February 29, 2012

Drew Babb’s Long Road Back From Cancer

High school All-American sidelined for two-plus years now starting defenseman for Denver

by Sirage Yassin | LaxMagazine.com

Drew Babb battled Hodgkin's Lymphoma and Avascular necrosis in the two-plus years he was sidelined from the sport of lacrosse. He's now starting at close defense, a new position for him, for the nationally-ranked Pioneers.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com 

The last time Drew Babb played in a lacrosse game that mattered, he was a high school senior in 2009, a US Lacrosse All-American midfielder for Arapahoe High School in Colorado, leading his team to a state championship victory.

The last time Drew Babb played in a lacrosse game that mattered, he was putting the finishing touches on a stellar career that awarded him the chance to play Division I lacrosse for the University of Denver, a school less than a half hour away from his home town of Centennial, Colo., where he would become a finance major.

The last time Drew Babb played in a lacrosse game that mattered, someone had compiled a highlight tape of his finest moments at Arapahoe. He seemingly scored at will, weaving through would-be defenders, juking left and right, and laying out anyone who stood in his path.

“He was a guy you couldn’t stop gushing about,” Denver head coach Bill Tierney said recently. “What a great player this kid was.”

That was before Babb, sitting at home on a July afternoon in 2009, saw his father John walk into the house and deliver a message from Drew's doctor. Results from a biopsy revealed Babb was positive for Stage I Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a cancer of lymph tissue that can be found in the lymph nodes, spleen, liver, bone marrow, and other parts of the body.

Since February of that year Babb experienced swelling in his neck. For months he was back and forth to the doctor’s office, culminating with a visit to a specialist where Babb was given medication and told there was nothing serious to be concerned with.

He played lacrosse that season, but the problem didn’t subside. After graduation Babb received a full biopsy, where it was revealed he had Hodgkin’s and needed to begin chemotherapy right away.  

Babb’s chemotherapy lasted five months, from July to November, that year. By early December, Babb’s scans revealed no sign of the cancer. But another setback came after Babb’s third round of chemo, when he started to experience major discomfort on one side of his hip.

He was told he had developed a condition called Avascular necrosis, a deterioration of bone caused by poor blood supply. Doctors, though not 100 percent certain, said this was mostly likely caused by the steroid medication he was taking to deal with the cancer.

Just as Babb was starting to beat Hodgkin’s, doctors told him the hip problem would restrict him from doing anything physical for at least a year.

“It was definitely a big change,” Babb said. “I was so used to playing sports my whole life. All of a sudden you have to be very focused about not going and running anywhere. It was definitely a big adjustment. It kind of weighed on me.”

The next summer, in 2010, Babb went back to the doctor to have his hip reexamined. The results showed the bone on his hip was growing back. And in the back of his mind, Babb was hoping that a favorable report would allow him to resume his lacrosse career as a sophomore for the Pioneers.

But further testing revealed that Babb’s other hip had now become affected by Avascular necrosis, requiring surgery. Surgeons drilled holes into both of Babb’s hips that would, over time, increase blood flow to the area. This latest setback would cost Babb another year of lacrosse and for the first time he began to wonder if he would ever play the sport again.

“That was a little bit scary,” Babb said. “But I knew if I couldn’t come back, if I wasn’t gonna heal, there was a reason for it. I was just gonna have to deal with that … and [maybe] playing lacrosse just wasn’t in the cards for me.”

Throughout his recovery Babb was still around the Pioneers lacrosse team. He attended practices and games, doing his part to help the team in a limited role. 

Surgeons drilled holes into both of Babb’s hips... This latest setback would cost Babb another year of lacrosse and for the first time he began to wonder if he would ever play the sport again.

“The guys on the team were awesome,” Babb said. “They always made me feel like I was part of the team even though I wasn’t playing. It made it a lot easier to go through everything knowing I had those guys around.”

Babb finally received the green light to resume light physical activity in May of 2011. He was told he could run short sprints to test the stability of his hips. And last September he resumed lacrosse activities for the first time in more than two years.

How would he fare picking up his stick again? Would he still have the same coordination? More importantly, would he possess the confidence needed to play Division I lacrosse for a top-ranked program?

“It was definitely nerve-wracking,” Babb said. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get my running ability back to how it was before. I hadn’t done anything for two years. I didn’t know what to expect.”


The last time Drew Babb played in a lacrosse game that mattered, he was one of the best offensive players in the state of Colorado. Lettering all four years at Arapahoe, Babb was a two-time first-team All-State selection and an All-American as a senior. But when he returned to the lacrosse field in September after beating Hodgkin’s, another challenge awaited him: a position change.

Tierney, this offseason surveying his roster and identifying areas of strength and weakness, knew the Pioneers were formidable on the offensive side of the ball with Mark Matthews and Co., but the team lacked athleticism on defense. Tierney chose to switch Babb to the other end of the field, and he now plays close defense.

After shaking off some initial rust, the decision turned out to be the right one.

“All of a sudden I’m looking up saying ‘This guy might be our best defenseman,’ ” Tierney said.

On Feb. 19, Denver opened its 2012 regular season against Ohio State at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., the home stadium of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. That day Babb started on defense for the Pioneers, his first non-scrimmage contest in nearly three years.

It mattered.

Babb looked good, Tierney said, playing normal minutes in Denver’s 10-9 loss to the Buckeyes.

The following week Babb started in his first home game for Denver, this time in victory as the Pioneers defeated Michigan, 17-5, in a lopsided contest against the first-year Wolverines varsity program. With the game in hand and another contest the following day against Robert Morris (a 21-8 Denver win), Babb only played in three quarters. His entire family attended.

“It was just awesome actually playing in front of all those people instead of standing on the sideline like I did the last two years,” Babb said. “It was pretty cool to hear someone say ‘good game’ instead of just saying ‘hi.’ ”

"It was pretty cool to hear someone say 'good game' instead of just saying 'hi.' "

-- Denver defenseman Drew Babb
on playing in his first home game instead of watching the Pioneers, as he did for the previous two seasons.

With the hip there are some good days, some not as good. Some painful, some not as much. Babb makes routine visits to the doctor every three months for a scan to make sure the cancer has not reappeared.

Because of this, Tierney and the athletic staff at Denver have taken every precaution. Babb’s minutes are closely monitored each week in practice, and Tierney has given him leeway to excuse himself from any game, practice or drill if he feels the need.

“I’m not gonna take that kid out until he tells me to,” Tierney said.

Tierney, who took over the Denver lacrosse program just days before Babb learned of the cancer, was asked to put Babb’s hardship and recovery in perspective. 

“Most lacrosse kids have a pretty good life coming up,” Tierney said. “They don’t go through many hardships. They’re pretty blessed with good families … they haven’t missed a meal in their lives. And so things have gone easy for a lot of [them]. To see something like this and look in total amazement at a kid like Drew Babb beat cancer, beat the hip and now be back on the field, it’s just a motivation. One lacrosse game, one lacrosse season doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to a young man’s health.”

Which means a season-opening loss to Ohio State, in the grand scheme, doesn’t mean that much. What mattered most is what was gained that day.

“It was a long time waiting. Just being out there was almost surreal during warm-ups,” Babb said. “But once the game started it got back to the way things used to be.”

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