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October 17, 2011

Liggins beats cancer to become star

MORE NIEBUHR: Around SE | Whispers | Weekend wrap

OXFORD, Miss. - Tisha Liggins and her mother, Linda Liggins, can be found in the stands at Oxford Lafayette High football games most Friday nights in the fall.

They are easy to spot. Tisha always wears her Commodores jersey with the No. 1, her son's number as the powerhouse program's starting quarterback. Jeremy Liggins is a big reason his team has won 25 straight games. As far as quarterbacks go, he's better than most - a three-star holding offers from the top two teams in the BCS standings. And he's larger than most - 6-foot-3, 270 pounds - too.

More often than not, Liggins is the one inflicting pain.

But every now and then, an opponent breaks free from a block and gets a clean shot at him. And in the stands, two women who raised him can't help but gasp. They know all too well what Jeremy's body, as large and imposing as it may appear on a football field, has suffered.

"You're always on pins and needles," said Linda Liggins.

*****

Jeremy Liggins doesn't really recall getting sick. Or going to the doctor, then to a Memphis hospital. Or the surgery. Or even the recovery.

He was, after all, only 3 when he was diagnosed with cancer.

Yet, Liggins, an 18-year-old senior, is reminded of the events that took place 15 years ago every time he removes his shirt, looks in the mirror and sees the scar that stretches from one side of his belly to the other, just above his navel.

"I lost a kidney," Liggins said.

To Tisha, 36, and Linda Liggins, 55, it seems like only yesterday when Jeremy was stricken by what is known as Wilms' tumor, a relatively rare form of cancer that typically occurs in children.

As a toddler, Jeremy had complained of headaches, but Tisha and Linda, who raised Jeremy along with his late great-grandmother Mary (his father never has been in the picture), thought little of it. After all, what child doesn't get sick? But Linda, who was watching after Jeremy a lot because Tisha was nine months pregnant with Jeremy's sister (Shaniah), soon realized things weren't right.

"One day when he used the bathroom, he was peeing out blood," Linda remembered. "I said, 'Oh my God, what is this!' That's how we discovered it."

For the Liggins women, the next several days were filled with anxiety, fear and grief.

After a trip to a local pediatrician, Jeremy was sent to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. Following hours of tests there, Linda was given the news: Jeremy had a cancerous tumor and one of his kidneys would have to be removed - and soon.

"I was in a state of shock when I found out," Tisha said. "I thought it was just a urinary tract infection. As a mother, it really hit me. At the time, I didn't know you could live with one kidney. They had to sit me down and explain everything to me."

Within days, Jeremy was in a St. Jude operating room.

"Boy, that was the longest wait ever," Linda recalled. "But we felt confident in St. Jude. They were pretty sure they could get (the tumor) because they caught it early. It's pretty rare, but they said if you get cancer it's the best one you could have."

Jeremy emerged from his operation just fine. But he wasn't out of the woods yet. He required treatments post-surgery, including chemotherapy.

"He had the scar on his stomach and a spot up on his chest," Tisha said. "His chemo lasted five or six treatments. All his hair came out, but it grew back so beautifully."

Not only did St. Jude save Jeremy's life, but it did so without asking for anything in return. The hospital covered 100 percent of the medical bills.

"They were wonderful," Linda said. "If we had to stay up there, they'd put us up in a hotel. They paid for everything. They even fed us. We didn't have to pay for anything. Without them, it would have been a disaster."

*****

The scar isn't all that reminds Liggins of the cancer.

Each fall, he treks back to Memphis and St. Jude with his mom for an annual checkup to make sure he's cancer free and his remaining kidney is functioning well (the next trip is in November). So far, the results have been consistently good.

To keep his kidney in good health, Liggins has to watch what he eats. For example, soft drinks and fatty foods must be consumed in moderation.

On the football field, Liggins wears special gear to protect the kidney.

Other than that, he lives the life of a normal teenager.

"My one kidney is perfect," he said. "It's 100 percent. I can pretty much live like everybody else. You can live with one kidney, but you've got to be careful with it. "

Liggins began taking part in sports a few years after his surgery. He started off with baseball, which he still plays, but soon gravitated toward football. At first, his mother, fearing for his safety, was against the idea.

"When he decided to play football, I was kind of scared because it was a physical sport," Tisha said. "But I talked to the people at St. Jude. They said, 'Don't take anything away from him he likes to do.' "

Turned out to be good advice for his future high school team.

One year after leading his team to the Class 4A state title in Mississippi, he has quarterbacked Lafayette to a 9-0 record entering Friday night's game against Senatobia.

Thus far, Liggins has completed 46 of 79 passes for 878 yards and six touchdowns, while adding 471 yards and nine touchdowns rushing.

"It's tough to defend him," Lafayette assistant coach Eric Robertson said. "He's big and physical, he's hard to tackle and he throws the ball well."

Liggins holds numerous scholarship offers, but four schools stand out: Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Liggins claims to have no leader. He likely will begin taking official visits after the season.

Each of the schools in the hunt for Liggins' services are recruiting him as a quarterback, but Liggins has the size and athleticism to play other positions should things not work out as a signal caller. According to Robertson, Liggins easily could make the transition to tight end or defensive end, and called him a "no-miss prospect."

"It doesn't really matter to me what I play," Liggins said. "I'll be the kicker if I have to, just as long as I can play. I love the game."

*****

Liggins feels fortunate for how things turned out - and he knows exactly who made living possible.

"My mom and grandmother mean everything to me," Liggins said. "They were there with me from Day One. And I've got to give it to St. Jude. They took care of me. I think about it a lot.

"I really appreciate it. And I really appreciate St. Jude for doing what they did. They took us in.

"We didn't have a penny. If I ever get something, I've got to give back to St. Jude. I've got to."

Not a day passes without Tisha and Linda Liggins reflecting on their ordeal, something each said brought the family closer together.

They try not to think about what might have been had the cancer not been spotted early, had the local doctor not quickly transferred Jeremy to Memphis, had St. Jude not been there to assist them.

And on fall Friday nights, they sit back and enjoy the show.

"He's just blessed," Tisha said.

Keith Niebuhr can be reached at kneebs01@aol.com. You can follow him on Twitter @KeithRIVALS.



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