DURHAM, N.C. - Thousands of North Carolina football fans will be cheering Robert Quinn today in Charlotte, eager for more glimpses of his speed, savvy and ability to rush and crush quarterbacks in the Tar Heels' Meineke Bowl matchup with Pittsburgh.
But at his home near Fayetteville, N.C., 18-year-old Lavelle Sloan will be rooting for the sophomore defensive end for a different reason.
"He's been through what I have," the soft-spoken former high school running back said recently, sitting in a waiting room at Duke Hospital as he prepared to begin a chemotherapy treatment. "He gives me a lot of hope."
In May, Sloan - a 5-foot-5, 170-pound tailback at Pine Forest High - was rushed to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center because of blurred vision, severe headaches and vomiting. He once dreamed of playing football in college, before tests revealed a tumor the size of a golf ball growing on the right side of his brain, just above his ear. A day later, he was undergoing surgery at Duke, where Quinn visited him.
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Sloan's tumor, called a glioblastoma, is different from the one that shortened Quinn's senior season at Fort Dorchester High in 2007. Quinn's was benign, but Sloan's is malignant and characterized as grade 4, which is the most aggressive. It is difficult to eradicate and can regrow quickly.
"There are survivors with glioblastoma in the adult world and the pediatric world," said Gene Hwang, one of Sloan's doctors at Duke. "But at the same time, it's one of the scarier things to have - not only because it's in the brain and it can change who you are, but also because it's a tumor that has traditionally been harder to fix than other tumors. ... There are success stories, and that's what we're pushing for, to make him one of those patients that are successful."
'GOT THE SAME STORIES'
Still, the fact that Sloan and Quinn have gone through similar experiences - watching their senior high school seasons from the sidelines, persevering through the needles and doctor visits and tests, worrying about their futures - is what spurred the Tar Heels player to visit the teenager on a recent Monday.
"We've basically got the same stories: kids who love to play sports but had brain tumors," said Quinn, who was named to the All-ACC first team this season.
"When Andre (Williams, UNC's director of football student-athlete development) called me up to his office and told me the situation, I knew from the jump that I'd do whatever I could to help. It just touched me so personally, because I went through the same thing; I knew exactly how he was feeling."
Scared one day, determined another, depressed the next, Quinn could empathize.
It was on one of the latter occasions that Sloan and his father, Randy McLaughlin, were watching a UNC football game, and the commentators were talking about Quinn's battle with a brain tumor.
Two years ago, Quinn was rushed to the hospital after collapsing in his family bathroom. Diagnosed with a brain tumor, he underwent five hours of emergency surgery to reduce its size and drain the excess fluid around it. It was only after doctors were able to remove a shunt that Quinn was allowed to play sports again.
After his surgery, Sloan had hoped that somehow he would be able to return to the football field by the end of the season. But after an operation to remove as much of the cancerous mass as possible, followed by six weeks of radiation, he was near the end of a 20-week study involving a treatment of chemotherapy pills when he had a seizure.
Doctors barred him from playing contact sports, so Sloan remained on the sideline, helping coach some of the Trojans' running backs. But with his weight diminishing (he's lost about 20 pounds) and his signature locks gone, it was difficult emotionally.
"I missed being out there, running, having the ball in my hands. I love football, and not being able to play ... it was hard," Sloan said.
WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT
When Sloan read more about Quinn's story - how doctors said he never would play football again, and how he is now expected to play in the NFL - Sloan perked up and asked if there was a way he might be able to meet the 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive lineman.
The first meeting came when UNC played Miami at Kenan Stadium on Nov. 14. Sloan and his family were invited to their first college football game, and during warm-ups he was allowed on the field, where he was embraced by several Tar Heels players. About two weeks later, on Nov. 30, Quinn got out of class and went to Duke Hospital, where Sloan was preparing to begin a more traditional, intravenous chemotherapy treatment.
"I just tried to be 100 percent honest with him," said Quinn, who led UNC with 11 sacks this season. "I told him, doctors are smart, but they don't know everything. They told me I would never play sports again, and I'm out there proving them wrong.
"I told him to take every day to the fullest ... to keep your head up, to keep moving, just keep waking up every morning ... and keep fighting."
During their meeting, they joked about all of the needles, talked about the reactions they both got from friends and teachers around high school, discussed living every day to the fullest.
'LAVELLE WAS OVERWHELMED'
Sloan's mother was hoping the visit would boost her son's spirits, and it did.
"Meeting Robert, listening to what he had to say, Lavelle was overwhelmed and very, very thankful," Marilyn Sloan said. "He really feels the same way as Robert - that he's going to fight, and win. I really hope that he, and Robert, inspire others that are going through the same thing."
Quinn and the Tar Heels were hoping Sloan would able to attend a pre-bowl practice in Chapel Hill, but the weather and Sloan's frailness after chemotherapy kept him home. The family also received disheartening news recently. Marilyn Sloan said the latest rounds of chemotherapy aren't working, so he's starting a different 21-day cycle of oral chemotherapy as doctors try to figure out what comes next.
Still, the teenager plans to watch - and cheer - for Quinn today as he and the Tar Heels take on Pittsburgh. He knows the factors that the UNC star brings to the field are the same ones he can bring to his fight: perseverance, grit, belief.
"Now," Marilyn Sloan said, "Lavelle is a Tar Heel fan for life."