Snell beating cancer and winning games

In mid-May, the hitting and pitching of junior left-hander Justin Snell led the Northside Methodist Academy Knights (Dothan, Ala.) to a fourth consecutive baseball championship in the Alabama Christian Education Athletic Association. Just last week, Snell started practice for a soccer season that will begin in a few weeks.

He recently began unpacking the seemingly gazillion pieces of the new 21-speed Windsor Falkirk racing bike that he'd saved for years to buy.

"I'm going to try to ride 30 to 40 miles a day," Snell said.

Baseball. Soccer. Another basketball season next winter. Now this new cycling hobby. Not bad for a 17-year-old who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma five years ago.

Snell went through a series of radiation and chemotherapy treatments in junior high. Only a few weeks ago, he underwent two procedures in Birmingham, Ala., that removed a recurrence of the cancer.

"Hopefully, that's all it's going to be," said Brenda Snell, Justin's mother. "We have to have faith. The Lord's in control of it all. We don't understand it, but that's what we have to lean on."

Justin rarely mentions his medical condition, usually only when asked. Most friends and classmates at Northside Methodist, which he transferred to as a sophomore, didn't know until this past school year. He reluctantly told his story to the Dothan Eagle days after the state baseball tournament.

"He's kept a lot of it inside," said Greg Snell, Justin's father. "He's never used it as a crutch."

Justin finished the season with a .341 batting average, an 11-1 pitching record, 79 strikeouts in 69 innings and a 1.72 earned run average for the Knights (24-8). He headed into the four-team state tournament at Tuscaloosa, Ala., knowing he'd be going for more tests in a few weeks to see if the cancer had returned.

"Before the tournament, I asked him, 'How are you?'" said Sam Cochran, Northside Methodist's baseball coach. "He said, 'All I want to do is play baseball.'"

Patti Motta, a Bible teacher at Northside Methodist, helped convince Justin this spring to talk publicly about his experience as a potential help to others.

"Most teens do not go through what he has," Motta said, "and he has come through it like a man. Justin is my hero."

Said Justin: "I'm so into sports; it's like an escape. I don't even think about it anymore."

Snell, a lean 6-foot-1 and 145 pounds, hit and pitched Northside Methodist to semifinal and final wins at the state tournament in Tuscaloosa and was selected the tournament's most valuable player.

"He was shocked and excited both," Greg Snell said. "It was the highlight of his life."

Justin was a sixth grader when his mother first wondered about the unusual growth below his right ear. The following summer, a biopsy revealed Hodgkin's lymphoma. Most often found in people ages 15-35, it attacks the lymphatic system and limits the body's ability to fight infection. The survival rate is usually high when detected early.

Greg Snell, who works at Southeast Alabama Medical Center in Dothan, fielded the doctor's call that provided the news and then had to inform Brenda and 12-year-old Justin.

"We were getting ready to leave for a practice game for all-stars," Greg said. "He wasn't that upset. He didn't know what was going to be involved. It was harder on me."

"It was such a shock," said Brenda, an office manager at Flowers Hospital in Dothan. "Since then, we've learned about the disease and about treatment."

Justin made regular trips to Birmingham for chemotherapy and radiation sessions. During the latter, he was forced to wear a mask pinned down to the hospital bed. That's how he learned he suffers from claustrophobia.

"Even during the second week, I wasn't comfortable," he said. "But it's only like 30-second sessions."

One of Justin's current Northside classmates, Thomas Morton, played rec baseball against Justin when they were in junior high. "The talk back then was that there was a guy on the other team with cancer," Morton said.

Justin attended Dale County High School, his parents' alma mater, as a freshman. His parents say he began to withdraw while there, possibly a reaction to his condition. Justin asked to transfer to Northside Methodist.

"It just felt like … something I needed to do."

Most folks at Northside Methodist (high school enrollment of about 100) learned about Justin's condition only during the past year. Sean Troester, a basketball teammate, first heard it when brought up by the basketball coach.

"He said, 'You know he has cancer.' I'm like, 'What?'" Troester said. "I had no idea, and I don't think anybody else knew."

Said Cochran: "He was just coming off chemotherapy, the radiation therapy. He felt like this was his problem and his problem alone."

When the cancer flared up again this year, Morton said Justin's teammates talked about it. "We were worried about him," he said.

Motta sensed Justin was troubled by something and approached Brenda. She explained Justin was soon scheduled to go for another test and consented to Motta's trying to get Justin to discuss his concerns.

"He opened up," Motta said. "He was calm; he doesn't get emotional," Motta said. "He wondered, 'Why would God allow this to happen to me?' I told him, 'God will heal you. And through your courage, God will help you to help other people.'"

Last winter, Justin learned Boston Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester has overcome Hodgkin's. Cochran informed the Red Sox of Justin's situation, and Justin received a letter in May from Lester -- plus a package from the Red Sox that included some Fenway Park dirt and a magazine that included a profile of the 25-year-old Lester.

"I consider myself lucky if my story in some way made it easier for you," wrote Lester, who noted he was writing on May 19 -- the anniversary of his 2008 no-hitter. "I applaud you for your decision to help others through your experience."

The Snell family -- including older siblings Tyler and Anna -- drove up to Atlanta in late June when the Red Sox came in to play the Braves. They were unable to set up a meeting with Lester, who didn't pitch that day, but got to Turner Field early enough to take some pictures of Lester during pregame drills.

When Cochran phoned the state tournament results in to the Dothan Eagle, he matter-of-factly mentioned Justin's medical condition. The paper asked about profiling Justin. When Justin declined, Cochran said his own revelation that he's a bone marrow donor has convinced others to do the same. That and further coaching from Motta convinced Justin to do the interview. The Eagle's story by Jon Johnson was published on May 11.

"Mrs. Motta actually read it to the class," Justin said, slightly self-conscious.

The feedback was almost immediate. Justin said he received a letter from a woman in the nearby town of Enterprise, Ala. She wrote that her husband faced a similar situation, and reading about his experience helped her.

The recent surgeries in Birmingham have put Justin slightly behind in soccer. He played goalie as a junior and plans to play stopper this coming season.

Justin will be Northside's No. 1 starter next baseball season. Cochran said he has a fastball in the low 80s, a curve with a three-foot break and a knuckle change he's toying with.

"We're really going to work on a splitter or slider to give him a true third pitch," Cochran said. "I think he could pitch junior college baseball."

Justin would like to keep playing ball after next season. Brenda said he's also interested in studying criminal justice.

"Sports have meant everything to Justin," Motta said. "It used to be he lived for sports. Now he lives for what God can do, and he enjoys sports."

The doctors in Birmingham are considering another precautionary round of radiation treatments. Brenda said such a possibility would previously have shaken Justin. But when they discussed that on the way home from last week's checkup, she said Justin's response was: "Whatever they need to do."

"He can handle it," she said. The next consultation is scheduled for September.

Justin still has some glue below his ear and under his jaw as a result of the surgeries, and it's difficult for him to turn his head fully. That's been no factor while his soccer team is going through conditioning, and he has been told he can head the ball again soon. He said he's just about back to full strength.

Then there's the new bike (he actually wanted to buy a motorcycle, a plan vetoed by Brenda). Justin acknowledged part of the allure is Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor.

"In the eighth grade, I started liking Lance," he said. "He's definitely been a good role model."

His goal is to compete in a local 100-mile bike race that benefits families who have children with cancer.

Greg Snell laughed and said, "Another adventure."

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.