I was able to keep playing.”
After the last year, highlighted by the return to form at the Fest, Morgan looks at life with a whole new perspective.
“There is no question – I look at life in a more grateful way,” said Morgan. “I am so thankful for the people that I have in my life. It strengthened an already strong bond.”
The fight with sarcoma also gave Morgan a new way to deal with the day to day grind of life.
“I don’t stress about the little things,” said Morgan. “I look at people that do stress about little things and think, ‘You haven’t had to stress about big stuff’.”