Oregon State football: Drew Clarkson's perseverance leads him through cancer, to Beavers

Return to News

Feb 11, 2014

The inspiring story of Dr. Ian Schnadig’s young patient pursuing his dreams was featured in Oregon Live, the online version of The Oregonian

CAMAS, Wash. -- It had been two months since his junior season ended in the Washington 4A semifinals, and Drew Clarkson felt the ache of imperfection. He was already an all-state offensive lineman at Camas High School, yet he still wanted to become faster and stronger, more attractive to major Division I coaches.

So he and his mother, Cheri, went to OfficeMax in January 2013. She bought a 2-by-3-foot whiteboard and hung it in his bedroom. Drew, then-16, mapped out his plan in red marker: the lifting benchmarks, the weight goals, the monthly deadlines. He would refer to the blueprint often, returning from workouts with a green marker to check off one objective after another.

Progress slowed in March, his timetable pushed back by a sudden barrage of doctors’ appointments, blood tests and CAT scans. Work completely ceased by April.

Ten months later, the white board remains untouched. It serves as a stark reminder of his recent ordeal, of the aspirations Drew has yet to realize.

“I look at those goals and what I wanted,” Drew, now 17, said, “and I still have those goals as I work out now.”

In late April, Drew started chemotherapy to treat testicular cancer. Last Wednesday,Drew signed a letter of intent to play at Oregon State.

Beavers coaches foster a culture of perseverance, he said. They’re an ideal fit.

Matt Clarkson placed little stock in his middle son’s third-grade vow to play college football. Drew had said the same thing about becoming a fireman and a rancher.

But football’s hold on Drew went beyond childhood idealism. It offered an outlet for his aggression. It made him feel valuable.

As Drew progressed through youth leagues, he came to revere the workmanlike ethos of offensive linemen, with their athletic modesty and focused physicality. Football soon became a year-round endeavor, overriding the saxophone lessons and art classes that had previously filled his youth.

In 2010, Drew entered Camas High while the Papermakers were emerging as a state title contender. While he toiled on the freshman team, the varsity reached the school’s first 4A quarterfinal. The community of nearly 20,000, built around the Georgia-Pacific paper mill that anchors the town’s south end, packed the stands for its only high school.

Drew idolized star senior Odin Coe, a rugged defensive end with blond hair that flowed to his shoulder pads. He watched in awe as the all-state performer flew into opposing backfields, his mane giving him a superhuman mystique.

Soon he grew his own shoulder-length locks, honed his footwork playing basketball and added 40 pounds to his undeveloped 6-foot-3 frame. The following fall, Drew started on varsity, a rarity for sophomores. He replaced an injured upperclassman at left guard three games into the year and would earn second-team all-league honors.

Drew’s junior season was his best. He handled the area’s top athletes with relative ease at left tackle. He was named first-team all-state. He landed offers from Football Championship Subdivision programs Northern Colorado and Eastern Washington.

“I don’t think he felt like he was even close to where he wanted to be,” Cheri said. “You would never think he felt satisfied. I think he’s pretty hard on himself.”

In the wake of a blowout loss to Skyline High in the 4A semifinals, Drew holed up in Camas’ weight room. His senior year represented his last chance at a Pac-12 scholarship, he thought. He needed to be ready.

Last March, Drew tried to ignore the slight lump on his right testicle. It was nothing, he told himself.

A week passed. The bump grew and hardened. While changing after rugby practice one day, Drew started to panic when he felt the small, solid mass. He called his mom, his voice trembling as he asked to see a doctor.

It was 5 p.m. on a Friday, Cheri reminded him. It would have to wait the weekend.

Drew, desperate for answers, turned to the Internet. He typed his symptoms into Google. Testicular cancer, the most common cancer in men 15 to 35, came up.

Cheri wasn’t concerned. A family friend had experienced something similar, only to learn he had an infection. Surely, she figured, Drew just needed antibiotics.

On Monday, the doctor believed Drew needed nothing. He explained that everything was normal.

Drew implored him to check again. Two days later, an oncologist waded through the results of a CAT scan. It was a tumor, the specialist said. It needed to be removed.

Fear consumed the Clarksons the week before Drew’s surgery. Cheri and Matt couldn’t sleep more than a couple hours at a time. Anxiety gnawed at their appetites.

They guessed the tumor was malignant, but they had no way of knowing. The disease has a 95 percent survival rate, but where on the spectrum did Drew fall?

“All of a sudden your child is facing a potential life-threatening illness,” Matt said. “You don’t know what to do.”

That Saturday morning, Drew huddled his teammates at Liberty Middle School before their Oregon Rugby match. As he cried, he spoke of cancer and responsibility. He asked them to understand why he was about to play his last game of the season.

The Clark County Warriors named Drew team captain that day. They hugged him, wept with him and erupted into a frenzy when Drew scored on his first two tries.

Four days later, surgeons removed his right testicle. Tests revealed that Drew had Stage 2 cancer. The oncologist planned to monitor Drew’s condition for six to eight weeks. There was still a 70 percent chance he’d need chemotherapy.

Drew quickly sifted through his mental calendar. Treatments would likely seep into football, he thought. That couldn’t happen.

“I wanted to play my senior season,” Drew said. “I wasn’t really worried about anything else.”

Over the next two weeks, he made the necessary arrangements to begin chemotherapy. He visited the sperm bank five times, accumulating enough reserves to account for the 30 percent chance the drugs meant to keep him alive would sterilize him.

On Facebook, Cheri set up an event: “Thor No More.” The weekend before Drew’s first round of chemotherapy, a dozen or so teammates gathered at the Clarksons’ house. They ate barbecue, joked about Drew’s 13-inch-long ponytail and watched as Cheri snipped it off in the family kitchen.

Though Drew couldn’t keep his hair, he wanted to help others fighting similar battles. He donated it to Locks of Love, which provides hairpieces for children suffering from medical hair loss.

“It was hard to cut it,” Cheri said, “because I knew how much he wanted that image.”

Pictures show her fighting back tears as she puts scissors to the hair Drew had spent two years growing.

Death permeates chemotherapy rooms. Cancer patients sit side by side in recliners, pumping poison into their veins in the name of survival. End-of-life brochures often line the walls. For some, it’s a last stop.

Tualatin’s Compass Oncology, where Drew endured four rounds of chemotherapy, was no less forgiving. While the high school junior, balding by the day, logged six-hour shifts connected to a drip, a mosaic of sobering scenes unfolded around him.

There was the gray-haired woman, in her late 60s or early 70s, who came in to have her port cleaned. As she shuffled toward the exit with her daughter, Drew recalled, she told the nurses not to expect her the following week for her scheduled treatment. She was going into hospice care.

Another elderly woman sat near Drew one day, discussing her lung cancer diagnosis with family.

“I just have so much I want to do with my life,” she cried.

Such moments left Drew feeling lucky, even blessed. By that point, he viewed his cancer as more of a hindrance than a death sentence. He was on target for a full recovery.

“It’s just kind of an eye-opener to see what people have to go through,” Drew said.

He was on a drip in late April when his iPhone buzzed. It was Camas’ coach, Jon Eagle: California had offered him a scholarship.

Nearby nurses rejoiced as a wave of relief washed over Drew. Back home on his whiteboard, that was the objective above the rest. It didn’t matter that others remained unchecked.

Within two days, Oregon State and Washington State offered. Washington and Boise State soon followed.

“It was highs and lows in one day,” Cheri said. “You go through that, and then you come home and you’re dealing with being sick.”

Drew tried to chip away at the lengthy to-do list lurking on his bedroom wall throughout the spring. Matt dropped him off at Camas’ weight room every Monday and Tuesday after chemotherapy sessions. One afternoon, a fatigued Drew tried to lift a 260-pound barbell. It smacked his port, which protruded from his chest, while falling to the ground.

Over two separate four-day spans in his treatment, Drew felt debilitating joint pain that made his knees feel “like they were being crushed.” He was an athlete who couldn’t walk. Some nights, he thrashed in bed for hours and howled for pain medication.

“Here’s a kid who had every reason to say, ‘No, I can’t lift today. I can’t do this,’” Eagle said. “Yet here he is, lifting straight out of chemo and hitting his port. … And that wasn’t even the worst of it.”

When Drew put red marker to whiteboard in January 2013, he did so largely with designs on a perfect senior season. He wanted to hoist Camas’ first state football championship trophy. He wanted to start both ways for the first time in his career. He wanted to dominate.

For the most part, when he finished his fourth and final round of chemotherapy in late June, that was all possible. He hadn’t lost any weight, and he had a month to get ready for football.

Yet the setbacks continued. Drew, whose muscles were severely imbalanced after spending much of the past four months in a chair, pulled his right hamstring about a week into summer practice. Next, it was hip inflammation. Then, just a few workouts into his latest return, he re-tweaked his hamstring in September.

The team captain filled the role of student coach for the Papermakers’ first four games. He pulled his replacement aside after each series, peppering him with pointers.

When Drew finally returned to the lineup, he struggled with self-confidence. Tending to various ailments made him 20 minutes late to practice most days. He lacked the stamina to start on defense. He never had more than three-quarters of his strength.

Every once in a while, though, Drew let himself relish the roar of a sold-out Friday night crowd, to reflect on how far he’d come from chemotherapy.

“We’re just thankful he got an opportunity to have a normal life,” Eagle said. “That’s really what we were pulling for.”

Drew, nagging hamstring and all, played on, using his size and intellect to outmaneuver opponents. The Papermakers rolled into the state title game with a 13-0 record. Against Chiawana, Camas led 26-13 late in the fourth quarter. One minute and 14 straight points later, the Riverhawks had snatched a 27-26 victory.

Again, Drew felt the ache of imperfection. The day after the defeat, he retreated to Camas’ weight room and focused on his old set of goals, the ones in red marker that remain untouched on the whiteboard. He still needed to bench-press 300 pounds, to squat 400.

“The other day, I benched like 295 for five (repetitions) at the end of my workout,” he said. “So I’m getting there.”

The words “PAC-12,” in green block lettering, sit in the bottom right corner of Drew’s whiteboard. Directly beneath them are two phrases: “Never give up” and “Never stop believing.”

To view the article online, click here.

-- Connor Letourneau

Read More