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Cotey: Family portrait all the sweeter because of one son's past

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Mon. January 10, 2011 | John C. Cotey | Email

Cotey: Family portrait all the sweeter because of one son's past

ST. PETERSBURG -- It's Friday, it's cold, and Matt Olver boots the ball up the sideline to cousin Blake Andrews, who dances with it a bit before finding an open teammate, who happens to be his brother Brandon.

 
But the play is broken up, and the opposing team is countering.
 
This, of course, means its time for another brother, Chris Andrews, to step up.
 
"A family affair,'' says Karen Andrews, whose sons Blake, Brandon and Chris -- and her brother's son Matt -- have propelled the Pinellas Park soccer team to one of its best starts (13-2).
 
The Patriots went undefeated into Christmas break, and in a few hours their victory over Northeast will clinch the top seed in the upcoming district tournament, which they have never won.
 
They don't always play the prettiest brand of soccer, but for Karen, who played a little soccer herself at Seminole in the 1980s, nothing could be more beautiful.
****
Five years ago, Blake, now 16, was diagnosed with Langerhans cell histiocytosis, a life-threatening rare blood disorder in which too many of a certain white blood cell (called a Langerhans) accumulate in a certain area.
 
In Blake's case, the accumulation was near the left side of his skull, where pain and a soft spot first alerted his mother to the issue.
 
"Before I knew it there were CAT scans and MRIs,'' she said.
 
But not until surgery were there any answers. Within two weeks, Blake had a lesion removed and part of his skull replaced by a titanium mesh plate.
 
Karen went in afterward expecting to see a 2-inch incision; instead she saw a winding S-shaped incision that stretched 7-8 inches.
 
"I remember that moment,'' she said. "They said it was bigger than they thought. We were frightened because it was an unknown. We had to wait for the biopsy, and that was hard, and was even more shocked when we were told the standard of treatment required chemo.''
 
Karen said the doctors were vague, but clear that Blake's situation was precarious.
 
The Children's Dream Fund, an organization that fulfills the dreams of children ages 3-18 facing life-threatening illness, sent Blake and his brothers to New York to watch a friendly soccer match featuring FC Barcelona, Blake's favorite team. He also got to meet his idol, Ronaldinho, one of the world's greatest soccer players.
 
"They gave me a last wish,'' Blake said. "I didn't think about what that meant. ...I was just trying to stay positive.''
 
He endured countless trips for treatment, hundreds of needle pricks and hours of boredom, all the while never knowing just how dire his situation was.
 
"I was aware my mom was terrified and I knew there was more to what they were telling me,'' Blake said. "I just tried to put it to the back of my mind  so I could make sure I got through this.''
 
"I was petrified for a long time,'' said Karen, who quit her job working for an ophthalmologist to care for Blake.  "It was month to month, you don't know if the chemo is working. I remember thinking how was I going to make it through the next day I was so scared.''
 
Brandon said his mother never let on the seriousness of his brother's condition.
 
"I knew it was bad, but we didn't know until afterwards that it was life threatening,'' he said.
 
After a year of treatment in which Karen never left his side, Blake was declared fit to play soccer. He quickly shed the weight he put on during the treatment and worked hard to get back into playing shape.
 
He even took up power lifting with step-father Derrik Reiff, and both have earned world records in their respective weight classes.
 
While Blake has bone scans and skeletal surveys every year, he is not shy about mixing it up on the field.
 
Every bump, every bruise, every ache and pain still causes Karen concern.
*****
Brandon is a speedy senior who leads the team with 15 goals and has interest from a handful of colleges. Blake, second on the team with 12 goals, hopes to play for the Naval Academy. Chris, a freshman, is developing into a talented player, though baseball may be his game.
 
An all-star last year, Chris was planning to play in a fall baseball league, but grandfather Hal Olver, 78, who plays softball in the Kids N' Kubs league, talked him out of it.
 
"I told him since his brothers are playing soccer, he should play with his brothers,'' he said.
 
So for many nights this winter, Olver has watched four of his grandchildren play on the same team. If he arrives early enough, he can make it five -- Amber Olver is a sophomore starter for the girls.
 
"Just knowing they are all out there together, enjoying it, I'm tickled to death to see it,'' he said.
 
It will be the only time the three Andrews boys and their cousin play together. During their time in the Strictly Soccer club program, they have been in different age groups.
 
"My grandpa is pretty proud of us for sticking together,'' Blake said. "Right now, we'd like to keep it going and get to regionals and just make the most out of this year.''
 
No one is more pleased than Karen. With 2-year-old daughter Emmyrsen tugging at the blanket under her mother's arm, Karen looks out at the Patriots as they warm up and smiles.
 
"It's just unbelievable,'' she says. "I don't want to miss any of it.''

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