Nick Pesek was coming off the best season of his football career. He was a 1,000-yard rusher for a Saint Xavier University team that hit a peak one year earlier than its coaches had expected and was returning 16 of the starters who won the NAIA national title last December.
Pesek, a small, quick back perfectly suited to the team's spread offense, spent the summer trying to be even better prepared for this season.
"He's a workout hound," Cougars coach Mike Feminis said.
That was evident when the players showed up for preseason testing and physicals at the school's far South Side campus on Aug. 10. The 20-year-old junior from Oak Lawn felt great. Pesek (pronounced Pea-sack) scored well on strength, agility and speed tests before heading into his late afternoon physical.
Yayati Patel, the medical resident who examined him, found a lump on Pesek's right testicle. It was very small, the doctor said, but it should be checked further. Pesek began asking questions, and one brought the answer he feared: It could be cancer, a disease that has had a devastating impact on his family.
Pesek's mother, Lisa, is in her third year as a breast cancer survivor after a double mastectomy in 2009. Her sister, Laura, had died at 39 of breast cancer. Her grandmother died of breast cancer, and one of her aunts died of ovarian cancer.
"I was freaking out, beyond scared," Pesek said. "My thought was I was going to have to go through everything my mom went through."
He is telling this story publicly for the first time as No. 4 Saint Xavier (11-1) prepares for Saturday's NAIA tournament semifinal at No. 3 Morningside College (12-0) in Sioux City, Iowa. Pesek has broken the school's single season and career rushing records despite missing the opening game after Aug. 14 surgery to remove the testicle in which testing had indeed found a cancerous tumor.
When he first heard the word "cancer," Pesek assumed it was linked to his family history. He would learn there is no clear association between his cancer, seminoma, and breast cancer.
Seminoma is a slow-growing testicular cancer most commonly found in men in their 30s and 40s, according to the National Library of Medicine website. If it is Stage 1 — confined to one area, as Pesek's was — the patient can choose between a course of chemotherapy or just surveillance after removal of the testicle.
Chemo likely would have knocked him out of this football season, so he chose surveillance. It involves lab work every three months for the first two years and every six months for the next two, plus CT scans every six months for four years and annual checkups after that.
"I just thank God for giving me another chance to play football and making me healthy again," he said.
Doctors had told Pesek his form of cancer was a best-case scenario. There is less than a 15 percent chance it will recur, according to his oncologist, Renee Jacobs. If it does, she said, the regular surveillance would catch the recurrence in time to have it treated effectively with chemotherapy.
But Pesek still thought the operation would compromise this football season. After urologist Stephen Nold performed the surgery, Pesek asked about playing. He was sure Nold's answer would be no.
"He said I could suit up again in about three weeks — as soon as the scar healed," Pesek said. "My jaw dropped."
He did little but sit around on pillows most of those three weeks. There still was lingering soreness when he came to practice the week before the Sept. 1 opener. His presence, even in a non-playing role, boosted the team's spirits.
"All the guys put the football part aside," Feminis said. "They were just happy to get their friend back."
Pesek, 5-feet 8 and 180 pounds, put on pads and faced contact for the first time the following week.
"I was a little nervous until I got hit there for the first time and didn't feel anything," Pesek said. "Then I was worried about getting into a game but when I went in for the first play, I forgot I was sick."
Saint Xavier's head trainer, Kate DeGaetano, was watching Pesek's mannerisms and facial expressions for signs of trouble. She saw nothing.
"It was pretty amazing how well he bounced back," she said.
"He always has been tough as nails," Feminis said.
Pesek ran nine times for 43 yards and caught one pass in his first game. It was 17 carries for 140 yards the next, his first of five 100-yard games as he racked up 1,085 yards (6.4 per carry), caught 34 passes and scored 10 touchdowns.
"When he made the first touchdown, I was in tears," his mother said. "He is a very determined person, that's for sure."
Pesek's first surveillance testing was done the day before Thanksgiving. The results came back negative Monday.