It was like there was a rock in his leg.
That’s how Bradley Fetherston, a junior baseball player at Tates Creek High School, described the pain that wouldn’t go away from behind his left knee during last two years.
It wasn’t a tight muscle he consistently failed to stretch out, as several trainers suspected. There were no visible or tangible signs of a structural problem, so he kept playing through the pain.
By the end of his summer club season it was impacting his on-field performance. Mark Blythe, a club coach, noticed that his throwing motion was unusual. In his final game of the season a slide for a stolen base, an elementary task at his point in his career, resulted in a limp after he sprung up.
“That’s just not like Bradley to get up limping,” said Dawn Congleton, his mom. “He’s not that kid, cause I’m that mom that says, ‘Rub some dirt on it and get up, you’re fine.’ I’m just that crazy mom.”
Blythe referred Fetherston to Scott Crook at Performance Physical Therapy. Crook couldn’t work out the pain, so he suggested the family have medical imaging performed. An X-ray that preceded an MRI revealed a growth on his tibia about the size of a half-dollar. Two days later, a doctor confirmed that the growth was a marrow-replacing bone tumor and that it was possibly cancerous.
“I knew something was in there,” Fetherston said. “It didn’t feel like a tight muscle to me and the pain never got better. It just felt like if you took a rock out of my leg, it would feel better, and that’s basically what it was.”
‘A long recovery’
Fetherston was taken to the University of Kentucky’s Markey Cancer Center about an hour after learning what was behind his knee. It took about a month to schedule a bone biopsy to determine whether the tumor was benign or malignant; the intervening period was the scariest of Fetherston’s life. For most of last August he thought he might never get to play baseball again.
“They told us when we went to Markey, at first, that there was a possibility he could lose his leg if it was cancer,” Congleton said. “They took him immediately off of (his leg) because of the way it was pushing on the bone, it could cause the bone to break if he stepped on it wrong.”
At first Fetherston received good news — it was not cancer. But a couple of days later he returned for another appointment and learned that results of the biopsy were actually inconclusive. He and his mother opted to go ahead and schedule a surgery for Sept. 7 to remove the growth instead of undergoing another biopsy.
Congleton said one of her friends, who coached Fetherston in third grade, organized “a gathering of faith” prior to his biopsy and surgery.
“We had coaches who had coached Bradley from the time he was 5 years old and on up through the leagues,” Congleton said. “Lafayette’s coaches came to the house, players that played with him did a prayer of faith. It was awesome. Players that play at Dunbar, at Bryan Station, you know, all around the baseball community, came to the house and did a prayer with him.”
Doctors performed another biopsy during the removal of the tumor and determined that it was a chondroblastoma, a benign tumor that grows at the ends of long bones and accounts for about one percent of all bone tumors. It was the same type of tumor that caused Lindsey Duvall, the 2017 Miss Basketball winner who’s now at Louisville, to miss most of her junior season of high school.
After his surgery and upon learning he was cancer-free, Fetherston put weeks of worrying behind him and looked ahead to months of physical therapy in order to get back on the field. He wasn’t cleared to return to practice until March 26, on which Tates Creek played its third game of the season. The recovery process, he said, is similar to those who undergo ACL surgeries.
“It’s a long recovery and you have the same knee problems,” Fetherston said. “Ligaments are different than just taking something out of your leg, but we’ve basically gone through the same physical therapy and the same rehab.”
Doctors had to perform a bone graft to fill in the space left behind by the excised tumor. Fetherston still experiences some pain.
“I’ll have good days and bad days and sometimes can feel the bone graft, but it doesn’t really bother me as much as the tumor did,” he said.
The numbness in his leg is more noticeable. Nerves, blood vessels and muscles below the back of his knee had to be moved downward during surgery and repositioned before he was stitched back up. He and his mom said it’s possible that feeling might never return to that area.
Fetherston will have to see a doctor every three months for the next few years to make sure the tumor is not returning. Otherwise he’s good to go, physically, albeit eight months behind where he’d like to be from a baseball perspective. There’s a mental hurdle to get over as well.
“I think the biggest thing Bradley’s having to deal with now is, physically he’s better, but it’s the mental part of trusting his knee again,” Tates Creek Coach Larry Poynter said. “He had to sit out the entire fall and the entire winter and he’s slowly progressing himself back in.”
Fetherston, who started at third base and pitched in several of Tates Creek’s games last year, is coming off the bench for now. He saw his first action during a Saturday trip to Elizabethtown on April 6, and was called upon to pinch hit in Tates Creek’s district opener against Lafayette last week. Fetherston laid down a sacrifice bunt that moved the potential tying and go-ahead runs into scoring position against the Generals, and was met with a sizable round of cheers and back pats upon his return to the dugout.
He says he’s at about 70 or 75 percent of what he can be, and he wants to contribute in whatever manner that is asked of him.
“I’ve never really had to sit out that long of time,” Fetherston said. “... It’ll never feel the same, like it did before, but it’s gonna get close. As long as it gets close, that’s all I can ask for.”
Poynter lauded Fetherston’s determination and hopes guys who haven’t had to experience setbacks see his example and examine their own work ethic.
“Here’s a guy who went through what he did and he worked his butt off to come back and just be able to continue playing this game,” Poynter said. “You hope that they use that as an inspiration for themselves. The fact that their buddy gets to come back out and do what he enjoys doing, to me, is unbelievable.
“I think the world of the work that he’s put in to get back, cause a lot of guys easily after that just could have said, ‘I’m done,’ but he didn’t. He wants to continue to play, and I love it.”