Faith pulled Rhodes family through
When Robbie Rhodes looked up into the stands every Friday night during his senior football season, he would see his father, Reggie, a shell of the man he used to be.
He looked nothing like the man that, just like his son, was a star receiver in high school destined for a college football career. Reggie had lost weight off his frame and inches off his height.
Reggie's body reflected the visual aftermath of Multiple Myeloma, a rare type of blood cancer that doctors discovered on January 26th, 2012, a month after Robbie's junior football season ended.
But that Reggie was there to watch Robbie at all is -- and this word is not used lightly -- miraculous. After the life-and-death struggle the Rhodes family went through, just having his father there at all was enough for Robbie.
"That's the dream that every kid has," he says, "to see his parents in the stands and know they're watching you play in a big game."
A star is born
The Baylor career for Robbie officially begins this afternoon when he arrives in Waco for the start of the first summer session. All eyes will be on the receiver, who many expect to play as a true freshman this fall. Some even believe he's capable of winning a first-string job.
For starters, he's the highest-rated recruit Baylor has ever signed out of high school in the rivals.com era. Rivals ranked him the 69th best player nationally -- at any position -- in the 2013 class. Some scouting services slotted him as the top receiver in the country.
He's a humble, soft-spoken guy, yet he still has confidence and pride in his abilities.
"Just basically playing a lot and getting a lot of catches," Robbie says of his hopes for his true freshman season. "I just want to do my best and try to keep up my reputation that I had in high school."
Naturally, Baylor was one of dozens of programs that coveted Rhodes. At 6-1, 185, he's big enough to play on the outside, but he also has the speed and elusive open-field moves of a slot receiver.
His natural ability was evident early on, but his junior season at Southwest High in Fort Worth put him on everyone's radar. He finished that season with 1,315 yards and 21 TDs receiving, highlighted by one banner night: 10 catches for 394 yards and 8 touchdowns (the latter two marks set state records) in a 66-21 win over rival Arlington Heights.
But it was during this junior season when his father, Reggie, first realized something was wrong.
The early signs
If you ever met Reggie Rhodes before his fight with cancer, you'd quickly realize where Robbie inherited his physical stature.
Working as a UPS driver, Reggie had remained in nearly the same physical shape as he was in his playing days, first at the University of Houston in the late 1980s, then during a brief pro career. He viewed his post-football career not as hard labor, but as a way "to get paid to exercise." He attacked his job with ferocity and was thankful it kept him physically fit.
"My family on both my side and my wife's side, we have a history of athletes that have done well," Reggie says. "I had two brothers play professional baseball. My oldest brother was a world-class sprinter. My wife's brothers were football and baseball players. We all come from athletic backgrounds. We all have great genes. We've always been healthy and strong."
So that's why it alarmed him when, on an early August day in 2011, he felt a sharp pain in his back while attempting to lift a heavy box.
"I heard this pop in my back," Reggie recalls. "I felt some numbness, and then I froze up and I couldn't straighten my back up -- it was like my back went out. When I was able to come through and force myself straight, I called into the job and told them I injured myself."
The first doctor he met with said it was a simple "strain sprain" in his back. Because of his health and athletic background, Reggie expected a quick recovery. It didn't happen.
By late November, Reggie was still out of work on worker's compensation. He'd go back and forth to doctors and chiropractors, each time returning home with the same news, that he simply had a back strain.
But as 2011 turned into 2012, his condition had deteriorated. He'd wake up in the middle of the night screaming because of the agonizing pain in his back.
"I would holler at the top of lungs so loud that I would wake up everyone in the house," Reggie says. "They would say 'Daddy, what's wrong?' And all I could tell them is it's just pain. They would ask what they could do, and I'd say nothing, it was just something I had to go through."
One night, something happened that finally convinced Reggie and his family his suffering stemmed from something more severe. He says he remembers dreaming that his mouth was full of liquid. The dream shook him out of his sleep, and he made a dash for the restroom.
"I woke up and my jaws were filled with fluid," he says. "I got up around three in the morning to relieve the fluid out of my mouth. I spit into the urinal and there's all this blood."
The hard news hits
Reggie can instantly recall the exact day he found out he had cancer.
January 26, 2012.
The diagnosis came after that early-morning episode of waking up with a mouthful of blood. That incident had prompted him to go back to the hospital and ask questions. He and his wife peppered the doctors with questions until they could find something other than a back sprain to explain his symptoms.
The initial tests came back as they always had -- the report said Reggie was healthy. Having lost three inches off his height and more than 60 pounds, he and his family knew that couldn't be. Finally, another test started to point the doctors in the right direction.
"We were in the hospital for about four hours," he says, "and the doctor comes back to me and said, 'Mr. Rhodes, you know I'm only human' -- he was really nice and apologized for his mistakes -- but he said, 'Mr. Rhodes, I've been asked to run the tests again and do a thorough check, but right now we have to get you into the hospital immediately, because we have to do a blood transfusion right now.' "
Following the transfusion, Reggie's doctors examined his bloodwork once again, along with an examination of his bone marrow. This time, they found out what Reggie knew all along, that his suffering came from something other than a sprain. Despite his suspicions, however, he wasn't expecting a cancer diagnosis.
The doctors told him he had Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells that targets a person's bones, immune system, kidneys and red blood cell count.
It wasn't just a sprain for Reggie Rhodes. It was far worse.
Faith, family -- and football
"At that point," Reggie says of learning of his disease, "the doctor explained to me what it was, and he told me the ratio is one out of every 300,000 people. I said why? I asked 'Why me?' I asked him, 'are you sure I have cancer?' He said without a doubt. I asked him, one out of 300,000 people and I was picked?
"At that point I was broken. I dropped my chin to my chest."
According to the American Cancer Society, people treated for Multiple Myeloma in the earliest stages have a median survival rate of 62 months. In layman's terms, that means 50 percent of conventionally-treated patients survive after five years. And 50 percent don't.
"You have all these crazy thoughts," Reggie says. "Death crossed my mind. All these different things crossed my mind. All my thoughts were about how long I'd be here."
Robbie couldn't avoid thinking about it either.
"It came across my mind," he admits. "Every time I thought about it, I rebuked it and got on my knees and prayed."
His prayers, and the prayers of Reggie and his entire family and friends, are what the family credits for pulling Reggie through.
Yes, he was going through chemotherapy, stem cell transplantation, bone treatment and constant doses of fluids -- all that modern medicine has to offer. Multiple times, Reggie expressed his thankfulness for the access to medical treatment. But most often, Reggie credited his faith in God.
He particularly remembers the morning he turned a corner. It's best if it's recalled in his own words.
One morning before therapy, I got on my knees to pray. And I started praying, and the spirit of the Lord told me to get up. And I got up, and the spirit told my mind, when you pray, pray a specific prayer. And don't pray a selfish prayer. It was just like you and I are talking right now. It was audible.
So I got back on my knees, and this time, I'm like what do I pray about? I've been praying for years, but what do I say when I get down here? I'm afraid to say anything now! And when I went back down, I simply asked the Lord, I said you created me and you know all about me. And I pray your will for my life. And what your will is for my life I accept. And I got up off my knees, and I felt like the whole weight of the world lifted off me.
I got excited. I was like a kid in the candy store. When I got up, I felt the weight lifted off me. I said Lord, when I go to my doctor's appointment, just show me something that I know that I can't do -- and I know the doctor can't do -- just show me.
When he visited his doctor that day, they went through their compulsory round of tests. Early on, the doctor was very positive about the results. He said everything was improving.
The doctor then wanted to examine the M-spike levels in Reggie's blood. This test measured the amount of a harmful protein -- technically called Myeloma protein, or M-protein -- in a Multiple Myeloma patient's blood.
The doctor grew silent. He flipped back and forth between papers. If the cancer wasn't killing Reggie, the doctor's silence was.
"What do you see?" Reggie asked him. "And he said 'I'm not sure if I'm on the right page, but each page shows the same thing.' He scrolled down again, and he said, 'Reggie, it is saying there is no M-spike detected. The doctor and I started hollering! Folks were wondering what was going on!"
Reggie asked where this protein could've gone.
"He said 'Reggie' -- he was hollering -- 'the only thing I can say is it's not in your body so who cares where it is!' "
For the last nine months, Reggie's cancer has been in remission.
Throughout all this, Robbie was dealing with his own type of pain. His father was usually the person to take him to school. Both during Robbie's breakout junior season -- when Reggie was suffering but hadn't been diagnoses -- and early in Robbie's senior year, his father was unable to drive.
"It was hard because every morning when I'd wake up, I'd catch a ride with him," Robbie says. "He wasn't there to ride with me to school. When I'd get to school, I'd just sit down. I didn't know what to think."
Like his father, Robbie said he leaned on God. He said he put it in God's hands. He also found an outlet for his grief on the football field.
No opposing defensive backs lined up against Robbie knew that the star receiver was playing with more emotion and motivation than normal.
"When I was on the field," he says, "I was supporting my dad and doing everything I could to make him proud. It made me play better. It made me more focused and just motivated me to go out and do my best."
The family grows
The irony of it all: It was that supposed back sprain at work that eventually led to Reggie's diagnosis. The injury set off a chain of events that ended with the revelation of cancer. Had Reggie not hurt his back that day, his cancer would've continued to eat away at his life. Discovered later, his prognosis would've been far more ominous.
Reggie and his family don't see it as irony. They believe it was God's hand at work. That initial back injury, as painful as it was and as much suffering as it caused, ultimately helped save his life.
It's an old cliché, but what didn't kill Reggie Rhodes only made him, and his family, stronger.
"It made me a lot stronger," Robbie says. "By going through that, it just shows God can do a lot of things for people. That's why we're big believers in Him. God lever let us down."
And so Robbie finds himself in Waco today. His father is healthy. His family has never been closer.
"My wife," Reggie says, "she did everything a wife could do. She would do a lot of things I would normally do for the family. My kids -- I can't say more than enough on how they made me feel through it all. I would tell Robbie, be strong. Through this ordeal, it made him more focused and made him want to give his best every performance."
Now Robbie's family has grown. He's part of the Baylor family. He's no longer under his parents' roof, but now living with fellow athletes, including new roommate Quan Jones, a fellow incoming receiver.
"We've known each other since seventh grade," he says. "We played AAU basketball together on the Dallas Seawolves. I know a lot of the recruits, but I know him the best."
And he has Art Briles and the rest of the Baylor coaching staff to lean on as well. They were there before Reggie had cancer, and they never left during the entire process.
Briles knows all about loss. As a player at the University of Houston, Briles was scanning the stadium seats on game day -- October 16th, 1976 -- looking for his parents. When he never found them, he knew something was wrong. After the game, his head coach delivered the news: His parents, along with an aunt, had died in a car accident en route to the game.
Briles has often said that tragic experience helped shape him into the man he is today. Nearly 40 years later, it also helped Briles empathize with Robbie while his family hoped and prayed Reggie would pull through.
"Coach Briles stuck around the whole time," Robbie says. "The coaches were there for me before we found out he had cancer and they stayed around with me when he had his cancer. They continued to be there for me. They were always supportive."