MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – In 2009, a basketball changed Katorie Bell’s entire life when it struck him in the head during a Jeff Davis practice.
In the days that followed, the effects of the injury worsened significantly.
“My vision started getting blurry, but I thought it was probably a headache or something,” said Bell, who is now finishing up his senior year of high school. “Then a week later my eyeball started protruding out and going down.”
After meeting with medical specialists, Bell had surgery to correct the issue, but the procedure exposed a new diagnosis: Cancer. Specifically, rhabdomyosarcoma, which affects the growing tissue.
“When I heard about people who’ve got cancer, I thought they died,” he said. “I thought it was my time, and it really shook up my parents. I went through the chemo and everything and really thought about losing hope, but then I thought, ‘You can do this.’”
Katorie underwent 52 weeks of chemotherapy and 12 weeks of radiation and was preparing for the final dose of chemo when the unthinkable happened.
“The cancer came back,” he said. “It came back, and it was growing rapidly. They had to react on it aggressively. They told me it was either my eye or my life, and I had a day to decide. I told them go with the eye.”
In April 2012, Bell went under the knife again to remove his left eye and part of the bone behind it. He endured 49 additional weeks of chemotherapy and has since been pronounced cancer-free.
“Losing the eye was the hardest part I had to deal with,” he said. “I went into a real depression. I didn’t want to go out in public. My dad told me to wear a patch because there was a rapper around here who was wearing one. So I was like, ‘I’m just going to where it and be proud of it. People will say stuff, but none of it got to me.”
Bell credits his parents and family for helping him get through the ordeal. When he was cleared to return to athletics, he jumped at the opportunity.
He took part in summer practices in 2013 and saw time as a defensive back for the Volunteers as a senior last fall. For his courage, Bell was named a regional winner in the Bryant-Jordan Scholarship Program in the Achievement category, which rewards teens who have overcome personal obstacles to excel athletically and academically.
“It was a really good experience for me,” Bell said when asked about returning to the playing field. “I really enjoyed practices and running. It was really fun, especially when people asked me, ‘How are you playing DB with one eye?’ I see perfectly, I was catching balls. I just wanted to play.”
His head coach, Lee Carter, had just been hired at Jeff Davis from Carver when Bell rejoined the team.
“He was an inspiration,” Carter said. “It’s amazing. He came back out there and fit right along with the guys. As a coach it was scary because he has one eye. We didn’t want anything to happen to him, but he said, ‘Coach, I’m fine. I’m ready to go.’”
Bell said several players looked up to him, including the star of the team.
“Ricardo Stokes pulled me to the side and said, ‘You know what, man? You’re a warrior. I look up to you,’” Katorie said. “Ricardo is one of the best players on the team. It felt good.”
With the cancer behind him, Bell is hoping to attend either Auburn, Alabama A&M or Troy for college after being home-schooled for much of his high school years. He also plans to start a cancer charity called “Never Give Up” in the future.
“I want to go around to different Children’s Hospitals and go to each cancer patient, no matter what they’re going through, and tell them they can make it,” he said. “Just fight through it. That’s the key to beating cancer. Just smile no matter how down it’s got you.”
Bell’s Bryant-Jordan scholarship is worth $2,500 and he could be awarded more scholarship money Monday at the statewide scholarship banquet in Birmingham.
“If he wins, that’d be great, but I believe he’s a winner already,” Carter said. “Most people don’t have the courage to battle 52 weeks of chemo and radiation then come back and have to fight it again for 49 more weeks.
“I wish we had more players like Katorie Bell.”
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