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In Hernando, Team Nick buzzing to help 13-year-old battle cancer for a third time

WEEKI WACHEE — The football players gathered in close as the electric razor buzzed to life.

Before them sat teammate Timonté Hunter, cool but anxious, a nervous smile flitting across his face.

The hairstylist started in on the running back's long, tight, curly brown hair that was six years in the making for Hunter, 16.

Catcalls and laughter, like the body odor, filled the outdoor air.

"Your helmet's not going to fit now," one quipped.

"He's going to put it in a bag and sleep with it," laughed another.

The razor made its first pass. The hair fell. And after a few moments, it was all gone.

One by one, just about all of Weeki Wachee High School's 34 varsity players, along with most of its 31 junior varsity players, shaved their heads after a Saturday morning scrimmage in a show of support for a boy most of them had never met.

It was, without a doubt, a lot of hair.

They did it for 13-year-old Nick LaBarbara, the principal's son.

He's a soccer player. A fierce chess opponent. A fan of fishing and science and making zombie apocalypse movies with his little sister.

And he's also someone who, for the third time in his young life, is battling cancer.

• • •

To some, he's known as the honey badger, a ferocious mammal that became an Internet sensation.

Nick is known for his resilience. His quiet strength. His will to get better.

His parents first noticed the problem at 15 months when they saw bruising and other unusual symptoms.

They took him to All Children's Hospital, where he was diagnosed with leukemia.

For 21/2 years he underwent treatment. He looked like he was about to beat it. Then, at his very last appointment, doctors found more cancer in his spinal cord.

That meant another 21/2 years of fighting. More chemotherapy. Radiation treatment. And dozens of doctors' appointments and hundreds of days in the hospital.

But it looked like Nick was through the worst.

For close to seven years, he was cancer free.

• • •

In June, Nick started getting headaches.

"Daddy, I feel like somebody is stabbing me in the eye with a knife," Troy LaBarbara remembered his son saying.

They went to the hospital. Although Nick felt better, the doctor ordered a CT scan of his head. That's when they found it: a grade 3 astrocytoma in his brain.

Nick immediately underwent two brain surgeries in two days, where doctors were able to remove it all. He was out after a mere four days.

"That was supposed to be a big deal," he said Thursday. "It really wasn't."

His dad chuckled.

"He's a tough guy," LaBarbara said. "He's going to attack it head on. He doesn't care. He's going after it, that's just how he is. We're all going to learn from him no matter what."

Nick's little sister, Hannah, agreed.

"I wouldn't be able to do that," the 10-year-old said, throwing her arm around her brother.

Now the family must wait and see how he does. But he's not afraid.

"God's had the opportunity to take me out already, and he hasn't," he told his mother while coming back from radiation earlier this summer. "He's not going to do it this time. He's not going to take me now."

• • •

There has been an outpouring of support since his most recent diagnosis.

Team Nick was quickly born.

Members of Weeki Wachee and Central High School in Brooksville, where LaBarbara used to be an assistant principal, have united. They've made T-shirts and wristbands, held fundraisers and started a trust to help offset the family's large medical bills.

But Saturday's event was a show of an entirely different kind of support.

The kind meant to put a smile on a young boy's face. The kind that might ultimately be the most help of them all.

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432.

In Hernando, Team Nick buzzing to help 13-year-old battle cancer for a third time 08/18/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 5:02pm]
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