THE WILL TO SURVIVEJUSTIN OWNED A PERFECT GRADE-POINT AVERAGE. HE STARTED ON HIS HIGH SCHOOL’SFO

His hands are bleeding. So are his knees. He picks up the rope and pulls it taut. He has beaten four others and now, across the rope, stands the last of them, a teammate, a younger teammate, no less, a kid he had taught to lift weights, a kid he had always been stronger than. Heck, he had been stronger than all of them — but that was last fall, before it all happened. Before the year from hell.

Now they are here, in a high school gym, sweating and panting in what seems to be mere teenaged sports bravado, two kids pulling on a rope. But things are not always what they seem — and kids are not always as young as they look. Not when one has had his head cut open and tumors removed and priests mumbling prayers, and halo braces and radiation lasers and MRIs and CAT scans and doctors giving him a “20 percent chance” of survival.

He digs in now. So does his opponent. Their grips tighten. The rope shakes.

There’s an old expression, favored by grandparents. It goes, “As long as you have your health . . .”

This is a story about what happens when you don’t.

Justin Craig, picture of health, broad-shouldered, thickly muscled.

It is November 2001. He is running with his teammates. His high school, University of Detroit Jesuit, has five days before its state semifinal football game.

He stops in the end zone. His left hand is cramping. His fingers are bending backward. He can’t stop them. They keep bending backward. He feels possessed, as if an invisible force is trying to snap them off.

“Hey, help me out . . .” he says to his teammates.

Suddenly, he can’t breathe. He feels as if he’s drowning. Things get dizzy.

He falls.

Justin Craig, picture of a patient, lying on a gurney, wearing a hospital robe.

It is two days later. He is about to have surgery. Brain surgery. There is a tumor. Sizable. Serious. He watches the other pre-ops. They are all so much older.

On the field, after he collapsed, Justin opened his eyes to see his teammates praying and his coach trying to revive him. He mumbled, “I’m sorry for interrupting practice,” because that is the kind of kid he is, always looking at the big picture, and everyone will remember that story.

They insert an IV. The drugs drip in. His world goes bleary.

They cut his head open.

Justin Craig, picture of a teenager, riding in the backseat of his parents’ car.

It is three weeks later. He still wears the bandages. They are getting the news, the haunting question, one of two words in the tumor universe: benign or malignant.

His parents, David and Mary, are ushered into one room, while Justin is taken into another. Already, he knows. Already, something’s wrong. A nurse is talking, she is taking reflex tests. She is stalling. Yes, she’s stalling. He is sure. He knows.

Finally, he is brought into the other room. His parents look up. Their eyes are teary. He has never seen his father cry before.

The tumor is malignant. Worse, it is aggressive. Big words are used. Something with “oma.” Something with “primitive neuroectodermal.” Eighty percent mortality rate, they are told. Eighty percent?

“Is he going to die?” Mary asks.

“We’re going to fight it,” the doctor says.

That is not the same as “no.”

Justin Craig, picture of a student, books and papers and pens and assignments.

He is way behind. He is struggling to catch up. He has never gotten less than an “A.” His grade-point has been perfect. Now he must stay alive and do his homework.

Before the tumor he had found a girlfriend. It was promising. They were excited. Now he tells her, “Maybe this isn’t the best time to start a relationship.”

“No,” she says. “I want to be there for you.”

They act so old, these teenagers.

Then again, he is 16 and starting radiation treatments.

Justin Craig, picture of a freak, a molded mask covering all but an eye hole.

He is lying on a table, the machine rattling above him. Every day, after school, this is his routine. His father picks him up. They drive to radiation. They say it as if it’s a place. “We’re going to radiation.” Radiation, USA.

The other kids go to basketball practice, French club, the mall. Justin goes here. He lies on the table, pinned down, held still. The machine rattles, shooting high-energy waves, aiming for cancer cells, killing healthy cells as well.

He goes five days a week. He goes six straight weeks. After each session he goes to his home in Northville. He studies calculus, English, Latin.

His hair starts falling out.

He refuses to wear a hat.

Justin Craig, picture of frustration, standing before a mirror, sickened by his body.

He is not allowed to lift. He is not allowed to run. He had worked so hard as a freshman and sophomore to bench-press, to squat, to harden his muscles. Now, look at him. He is 6-feet-1, almost 17, but the muscle has softened and the flesh has gone flabby.

“I’m skinny,” he tells himself, “and I’m fat.”

He aches to exercise. He begs his doctors. Most say “no way.” One says
“maybe.” He attaches to that doctor like a barnacle to a boat bottom.

He continues radiation. He continues to study. It is SAT time. He goes in cold. He takes the test. He is still missing patches of hair.

He scores 1,500, well into the 99th percentile in the country.

All he wants to do is run.

Justin Craig, picture of Frankenstein, metal halo screwed into his head.

It is his final blast of radiation. Something called the Gamma Knife, 201 precisely guided beams, intense and extreme, targeted at the tumor bed. It takes all day. It is grueling and unnerving.

When the procedure ends, they remove the halo. Justin feels the screws turning counterclockwise in his cranium.

“Creepy,” he says.

Holes in his head.

The scars remain.

Justin Craig, picture of relief, legs throbbing, sweat dripping from his forehead.

It is late May, a warm day, only hours after the doctor said OK, you can try it. He goes running. He feels great. Exhausted, but great. Just to move again. Just to run again. Great. Thank you, Lord.

In the days that follow, he will start with the weights. He is not where he was. Not even close. Before the tumor, he could bench-press 240 pounds. Now he can barely lift 135. Before the tumor, he could squat 410. Now he can barely reach 140.

“I am playing football this fall,” he tells his friends.

Perhaps he is telling himself.

His parents fret. They worry about a relapse. But they know whom they are dealing with. They know their son. This is a kid who once, as a toddler, picked up his Big Wheel and carried it rather than ride it.

This is a kid who, at age 4, asked his father to photocopy math problems on a sheet of paper, then went door-to-door in the neighborhood, trying to sell them for 50 cents apiece.

Selling math problems? Door-to-door?

He joins a health club. He jokes about his strength. His friends joke, too. They say, “You’re weak” and “You can’t lift a damn.” It hurts when they say it, even though they are kidding. He does not tell them that.

Justin Craig, picture of determination, gripping that rope, jaws clenched.

It starts as nothing, a local promotion. Ten guys from U-D Jesuit will do a tug-of-war with 10 guys from another high school. A list is posted. It is hung in the weight room.

Justin isn’t on it.

“I didn’t think you’d want to,” his coach says.

“I want to do everything,” Justin says.

He takes it all personally. He knows he’s not in shape. He knows he’s still too light. He offers to fight his way into the group, against the four runners-up and the last guy chosen. One by one, they pick up the rope. One by one, he digs in, grunts. He pulls and yanks until his hands are cut, falling to the hardwood until his knees are bleeding.

One by one, he wins.

Last one. Chest heaving. Dig in. Pull hard. Muscles twitch. Arms shake. Rope wobbles. Rope gives.

He exhales hard, a chest full of sheer will.

He is on the team.

Justin Craig, picture of secrecy, biting his lip, looking away.

It is his first game back. It is late August. He plays center. He feels slow and tired. He takes a hit to the head, and his left arm goes dead. His left leg tingles. He says nothing.

He plays the entire first half, snapping with his right hand, covering as best he can.

He gets some feeling back and fakes his way through. He is scared — but only on the inside.

“I’m fine,” he tells the trainer.

He is not coming out.

Justin Craig, picture of recovery, sitting near a Christmas tree.

It is holiday season. The wall is full of cards. He wears a collarless sweatshirt and the bangs of youth. He smiles a lot.

He played the whole season. He made huge blocks. He knocked some opponents back on their rear ends. He gained 25 pounds. He can almost lift what he used to lift. He still dates the girlfriend.

It seems, at first blush, that he’s the same happy kid before the year from hell arrived.

But things are not always what they seem.

There is a calmness now, and a perspective, and a purpose. He applies to college with plans to be a doctor, to work with cancer patients, especially kids. He writes an essay, and it includes these words:

“When people ask me ‘What makes you different?’ it is with pride that I can reply, ‘Nothing at all.’ . . . Cancer has taken nothing from me, because I will give it nothing.”

His coach, Scott Merchant, marvels at his player. He tells him constantly,
“Look at what you’ve done.”

His parents shake their heads at his tenacity.

“When we were falling apart,” his mother says, “he was our strength.”

But Justin Craig himself, still cheeky and youthful and still, for all he has endured, five months shy of his 18th birthday, keeps a low-key balance, somewhere between fear and contentment. He knows cancer can come back, especially this type, any day, any week, any month.

Any year.

“As long as you have your health . . .” they say. But he didn’t. And you know what? He learned to get by.

“People. Relationships. My friends. My family. You still have all that, if you lose the rest,” he says.

He is deciding on colleges. He is thinking about football. He is puzzled why anyone wants to tell his story.

“I haven’t really done anything,” he says. “I was passive. It just happened. I did what any kid would have done.”

Not true. Any kid can go door-to-door selling problems. It’s when you face them yourself that you grow to be a man.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also hear “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read the Dec. 24 and Dec. 29 installments in the Dreams Deferred 2002 series, click on www.freep.com/index/albom.htm.

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