Yuma pitcher Paul Brophy might be the toughest student-athlete in Colorado. One look at his stat line in MaxPreps will show casual fans that he's certainly good at baseball, but sometimes measuring toughness is difficult to do.
Brophy's story is worthy of grabbing a tape measure.
It's not his physical strength that makes him tough. It's not getting out a bases-loaded jam that makes him tough.
No, what makes this kid in northeast Colorado arguably the toughest student-athlete in the state is that he took on cancer — and has still managed to amass a 5-2 record and 2.62 ERA when he takes the bump for the Indians.
Oh, was it mentioned that it was testicular cancer? In what is perhaps the cruelest of fates that can be dealt to a teenager, Brophy stood on the mound and blew fastballs by his diagnosis.
It took bravery for Brophy to understand that something wasn't right. It took resolve — and some emotional support from Colorado Rockies pitcher Chad Bettis — to win the fight.
Now as he prepares to wrap up his senior season and head to Hillsdale College in Michigan where he'll continue to play ball, he knows there isn't a challenge out there that he can't overcome.
Cancer stepped into the batter's box looking to line it back at Brophy and knock him out the game for good. Brophy had other plans.
Strike three, cancer. You're out.
"The first time I heard it, I cried"
Back in January, Brophy was doing what any serious baseball player not involved in a winter sport would do. He was getting in shape for baseball. He was building arm strength. He was taking hacks in a cage.
His senior year was coming up and he had big plans.
The problem is something started hurting in an area where no man wants to feel pain. Eventually, it became worrisome and Brophy had the sense that this kind of pain in this particular spot — while stereotypically funny to high school kids — was no laughing matter.
"I was working out and my nuts just started hurting," Brophy said. "They got pretty big and then they would hurt, then they wouldn’t. One day I was working out and it was hurting all through my workout, so I decided I was going to get it checked out."
Whatever Brophy was expecting wasn't the news he got. When the test results came back, it was revealed that he had testicular cancer. A high school senior, a college-level athlete, was hit with a diagnosis that no one would wish on their worst enemy.
The words were scary. And the potential impacts were even scarier.
"The first time I heard it, I cried," Brophy said. "I was really emotional. After we went to Denver and talked with my actual oncologist and came up with a plan, I felt better about it."
Back at school, the world seemed to be working just fine for Brophy, at least from the outside perspective.
When he got his diagnosis, he informed coach Brady Nighswonger. The man who had been at the helm of the baseball program for 14 years is also the principal at Yuma. He worked right away from an administrative and athletic perspective to assist Brophy as he was preparing to fight.
"Paul had just signed his national letter of intent to play baseball," athletic director Michael Dischner said. "I heard Coach Nighsownger tell our secretaries that if Paul was missing for the next couple of days to not call home. I asked if everything was okay and he said, 'No, Paul has been diagnosed with testicular cancer.' They were trying to figure out what to do as quick as possible to make sure he was okay. Coach Nighswonger was one of my coaches and he's a pretty tough guy but the emotions were a lot for him to take."
Rightfully so. Yuma is a small community meaning that the people are very close with one another. Nighswonger didn't just meet Brophy when he walked in the door at the school or on to the baseball field when he was a freshman.
"I remember watching Paul growing up," Nighswonger said. "I couldn't even tell you how old he was the first time I watched him play, maybe eight or nine-years-old. That's 10 years of watching him play baseball and they do, they become like one of your kids."
The doctors were ready to take immediate action and Brophy was on board with the plan.
"I had surgery to remove the nut and after that I waited a week or two and I had surgery to get my (chemo) port placed," he said. "From there on I had chemotherapy, no radiation."
The big concern kept coming back to baseball. It was never a question of whether or not he would be able to play again, but when was he going to play again.
He said his oncologist was warning him that different people reacted differently to the treatment. Some did okay with it. Others, not so much.
The uncertainty was the scariest part of the ordeal. But luckily for Brophy he was going to get some sound advice from someone who had gone through it first-hand.
"It was nice hearing from an actual baseball guy"
Word of Brophy's diagnosis started circulating in the baseball world. It even reached the highest of levels and got to a guy that had been through the very battle that he was now facing.
"Chad Bettis actually got in touch with me," Brophy said of the Rockies right-handed pitcher. "He was able to give me some insight. He had the exact same cancer I had and the same treatment. He told me it wouldn't feel good but I might feel like I could be able to play after the first round (of chemo), but after the second and third round, it gets pretty rough. That's what I was expecting: to not be able to play after my second round."
Talking to Bettis — who been diagnosed with testicular cancer in December 2016 — gave Brophy a boost and even more motivation to recover and to get back to his team.
That became his primary drive. He wanted to get back to baseball and have the chance to stand on the mound in a Yuma uniform and play for his coaches and with this teammates.
"I knew it this year was going to be a pretty big year," Brophy said. "I didn't want to lose it. I didn't want to disappoint. I didn't want to not do what I wanted to do for my senior year which was play baseball. My mindset was that I was playing baseball. It was what I wanted to do and nothing was going to stop me from doing that."
The talk with Bettis helped. And it helped knowing that Bettis was able to beat the same thing and was able to come back and play for his team before the season was over.
"It takes out a lot of the guessing," Brophy said. "The oncologist would say it's different for every person. It was nice hearing from an actual baseball guy on how it might work out for me."
Add in the feeling that baseball was going to be waiting on him and it fueled his desire to recover. From the very moment that the diagnosis came through Brophy was working on his return to baseball.
One could argue that he should've been focusing on saving his life. But there is no doubt to everyone that knows him, that baseball is Brophy's life.
"He was able to catch it early enough to save most of his baseball season," Dischner said. "And I know it's not about athletics. Even when his mom asked him, 'What do you think about them taking one of your nuts?' he said he didn't care about that, he just wanted to play baseball."
"What's your excuse?"
Brophy made his season debut on March 11, just about two months after his initial diagnosis. He threw three innings and struck out eight hitters in a 20-0 win over Caliche.
"I just really wanted to go out and prove something," Brophy said. "I didn't have to gather my emotions, I just had to get my emotions in check. I didn't want to disappoint my teammates or my coaches. I wanted to give them a good show and they trusted me to go out there and pitch my game. I couldn't ask for much more."
It's not like he was able to just get out there and do it. Brophy put in the work at practice, while going through chemotherapy.
It was a wakeup call to his teammates and his to his coaches. Brophy had shown he was dedicated to two things at that moment: beating his cancer and getting back to the form that he was expecting to be in for his senior season.
"He went through a chemo session I think on a Friday and we played that next Tuesday," Nighswonger said. "He told me, 'I'm pitching Tuesday' and that's something I didn't know was physically possible. It never crossed his mind that it wasn’t.”
Earlier this month, all scans and tests came back clear and normal. Now, Brophy is officially in remission.
He has been outstanding on the mound this year and has recorded 10 or more strikeouts four times. He struck out 17 hitters in his second start of the season.
He's excited to finish out this year and head to college where he plans to study biochemistry. Despite suffering what could have been a fatal setback, his life is on a track that is fitting of any 18-year-old kid.
But now, he knows that there isn't a challenge that he can't overcome as long as he is dedicated to achieving his desired outcome.
"It's been one of the toughest things he'll ever have to go through and he never used it as an excuse," Nighswonger said. "If he was able to be at practice, he was at practice. Now we can look at kids and say, 'I noticed you weren't at practice yesterday. What's your excuse for being gone? I have a kid going through chemo treatment and he's here every day.' This has helped us really talk about what commitment is."
Commitment is not backing down when cancer steps into that batter's box. Commitment is striking that cancer out in three pitches. And that's exactly what a high school senior from Yuma was able to do.
Strike three, cancer. The toughest student-athlete in the state just punched you out.