Editor’s Note: This is a repost of an article that ran in the Southern Sentinel in April 2011 on Falkner High School baseball player Zack Hopkins, then a freshman, who played despite battling bone cancer. Hopkins passed away on May 6, 2014 after a eight-year battle with the disease. The Southern Sentinel expresses its deepest condolences to his family and the Falkner community in the loss of a young man, who can best be described as a fighter and the epitome of a competitor.
FALKNER–If you casually follow high school baseball, you’ve probably heard of the Falkner High School phenom known as Will Robertson. He’s graced the front of the Southern Sentinel sports page for his athletic heroics many times. Just last week, he was celebrated nationally for a record-setting performance with his bat and his arm.
But for all of Robertson’s talent, he’s not the toughest player on the Falkner Eagle baseball team. He’s not even close.
That distinction belongs to 5-foot-7, 120 pound freshman Zack Hopkins.
What makes Hopkins tough isn’t the fact that he can hit a baseball a mile or that he can play every position on the baseball diamond. The toughness of Hopkins is how he simply plays. He plays despite being stricken with the Ewing’s Sarcoma, a cancer that attacks the bone and soft tissue. It not only makes him tough, but courageous.
“He’s a fighter,” said Robertson. “And I love him for it.”
God places the heaviest burden on those who can carry the weight.–Reggie White
Ewing’s Sarcoma can occur in any bone, but most often is initially discovered in the long bones–femur (thigh), tibia (shin), or in the case of Hopkins, the humerus (upper arm).
The potentially fatal diseased cells can also metastasize (spread) to other areas of the body such as bone marrow, lungs, heart, adrenal gland and other soft tissue. Ewing’s Sarcoma is rare in children, accounting for just two to three percent of all childhood cancers.
Hopkins is the son of Sherri and Dennis Hopkins of Falkner and has an older brother, Hunter. Hopkins was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma in Oct. 2006. A spot on his upper arm and elbow landed him at St. Jude Research Hospital in Memphis. There, doctors removed a small spot on his lung and Hopkins began chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
In 2009, a routine check-up found a tumor the size of a baseball had grown on his fourth rib in addition to spots on his skull. Another round of radiation and chemotherapy was ordered, but it had no effect on the disease. The rib was completely removed along with a portion of his lung.
Days and weeks in the hospital became the norm for Hopkins. In the beginning, he spent six days at St. Jude, every two weeks, later he alternated to a two week at St. Jude and one week at home schedule.
As a nine-year old, Hopkins was also taking shots as well as four to five pills each night. Recently, he began another round of treatments after more places were discovered on his skull, pelvic bone and vertebrae.
Regardless of what he’s endured as far as cancer is concerned, Hopkins contends that the long stays in the hospital are what he hates the most.
“I don’t like being away from my family and friends,” said Hopkins. “The radiation isn’t that bad and the chemo just makes me fell tired and run down. I just hate staying up there all the time.”
Hopkins really doesn’t like being away from Falkner. During his surgery to remove his rib, he had the surgery on Wednesday and got out in time to make the Eagles’ home football game versus Okolona on a Friday. He’s the team manager.
“I love football,” said Hopkins. “They let me out, just so I could make the game.”
Hopkins has never complained about the treatments or that he was stricken with Ewing’s Sarcoma in the first place. It’s just being away from the friendly confines of Falkner–school or home–that brings him down.
But even with that, Hopkins doesn’t show it; another testament to his sheer toughness in the face of uncertain danger. His mom, Sherri, recalled how her son’s courage and spirit were amazing from the very beginning.
“His spirit was unbelievable from the start,” she said. I can’t recall any time he has felt sorry for himself. Even when he was in the bed taking chemo, he would get the night nurses to play baseball with him on the Wii.”
Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.– Mary Anne Radmacher
Hopkins loves baseball and he has played his favorite sport since seventh grade. As a freshman second baseman and left fielder, he finds himself in the Eagle starting lineup when he’s able to play. Sometimes the treatment leaves his body so drained that he just can’t go. Sometimes doctor’s orders leaves him in the dugout.
Never discouraged, Hopkins just waits until the next time. Although he wears a helmet when playing the infield to protect his head, that’s the only special treatment he requires. He wants to be treated like any other player despite the situation with his health.
“I push myself like I would if I was completely healthy, and I hate it when I can’t play,” said Hopkins. “I don’t let it (Ewing’s Sarcoma) get in the way of things I do. I don’t like getting treated different than others either.”
The Eagles have played 24 games this season, Hopkins has played in 17 of them, starting many of them. He’s currently batting .139 with five hits and 8 RBIs. After missing the last couple weeks because of treatments, Hopkins was back in the lineup Friday to help the Eagles’ win 4-1 win over Shaw in the opening round of the 2011 high school baseball playoffs.
He went 0-3 in that game, but the following day, like the “battler” Coach Chip Johnson calls him, he bounced back with an RBI squeeze bunt in the third inning of the Eagles’ series-winning 12-1 victory.
“Zack’s just a great kid and his presence is always felt in the dugout, when he’s here and even when he’s not here,” said Johnson. “We know he’s battling for his life, but he battles on the baseball field when he’s with us.”
“And he’s good enough to play. He’s not playing because he’s a cancer patient. He’s playing because he’s good enough to play. He’s in a fight, and we’re just hoping and praying for the best.”
Robertson said seeing Hopkins in the dugout on days he just can’t go–knowing how much he wants to play–motivates him. Robertson knows how much Hopkins wants to play.
“I know he’d do anything to play,” said Robertson. “Seeing that makes me play harder.”
Anyone can give up, it’s the easiest thing in the world to do. But to hold it together when everyone else would understand if you fell apart, that’s true strength.–Author Unknown.
The general prognosis for Ewing’s Sarcoma is not good, with a 5-year survival rate of less than 30 percent. But Hopkins doesn’t even think about the grim outlook, choosing instead to focus on the here and now.
“I plan to beat it,” said Hopkins. “I plan to get rid of it and go back to being a regular kid.”
Hopkins plans to finish high school and attend college to be a game warden, a dream he’s had since falling in love with the outdoors years ago.
“I honestly don’t know what I want to do, but I can see myself as a game warden,” said Hopkins. “I just like the outdoors and animals.”
Sherri said thoughts of a future without her youngest son naturally cross her mind, but they soon leave when she looks at her son’s huge smile and how his eyes seem to smile as well. She said she chooses to focus on today as well.
“It does cross my mind, but I quickly get back and focus on the task at hand–getting through what we have to do right now,” she said. “I thank God every morning He allows me to have him another day. I’m just so thankful to have two great young men.”