Billy Gowacki was happy to be on the water instead of in a hospital bed. "I don't get to fish much," the 17-year-old St. Petersburg High senior said. "I look forward to every minute I get to spend outside." Gowacki was 10 in September 2002 when his right leg started hurting. His parents rushed him to the hospital. "My life changed after that," he said. "That was the first of many visits to the hospital."
The Big C
It didn't take long for doctors to figure out what was wrong.
"I had a tumor," he said. "The technical term is Ewing's sarcoma."
This rare disease destroyed his femur. It meant long bouts of aggressive chemotherapy and the end to the life of running and jumping that most 10-year-old boys enjoy.
The chemo worked. The cancer died, and on Jan. 17, 2003, he had surgery to replace the damaged bone with a prostheses.
"It was hard," he said. "I spent a lot of time in the hospital."
Gowacki was recovering nicely when, about 10 months later, he was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome. Without a bone marrow transplant, he had less than a 10 percent chance to live six months.
"Luckily, after three days on the transplant registry, six matches were found; two of which were perfect," he said. "I got the transplant, and my body accepted it with little fuss."
Gowacki said family members helped keep his spirits up. He also met children in similar circumstances through the Tampa-based Pediatric Cancer Foundation. The not-for-profit raises money for research to battle many childhood cancers, including the one that nearly killed Gowacki.
Every year, the organization hosts a celebrity fishing tournament that draws dozens of pro athletes and other dignitaries who are paired with pro guides and regular folks to fish the waters of Tampa Bay. This weekend, Hall of Famer and ex-Ray Wade Boggs returns as host.
"It has been a challenge to keep this tournament going in these trying economic times," said Dave Markett, a Tampa charter boat captain who has donated his services for more than a decade. "But when you get a chance to fish with somebody like this young man (Gowacki), you realize just how important the mission is."
In its heyday, the tournament, started by former Rays general manager Chuck LaMar, drew hundreds of anglers. But in recent years, the tournament has lost several major sponsors.
Tampa attorney Steve Yerrid and pet food maker Purina picked up some of the slack, but the bay area's premier catch-and-release tournament is still struggling to cover expenses.
Markett spends nearly every day on the water guiding tourists and locals. But on a warm October afternoon, he canceled a charter just so he could spend a few hours fishing with Gowacki.
"When you see what the Pediatric Cancer Foundation does for young people like this gentleman, how can you say no?" Markett said. "We can all do our part to help make a difference."
Gowacki told Markett he did not care what they caught as long as it put up a good fight.
"This is great," Gowacki said again and again. "I hope we catch a shark."
Markett made no promises. But as if on cue, a young shark grabbed Gowacki's bait, and the fight was on. A few minutes later, the angler and his guide posed for a quick photo.
"Nobody will believe this," Gowacki said. "I can't wait to post this picture on Facebook."
Confident, cancer-free and glad to be alive, Gowacki said he hopes others will draw strength from his story.
"I am thankful for all I've got," he said. "I really am pretty lucky."