When Ben Rubenstein’s left hip began to hurt, the active then-16 year-old from Manassas assumed that it was a simple sports injury. A battery of tests later revealed a much more serious problem. Rubenstein was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a bone cancer that would require intense and ongoing chemotherapy.
After his first of what would be many treatment cycles, his mom took him out to lunch. He wasn’t feeling really well, nothing tasted the same thanks to the chemotherapy, and he couldn’t bring himself to eat the food he normally loved. He started to think that what lay ahead might be impossible to live through. He had never had such thoughts before, but he began to ponder a permanent solution to end the pain. He wanted to end his life.
“I got home that day and I called my friend, who is also a Redskins fan, and he came over to watch the game with me,” Rubenstein told me, choking up. “They were playing the Bucs that day. And it was like, this jolt of energy that I got just from watching the game. It went into overtime and Deion Sanders ended up getting, I think it was an interception, to get them in field goal range, and they ended up winning.”
It was a “W” in the win column for most fans, but Rubenstein says that game saved his life.
“Right after that, I just realized that cancer can change a lot of things,
but there’s a lot of things it can’t,” he said. “It can’t change my friends, it can’t change my sense of humor. And it can’t change my love for the Redskins.”
Rubenstein fought on through the pain, and was declared cancer free a year later.
But then at 19, a simple blood test revealed that the fight wasn’t over: Rubenstein now had bone marrow cancer, and would have to battle the disease for a second time in his short life.
And for the second time, he won.
Rubenstein, who uses honesty and humor to blog about his experience at cancerslayerblog.com, decided to chronicle his journey in a book entitled “TWICE: How I Became A Cancer-Slaying Super Man Before I Turned 21.” A lifelong Redskins fan, he sent a copy to Dan Snyder to let him know what the team meant to his survival.
“Diagnosed with my first cancer in the fall of 2000, it was the Redskins season that gave me hope,” he wrote to the owner. “Each NFL week that passed meant I conquered another cancer week.”
The team invited Rubenstein, now 28 years old, to be the official coin toss observer and an honorary captain for the Redskins’ first home game this coming Sunday. He’ll appear on the field with the team captains for the ceremonial toss and will spend the rest of the game in the owner’s box.
“This is a very brave man that deserves a tremendous amount of respect,” Snyder said through a team spokesman.
Said linebacker London Fletcher: “It’s extremely humbling to think that a guy who is battling cancer would be inspired by a performance on the field, or our effort on the field. It puts things in a different perspective. I’d love to tell him how he’s inspired me now.”
As one of the team captains, along with Lorenzo Alexander and Trent Williams, Fletcher will appear at mid-field with Rubenstein before the game.
Alexander said he was also touched by the idea that a simple game gave Rubenstein hope.
“People like that don’t realize what they have inside them already,” Alexander said. He then thought for a minute about what he might say to Rubenstein on Sunday, and came up with this message: “That fight, or will to win, was already in inside of him. He’s a strong brother, and I’ll be humbled to be in his presence.”
Rubenstein insists that it’s the players who deserve the gratitude.
“Some of the Redskins players were sort of my heroes,” he explained. “And the games provided a temporary break from reality; no matter how poorly I felt, watching the Redskins was still awesome. And above all, the Redskins gave me something to look forward to during my treatment; a way to get closer to my goal of cancer freedom. Dan Snyder does not simply own a sports franchise; he was part of my survival process.”