Published: 12:00 AM, Tue May 08, 2012
Cape Fear third baseman Will Marsh not stopped by rare disease
Most high school baseball players worry about things like a bad bounce on a ball hit to them on defense or figuring out whether the opposing pitcher is going to throw fastball or curveball.
Will Marsh, a sophomore third baseman for Cape Fear, is anything but typical. Like his fellow players, he has those same worries. But he's got even bigger concerns - such as cancer and desmoplastic fibroma.
Since he was a seventh grader at Mac Williams Middle School, Marsh has been battling those concerns. At the same time, he's refused to let it dampen his enthusiasm for baseball, the game he loves, and he keeps on playing while trying to keep the disease out of sight and mind as much as possible.
While his parents and the doctors monitor the tumors, Will continues to focus on Cape Fear baseball. It's not a subject he chooses to discuss with his coaches or teammates; his focus is on his love of baseball.
"It's just my passion," he said. "I've played since I was 2, and I just love the game."
Cancer type is rare
Now 16, Will has played the game of baseball, even if only in the backyard with friends, since he was 2 years old.
Three days before he turned 13, having just made the baseball team at Mac Williams, he came home and complained of pain in his right leg, above the knee.
The pain grew steadily worse until it reached a point he couldn't play. His father, Billy, took him to the urgent care facility at Highsmith-Rainey Hospital.
The examination took longer than Billy thought it should. He finally cornered the doctor to ask what was going on. A tear rolled down the doctor's cheek as he told Billy it was a tumor, a large one, that was so big it had fractured the femur in his son's leg.
The doctor initially told Billy that athletes with this type of tumor don't usually play sports again.
The next day, the family met with a pediatric orthopedic surgeon. He said the diagnosis Will wouldn't play again was premature. But surgery was scheduled to take the tumor out the following week.
To repair the damage the tumor had done to the bone, Billy said the surgeon used cadaver bone, bone chips and marrow from Will's hip that was mixed into a putty. He missed all of his seventh-grade year of baseball and the entire offseason, finally returning to the game as an eighth grader.
Further tests of the tumor Will had revealed it was among the rarest in the world. It's called a desmoplastic fibroma. Kelly Marsh, Will's mother, said there are only 200 documented cases of this type of tumor in the world, and that it accounts for .03 percent of all bone tumors.
The good news was it was benign. The bad news, according to the doctors, was it had a high recurrence rate. So for two years after the first tumor appeared, Will made regular visits to the doctor for X-rays to see if the tumor had returned.
In March 2011, the checkup revealed a spot at the original tumor site. The family was referred to an oncologist at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill who used X-rays and MRI to determine that Will had new tumors in both legs.
The good news, Kelly said, was the new tumors are both small and stable.
"As long as it doesn't grow, he can continue to play ball," Kelly said. "It could start growing tomorrow, next week or never. We go every three months for X-rays, just watching it."
Will Marsh doesn't let concerns about what's going on inside his body affect the way he plays.
"I play as aggressively as I possibly can," he said. "If it's meant for me to get hit with a line drive, it's going to happen anyway. I stay aggressive."
He's had to deal with some physical changes since the first surgery. He used to be faster, and he was a standout pitcher earlier in his career. But he's lost both some arm and foot speed since the operation. He's worked hard in the weight room to regain as much speed and strength as possible.
"I'm in the best shape of my life as far as that goes," he said. "It does break down your immune system, but I can't tell you that I have any limitations."
He's known more as a defensive player for the Colts. This season he's managed a total of eight hits, three of them doubles, while driving in four runs and scoring six runs.
A big fan of NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, Marsh said he has put the whole matter in the hands of God.
"I pray every single night the Lord will watch over me," he said. "Whatever happens, happens. I don't think about it. I just go out there and play baseball."
Cape Fear sophomore Austin Davis, a pitcher and close friend of Will's, is impressed by his teammate's courage.
"I really don't think I could have done it," he said. "He's definitely not giving up. He just keeps going."
Playoffs the focus
Cape Fear coach Wendell Smith doesn't think Will wants to be a role model, but added it's hard not to see him that way.
"It's really inspiring to have him on the team and for him to be around the team," Smith said. "He doesn't want to be treated any differently and it's nothing he talks about. But if he needs us, we'll be there for him."
Kelly Marsh said her son only knows one way to approach the situation.
"He's not going to sit down and let it stop him," she said. "He's going to play as hard as he can until he can't play any harder; until he has to stop."
Will doesn't plan on stopping anytime soon. He and the Colts are preparing for their state 4-A playoff opener later this week.
"The playoffs is a whole other level as far as intensity," he said. "I can't wait to play another game. I'm just glad our season isn't over."
Scholastic sports editor Earl Vaughan Jr. can be reached at email@example.com or 486-3519.