For two years, Andrew Clark was a standout defensive end for Surrattsville High School, which won the Prince George's County AB championship both years. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Clark also was a top wrestler and had attracted the interest of college coaches. Clark's athletic future looked very bright indeed.
But during a wrestling match a year ago, Clark suddenly developed a severe headache and became tired. The following day, his body was covered with a rash. He was taken to the hospital. After three days of tests, Clark received the news: he had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
"In the beginning, it didn't hit me that hard," said the 17-year-old Clark. "I didn't know how severe this was."
The past year, Clark has undergone five major operations. There were several painful setbacks and complications, and he spent much of his time going to and from the National Institutes of Health, undergoing chemotherapy treatment to battle the cancer that strikes about three teen-agers in 100,000.
"He's been through hell, but he's fought back and been an inspiration to a lot of us," said John Zier, the Surrattsville football coach. "It's amazing after all he's been through, he's the same old Andrew."
Clark doesn't have time to feel sorry for himself. He's too busy patting himself on the back.
"I went through a brief period of depression," said Clark, who will be honored at a special luncheon at noon today at the Touchdown Club. "One day I just told myself, 'There must be a reason I'm still here. Maybe I've done something special.' That ended the depression. I'm just glad to be here."
Clark shocked his family and football teammates when he showed up for summer practice in August, after being in and out of the hospital for treatment from February through June.
"I didn't see any way he could play," Zier said. "But Aug. 15 rolled around and Andrew put on a uniform and practiced. He missed two weeks with a fever, but when the season opened, Andrew started at defensive end. I wasn't going to play him very long, but each time I took him out for a rest, he'd say, 'Hey, coach, I feel fine. Can I go back in?' We had a very young team and he played very good football.
"I didn't let him play just because he was team captain and had played two years. He earned it. Of course, he wasn't quite the same player and got knocked down some, but he got back up and played every game."
Clark even tried wrestling this year, but finally had to give it up. "I went to a wrestling match not long ago and felt bad because I really missed it," Clark said. "I'm back up to 187 now and getting stronger."
"The ordeal has been a rough experience," said his mother, Sandra, "but Andrew is in great spirits and looking forward to doing everything he wanted to do in life.
"He's a determined person and we're very enthusiastic about his going on to college. There've been a few delays and cancellations but he's bounced back from everything."
Clark underwent an operation for the removal of his appendix and part of his colon in January. He still takes medication, but says he plans to start working out with weights soon.
"Right now, I feel pretty good, much better than I thought I would," he said. "I know I'll be taking treatment for a couple of years, but I feel confident I can get through it. I wouldn't go as far as to say it's curable, but the doctors say if the leukemia is controlled and I don't have any relapses for a few years, that's as good as being cured.
"Right now, I'm just happy I have the chance to be a real person and have a real life again. I don't know about playing football again. I'll have to wait and see. I'll just deal with the academics. I'd like to be a psychiatrist."