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Nick Manzoni stood in support of his soccer teammates on the soccer practice area at Orono High School, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011. Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune


Nick Manzoni

On late summer's chilliest day, Nick Manzoni pulls up to the soccer field at Orono High School, hip-hop vibrating through the open roof and windows of his bumblebee-yellow Jeep Wrangler.

"I can't roll them up for two more weeks," he says.

His hair is gone, his senior season is lost. Playing in college is no longer a foregone conclusion for one of the top three soccer players in the state last year. He's been through six rounds of chemotherapy, and surgery is next.

Friends on the bleachers greet him with playful jabs as he pulls on a pair of cleats. Keeping things "normal," the 17-year-old says, is very important. That's why the kid who pushed Orono to the state tournament goes to practice mostly to watch.

Without him playing this year, the Spartans are 4-4.

"He knows that if he was out here we could be undefeated," said friend and teammate Willi Semsch. "That's how much of a difference he makes."

This summer, Manzoni was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare childhood cancer diagnosed only 200 times per year in the United States.

"He's very stoic about it," Debbie Manzoni said of her son. "He processes it as if, 'Tell me what to do and let's do it.'"

Nick Manzoni has had the chemo. In two weeks, there's surgery to take a piece of bone from his leg. Then he will try to play again.

"It's unfortunate that cancer has derailed his senior season," coach Brad Carlson said. "It's not going to derail him, though."

 

Three-goal maximum imposed
 
Manzoni fell into soccer at age 5. His parents let him tag along with family friends who had enrolled their daughter in a community program in Glencoe, Ill. Almost immediately, coaches set a three-goal maximum for Manzoni so other kids had a chance to score.
 
By age 14, after moving to Minnesota, Manzoni would wake up at 7 on summer mornings, throw a bag of balls over his shoulder and ride his bike to the school field, where he would stay all day.
 
He made the varsity team his freshman year. As a junior, he scored 18 goals with 10 assists. He led the team through two section victories, scoring three goals to help push the Spartans to the state tournament.
 
"He literally brought our team to state last year," said teammate and close friend Mason Whitney. "He won those games [against Breck and Benilde-St. Margaret's].
 
"We've been talking about senior year for the past four years. We were like, 'Just how good are you going to be?'
 
"And then all this happened."
 
'Maybe one tear'
 
Manzoni remembers first feeling leg pain in April. He was in Dallas for a college showcase, but his calf had swollen so much that he couldn't play. The doctor told him to monitor it for a few days, and sure enough, it went away.
 
Two months later, the pain was back. A sports specialist suggested a magnetic resonance imaging exam. Beneath the swelling was a tumor the size of a softball.
 
"Four days later, we were in the hospital doing chemo," Debbie said. "He didn't say anything. None of us said anything. We were all just in total shock. At one point I looked over at him and I saw a little bit of water in his eyes, and maybe one tear drip down. But he didn't break down. We didn't break down. And that's the only time I saw him tear up."
 
After a slew of painful tests, doctors determined that the cancer -- often detected late because it has few symptoms -- was caught early. It never spread beyond Manzoni's leg.

Nick Manzoni kicks the ball during practice at Orono High School, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011. Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

As his Sept. 29 surgery approaches, doctors say he's well above average in energy level, white blood cell levels, diminished side effects and bodily reaction to the medications.

Debbie says she "can't keep him down," recalling an afternoon in which Nick had just returned from golfing. Carlson holds captain meetings in the Amplatz Children's Hospital family area, where the guys sit around joking and playing cards. Last week Manzoni was voted homecoming king.
 
"At first, the word cancer just sounds really bad," he said. "But it's been OK so far. Actually, by now, I'm kind of used to it -- all the routine stuff, the shots, the pills, the washing hands. At first, the treatments [in the hospital] seemed long, but really, it's just seven months in your whole lifespan."

Holding it together

At practice, Manzoni is doing a kicking drill. He cuts across the field, takes a pass and sends the ball reeling into the net. After a few minutes of running and kicking, he saunters over the sideline and sits on a soccer ball.
 
When he and his friends talk, they keep it lighthearted. That's how they always are.
 
"He holds it together really well," Whitney said, "but I'm sure it's tearing him up inside, not being able to hang out all the time. He's devastated, I know, because he was really looking forward to this year."
 
Manzoni has maintained his captainship and remains on track to graduate with his class. At practice he's with the guys and gets in whatever touches he can. He sits on the bench for games. Before the first game of the season, Manzoni texted Semsch, "It's going to kill me to not be out there under the lights."
 
'There's really no answer'
 
After surgery, Manzoni has eight more rounds of chemo and then possibly radiation therapy. Because the tumor is lodged against his tibia, the surgery involves taking out a piece of bone. It will be replaced by a cadaver bone and a metal plate in his leg.
 
"The doctor said he's treated a lot of high-level athletes like this," Debbie said. "And -- this is hard for me to say -- generally they don't come back to the level of play at which they were before."
 
Manzoni tries not to look back or look ahead or ask the obvious questions.
 
"You kind of wonder, but there's really no answer," he said. "If I think about it, it's going to be negative, angry thoughts. It would just make me mad. So I kind of just don't think about it."
 
Instead, he focuses his gaze on the view from his windshield. For now, he's still just the kid with backward cap and the bright yellow Jeep, rolling up to practice to see his friends, who sometimes forget he's even sick.
 
"It's almost like it didn't change at all," Semsch said. "Because he handles it so well. His attitude hasn't changed about anything ... he just rolls with the punches."

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