By B.J. Koubaroulis
For 15-year-old Ramon Hilliard, attending sporting events has always been about watching his favorite athletes accomplish amazing feats. This weekend, 46 hall of fame athletes are applauding him for beating leukemia for the second time.
Hilliard, who has battled acute lymphoblastic lymphoma for the past two years, is being honored as the Patient Hero at the 17th annual Bobby Mitchell Hall of Fame Golf Classic. The three-day event culminates in a round of golf today at Lansdowne Resort in which hall of fame athletes play to help raise funds for research.
Since Mitchell -- a former Redskin -- started the event nearly two decades ago, it has attracted NFL Hall of Famers such as former Redskins Sonny Jurgensen and Charley Taylor and NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. The event has raised more than $5 million.
"To see Ramon realize how well he can play a sport and to find out [he has] leukemia, that has got to be devastating," said Mitchell, who was inducted into the NFL's Hall of Fame in 1983 after a career that included four selections to the Pro Bowl. "When I first met him, that smile and the intelligence jumped out at you, and it just blew me away."
Less than two months after making the junior varsity football team as a freshman at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, the two-way starter learned in November 2005 that he had the disease.
"It's mostly like just trying to get back to what you had," Hilliard said of his battle with cancer. "Especially for someone who had so much, and you see it taken away."
After his diagnosis, Hilliard could no longer play football, and he has since been home-schooled.
"When I first went into the hospital, I couldn't tell [the doctors] what this pain felt like because I had never been sick," he said. "I couldn't tell them if it was a shocking pain or a pinch pain because I had never felt any of those things, even playing football."
He entered treatment immediately and was in remission by December 2005, but the following January, doctors told Hilliard's mother, Denae, that he needed a bone marrow transplant.
"Ramon stopped me from smoking years ago. . . . He was about 8 years old. He said, 'Mommy, I don't want you to get cancer,' so I quit," Denae said. "To have to tell him that he had it -- I just couldn't."
Denae organized about 25 bone marrow drives over the last year. A donor was found, and the transplant was completed last July. While recovering, Hilliard lost his sense of taste for two months and, after leaving the hospital, was isolated for 100 days at home.
He is currently in remission and has regular injections to boost his immune system. He will go back to Northwestern as a junior in the fall and has been practicing with the football team this summer with the expectation of returning to the field.
"I want this to be over," Hilliard said. "You want it to be done, and you never want to remember it, but you have to because in some ways you feel proud that you fought this thing and made it through."
According to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the overall five-year survival rate has more than tripled in the past 40 years for patients with leukemia; however, leukemia still kills more people younger than 20 than any other cancer.
"The percentage rate of success has gone way beyond my expectations," said Robertson, who was enshrined in the NBA's Hall of Fame in 1979 after he retired as the league's all-time leader in career assists and free throws made. "You see people [with] this disease that know right from the start that there is an opportunity to recover. Years ago, that wasn't true."