Player returns to field after cancer surgery
LAPEL — From catching former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck’s official first pass to lining up alongside his Bulldog classmates and buddies, football has been No. 1 to Lapel’s Holden Harless.
When he found out a cancerous tumor — which was removed when he was 3 years old — had returned in his spinal cord, just months before his senior football season, he had requests for his surgeon, Dr. Jodi Smith, who had performed the same surgery 15 years prior.
“He told his surgeon there were two things that were going to happen,” Holden’s dad, Scott Harless, said. “We go fishing every year. (Holden) said, ‘I need to be able to walk to the boat in a month, and I’m playing football. This is my senior year, so let’s get this done.’”
Story continues below photos.
Holden’s biggest motivation has always been football.
He was chosen through Riley Hospital, as an 8-year-old in 2012, to be the recipient of the first pass from the Colts then-recently drafted quarterback, Luck. The throw and catch made television newscasts. He was also part of a Colts coin toss with Peyton Manning.
He started playing football at the flag level and is part of a 22-member senior class on this year’s Lapel High School football team.
“Not too many people start out playing flag football and play their entire life. I’ve played my whole life,” Holden said. “I’ve had a lot of great experiences through football that others haven’t been able to have. To get through everything and get back (to playing football) was the main focus.”
Holden had been through this experience once before.
The tumor was first found when he was 3. After it was removed, he had re-learn how to walk. Since then, scheduled scans had always been clear. The Harlesses were told once you get through 10 years of tumor-free scans, you should be OK. Unfortunately, Holden’s came back 15 years later.
He began having back pain in March. His next scan showed the tumor, and he was scheduled to have surgery on May 13.
“It was horrible when we got the news again,” Scott Harless said. “All he’s looking at is football, and all we’re looking at is his life. Definitely not a call you want to get, and we’ve had it twice.
“As a parent, it’s breaking my heart, because when I told him (after we got word about the scan) what had happened, we called him home (from school). His first question wasn’t, ‘Am I going to be OK?’ It was ‘Am I going to be able to play football again?’”
While Scott and his wife, Wendy, had concerns about Holden’s life, the Bulldogs senior was focusing on the next few months and if he was going to be able to get back on the football field.
“It was brutal,” Holden said. “It was not something you want to find out. It was rough, but I got through it.”
Surgery was a success, but Holden was back where he was 15 years ago. He had to learn how to walk again.
His goal, of course, was not just to walk again, but to run out onto the Lapel football field.
He had his No. 55 jersey hung up in his hospital room, and he wore his jersey the day of his surgery.
“I brought my jersey from school and hung it up for something to look at in the hospital,” Holden said. “It was something to look forward to, be able to get back out on the field and be with the boys.
“The team is a brotherhood.”
Lapel head coach Tim Miller said he’d get frequent texts from Holden asking about football. The team, after its May banquet, went to visit their teammate in the hospital during his recovery.
It was all extra motivation for Holden to get his rehabilitation work in to meet his goal.
Though admittedly much tougher at 18 than it was at 3, he did all the hard work needed. First with a walker, he learned how to walk again.
On Aug. 13, with a clean scan and the ability to move on his own, he was cleared to get back on the practice field. Last Friday against rival Frankton, he got to run out with his teammates and get in the game, a 49-12 Bulldog victory.
“With the surgery this spring and the rehab into the summer, how’s far he’s come is unbelievable,” Miller said. “When we got out of school in June, I went to visit him in a rehab facility, and he couldn’t walk without a walker. Everything he’s had to endure over the years, I was glad he was able to get in and play some on Friday, truly amazing.”
Harless, a 5-foot-8, 185-pound lineman, got in the game a little sooner than expected. The Bulldogs had just scored a touchdown, but one of the starting linemen, due to an equipment issue, had to leave the game for the point-after.
Miller was looking for a sub. As soon as he turned around, Holden was right there.
“Standing right behind me was Holden. I said, ‘Harless, let’s go!’ He went in and blocked for the PAT. That was his first play back. He was right in my hip pocket waiting. He was definitely eager to get back on the field,” Miller said.
“It was awesome to be able to run out on the field with everyone and be able to be under the lights and accomplish the biggest goal that you wanted to do,” Holden said. “I always try to hang as close as I can in case anyone needs to take a break or need anything. I’m willing to play wherever I need to help the team out.
“Your heart gets to racing, and it’s, oh yeah, you’re there. It’s that moment you know you made it back.”
It was an emotional moment for the family, too. They knew how hard it has been on their son. Most people only need to learn how to walk once. He’s had to do it three times.
“It was very emotional (when he got in the game),” Scott said. “You want your kids to hit all their dreams and goals; it was definitely emotional to see him come out with the team and get in and play.
“He’s going to be an inspiration at some point to somebody to come back like he has. He doesn’t see any of it. He’s just a young kid, but I told him what he’s done is phenomenal.”
He has already inspired his older sisters; both are now in the medical field.
His oldest sister, Rachael, is a registered nurse working on the cancer treatment floor
at Riley Hospital. His other sister, Hannah, is in her second year of grad school, studying to be an occupational therapist.
Holden is cherishing his return to the game. He knows he won’t be able to play the game he loves forever. This is it, his final senior season.
“It’s killer,” Holden said. “Not knowing what I was going to have thrown my way, or whatever change was going to happen in my life, I’d say I’m pretty happy where I’m at, being able to finish my senior year and last year of football.”