Ely High linebacker Keith Thompson ready for senior year after surviving cancer

As Keith Thompson and his dad were pulling out of Dillard High School’s parking lot last August, it was supposed to be a literal and figurative start of a new life.

Thompson, a standout linebacker, had just withdrawn from the school and was about to start his senior year at Blanche Ely. He had a handful of scholarship offers and was hopeful a big season would mean even more. As they got in the car, everything pointed to a promising future.

Ely linebacker Keith Thompson looks into the backfield during practice
Ely linebacker Keith Thompson looks into the backfield during practice

Then the phone rang.

It was a doctor at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital delivering news that would dictate and dominate the next 10 months.

He had cancer.

His biggest victory: Jesuit DL Tucker Witte declared cancer free, plays in spring game

'I was in shock'

It all started with some pain in Thompson’s right shoulder last year. It was intermittent, but it was nagging.

Then people around him started noticing a lump in the area. First it was a teammate saying something during a workout. Thompson shrugged it off as a muscle imbalance and proceeded to play through Dillard’s spring practices and played in the spring game against Monarch.

He mentioned the pain a couple times to his mom but continued going through summer workouts. Then one day the lump caught his mom’s attention.

“My right trap kept getting bigger, but I didn’t realize it,” Thompson said. “One day before morning workouts, my mom was going to work and she said, ‘What’s wrong with your shoulder? It’s uneven. It doesn’t look normal.’”

Instead of going to practice, Thompson and his mom went to the hospital. An X-ray didn’t show any issues with the labrum, but it did show something else.

“He said it could be a mass. I didn’t really know at the time what a mass was,” Thompson said. “He showed me the X-ray. He told me I had two options: They could rush me to Joe DiMaggio or we could drive there. Honestly, I couldn’t believe it. It was very weird and scary.”

More X-rays and tests showed a mass doctors believed could be aggressive. But he didn’t know for sure what it was until the call in the parking lot as they were leaving Dillard.

Osteosarcoma. An extremely rare form of cancer with fewer than 1,000 cases per year in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.

“I was in shock” he said. “I couldn’t really believe it. I was in shock for real.”

'I never stayed in the hospital a day in my life until I had to'

Approximately a week after the phone call, Thompson started chemotherapy treatments. The primary concern was stopping the cancer from spreading to his lungs.

Thompson, who was 6-foot, 227 pounds heading into his senior year, lost 20 pounds, as well as his hair.

“They were hard, I ain’t gonna lie,” Thompson said of the treatments. “The vomiting, nausea. Sometimes I would lose my taste, everything would taste nasty. I would stay in the hospital a week to make sure all the stuff got out of my body. They would take my blood to see if all chemo out of my body. It was definitely hard. I had never stayed in the hospital a day until I had to.”

Days after Thompson’s 18th birthday on Nov. 2, the mass was surgically removed.

He continued getting treatments up until April 3. That’s when he finally was told he was cancer free and got to ring the bell at Joe DiMaggio.

“It was definitely good,” Thompson said. “Ringing that bell It means I don’t got to come back.”

God 'let me get back to what I like to do'

Obviously, football got put on the backburner while Thompson went through treatments. In fact, other than going to games to support his best friend, Joshua Lloyd — a former Ely edge rusher now at Western Michigan — Thompson wasn’t around the game much. He didn’t even watch football on TV.

“It was what it was, but it was definitely hard not playing,” he said. “I was expecting to have a big year and I knew what I would be able to do to help the team. I was going to get myself to a better school than I was projected to go. I was working hard, but that happened. I had no choice. I completely forgot about football.”

His mom kept telling him he would play again.

She was right.

Ely linebacker Keith Thompson
Ely linebacker Keith Thompson

After being declared cancer free, Thompson appealed to the Florida High School Athletic Association for an extra year of eligibility to replace his lost senior season. It was granted days before the start of spring practice on April 29.

Thompson will get another chance to take the field — and finally put on an Ely uniform — Wednesday in the spring game against Miami Edison.

Spring games usually don’t have too much significance, but this one will. Weather permitting, this will be Thompson’s first full game — last year’s spring game was cancelled after two quarters because of lightning — since Dillard played Ely in the regional playoffs in 2022. More importantly, it will be his first game as a cancer survivor.

Hopefully, he can get back to the future he was heading to before getting that phone call 10 months ago.

“It does mean something,” he said. “I just thank God. He let me get back to what I like to do. It gives me a lot.

“It really opened my eyes. Before, I felt like certain things can’t happen to you. Life is real. It made me treat people better. You never know what someone is going through. You just don’t know. It made me a better person. And I feel good about playing football again.”

This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: With cancer behind him, Ely LB Keith Thompson ready to get back to football