On a cool night last month, Ted Humburg strode purposefully onto the wrestling mat at Damascus High wearing a grim expression. He shook hands with Pat Evident of Watkins Mill, then went to work in the 103-pound match. Humburg gained control quickly, using an elbow-post, double-leg pick-up to put Evident on the mat and into a half-nelson just 22 seconds into the match. Four seconds later, he finished the pin.
It was a 26-second culmination to an ordeal that was more than two years in the making for the 17-year-old junior. For Humburg, it was the first live competition he had faced since he learned he had leukemia in July 1997.
He had spent last season practicing with Damascus while undergoing chemotherapy. The disease went into remission in August. This year, he has cracked the starting lineup of the second-ranked Swarmin' Hornets. He tried to play down the meaning of his return when talking before the match, but Humburg couldn't resist a small grin afterward.
"It feels so good," he said. "It's what I've been waiting for for a long time."
More than three weeks later, the thrill has not worn off, and the victories have continued. He is 12-5, with all his victories coming via pin, and he is getting stronger. Humburg also realizes that just getting back onto the mat may have been his greatest triumph.
Wrestling was a distant thought when Humburg learned he had leukemia in 1997. He was at a fireworks show with his family on Independence Day when he told his father he couldn't figure out the origin of a bruise on his leg. The bruise puzzled and worried his father, Steve Humburg, a general physician, who took Ted to the emergency room the next morning for blood tests.
The tests confirmed the family's fears--Hamburg had T-Cell Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. His white blood cell count was at 200,000, about 20 times normal, and he immediately was sent by ambulance to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest and placed in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) for more than two weeks.
Alan Friedman, an associate professor of oncology and pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said leukemia is a form of cancer that is a blood disorder. He said that one-third of all childhood cancers are leukemia.
Treatment started right away, and Humburg endured three tortuous phases of chemotherapy. By the time it ended in August, his weight had dropped to 80 pounds.
For the Humburg family, however, some of the scariest times came during a 10-day period in early 1998 when Ted's fever spiked at 103, he vomited several times and remained in a near-constant fetal position. His father signed him out of the hospital and took him home, fearing the worst.
"I've seen enough to know when things aren't going well, and this didn't look good," he said.
At that point, Steve Humburg and his wife, Ruth, sat down for a heart-to-heart with Ted. They told him he had to look deep within himself to make an effort at recovery. Do something, do anything, they pleaded. A few nights later, Humburg was sitting up and eating a few bites at a time.
Then came an unexpected turn for the better. In April 1998, the Humburgs embarked on a six-day family road trip to visit colleges. As the family drove through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas and Colorado, Ted began gaining strength. He started eating and talking more and regained some color in his skin. He even started to laugh a little.
"It was a good trip for him," said Ted's twin brother, Scott. "I really felt that it was a good experience for him because this was his first time to go on a trip since his treatment."
And then came the yo-yos.
During the trip, Ted bought a yo-yo and used it so much family members wondered if it was surgically attached to his hand. He began collecting the toys, buying a butterfly yo-yo, ones with sparkling colors and many others.
The yo-yo was one thing he could control; there was so much more he couldn't.
"In the first year, when he was going through the treatment, he couldn't even hold his head up," Ruth Humburg said.
Ted continued to undergo chemotherapy. By the summer of 1998, he had slowly gained back some strength. He returned to school for his sophomore year that fall, and wrestling was on his mind by November.
"My doctors thought it was strange," Humburg said. "But they were really impressed with how well my recovery was going, and I wanted to."
Cracking Damascus's starting lineup is no small feat. The Swarmin' Hornets have been a state wrestling powerhouse throughout the 1990s and, last season, were literally perfect. They won every dual match, every invitational and swept the Maryland 3A-4A dual meet and open state championships.
Damascus Coach Dave Hopkins knew Ted because his older brother, Travis, wrestled for the Swarmin' Hornets. Ted's brothers Scott and Cody already were working with the team when practice began that November. But Hopkins wasn't sure what to make of it when the frail Humburg began showing up at the workouts.
To make the situation even more puzzling, a ghastly three-foot tube used for chemotherapy and blood tests protruded out of the right side of Ted's chest. The other end tracked under his skin into a large vein on the right side of his neck and the tip went down into the right atrium of his heart. He worked out in a suit specially constructed by his father, made partially from a diver's wet suit (cut off at the arms) that kept the tube protected. But it was Ted's work ethic, not the tube or the suit, that his teammates noticed.
"No one really knew how bad it was or if he was ever going to be able to come back or not," teammate T.J. Salb said. "He was there every single day practicing with us. If you ever were slacking off, you'd see him and it made you think and made you want to work harder."
After Hopkins began joking with Humburg, the wrestler set his sights on getting back on the mat.
"He was just coming every day, and he was sitting," Hopkins said. "I was jokingly saying that if you come in here, you're going to work. He got a smile on his face when I said that and one day he just showed up in his sweats."
Steve Humburg, who serves as the team's physician, said he was fine with his son returning to the mat. Hopkins noticed that Ted Humburg grew stronger and more active as the season went on.
"I don't want to give up on anything until it fails in front of me," Hopkins said. "I'll always have hope because that's the way I am. But, progressively, I could see Ted coming on. He was bringing his whole repertoire, and [it was] starting to work."
All the Way Back
Humburg grew stronger throughout the spring and summer. He ran on the junior varsity cross-country team this fall to gain strength and felt ready when wrestling practice began in November. In addition, his doctors said coming back to wrestling would be fine.
"He's doing very well, and he has no evidence of leukemia," said Aaron Pitney, Humburg's physician at Walter Reed. "Right now, we would consider him to be in remission. I think that once he gets past a couple of years . . . his chances for a long-term cure go up considerably."
Both Pitney and Friedman said the five-year survival rate for Humburg's type of leukemia is approximately 80 percent, and Pitney added there's no reason to restrict his activity. Doctors were wary that one of the chemotherapeutic agents Humburg received could strain his heart. He is monitored by a cardiologist and, thus far, he has had no such problems.
While sitting in Hopkins's office about 45 minutes prior to his match with Evident last month, Humburg and his parents reflected upon what his wrestling has meant to their family.
"I couldn't focus at all today," Steve Humburg said. "I feel gratitude more than anything. There were so many months where we didn't know which way this was going to go. We're just grateful to be here."
The father remembers taking his bald, 80-pound son to a Damascus match two years ago and sitting with him in the stands. The son's pain was intense and seemingly endless. The feeling of accomplishment Ted gets just by stepping onto the mat is something he does not regard lightly.
"It's been something that I've worked hard for for two years," he said. "One thing about an illness and how it affects your life is it makes you realize how precious life is. It makes you realize that you shouldn't take things for granted. I'm more excited than anything, and I really wanted this."
He then went out and got his pin. The fans roared, his teammates stomped and clapped. The smiles were everywhere, none more beaming than those of his family.
"He's a lot stronger now," Scott Humburg said. "Every problem he has to face school-wise or dealing with the family, he's able to cope with a lot better than I am. I think everything that he had to go through made him more mature."
Ted said he has adopted a carpe diem philosophy to life since the disease struck. His family has followed suit.
"Every time I see him, even to see him walking around the yard here, it's great," Steve Humburg said. "Yesterday, we chopped and stacked wood. I just say, 'Thank you, Lord,' and I'm very thankful. Wrestling is a big, important part of his life, and it thrills me to see him do well at it, but our biggest joy with him is in our daily life."