Timberlane Owls Boys Soccer '07

Childhood friends Lira and Hernandez give cancer the boot

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Tim Lira, 17, left, and Charlie Hernandez, 17, have been there for each other on and off the soccer field at Timberlane Regional. Lira survived leukemia in 2001, and Hernandez has battled cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. » Roger Darrigrand, Staff PhotographerMore photos

Thursday, September, 27 By Bob Albright
Staff writer

PLAISTOW, N.H. | It was the last order of business after another long, hot practice under the watchful eye of Timberlane boys soccer coach Bill Mealey | an intra-squad shirts and skins scrimmage.

Tim Lira was a skin and this time he had no trepidation about taking his shirt off.

Almost instantaneously, an inevitable query came from one of his teammates.

"Hey, Timmy, where did you get that scar?"

Lira's quick response spoke volumes.

"He was like, 'Yeah, I had leukemia, so what," said Mealey of his star forward's explanation of the prominent incision across his chest just above his heart.

Better than six years after he was first diagnosed with the daunting disease as a fifth grader, that simple response tells as much about this tale of perseverance as the frenetic and tireless manner that Lira plays the game.

"When I first got it, I didn't want a lot of people to know," Lira, 17, said. "And when I got in the middle school, the teachers actually had a talk with the class and told them not to ask too many questions because I didn't like it. "Now it's different. I actually had a presentation to do in psychology and I did it on (leukemia). I told the class all about it because I feel it's important."

And while the Owls won just their second game of the year Tuesday afternoon, you will still be hard pressed to find a more compelling view than the Timberlane soccer field on game days this fall.

There, you can see the dynamic waterbug of a forward, Lira, effortlessly split a sea of defenders with his good friend, Charlie Hernandez, backing him up from his post in the midfield.

Friends since first grade, they would spend hours kicking the soccer ball back and forth in their Atkinson neighborhood off Sunset Drive. The two also share a bond that is far greater than corner kicks, pizza and movies. Both are cancer survivors.

At an early age, Hernandez was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer which thankfully has been dormant for the most part since then.

In fact, the pair were profiled in an Eagle-Tribune investigative series six years ago looking for a link between radon levels in the water in Atkinson and what appeared to be an exceedingly large group from the tight-knit community who had cancer.

While a conclusive finding never was reached, both boys found themselves staring at a grim reality at an age which usually doesn't offer many.

A shocking diagnosis

It was at the end of Lira's fifth grade season playing youth soccer that it became apparent that there was something wrong. A prototype 80-minute player if there ever was one, the forward was no longer able to keep pace with players he had been leaving in his wake all year long.

"I would get extra tired during the game," Lira recalled. "Everybody else would be all sweaty and I would be all pale. When I got home from the games, I would be wicked tired." Originally diagnosed with asthma and given an inhaler, the fatigue persisted. A subsequent chest X-ray turned his relatively uncomplicated world upside down.

"They found a tumor right near my sternum on my chest," he said.

The above-mentioned scar was born at Children's Hospital shortly thereafter during a month-plus stay. While the staff at Children's was confident that they had removed all the cancer, Lira still received both chemotherapy and radiation upon his release.

It was a formidable 1-2 punch for Lira, who lost his hair and found himself even more drowsy than he had been before the surgery.

"When I got it at 11, it was hard because I was not much of a needle person," said Lira. "But after a while I had to bite the bullet and get used to it."

Thanks in part to that resolve, the cancer went into remission shortly after his release and by the start of his seventh grade year Lira was back playing with his travel team.

"I'd go in for a little and then they would take me out. As the season progressed, they put me in more and more."

A rare childhood disease

Hernandez can't recall whether he was four or five when he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, at least for someone of his age, called cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.

"At that age I was probably one of just three or four kids (in the country) that had it," said Hernandez of the cancer which was treated topically.

While he has had some lymph nodes removed and has undergone "light treatments," which he says are akin to sitting in a high-tech tanning bed, the cancer has remained dormant. That didn't make it any easier, however, to watch his soccer buddy whisked to Children's for a month where Lira would go from an undersized 90-pound forward to a 50-pound cancer patient who was fighting for his life.

A bond that will not be broken

"Our experiences are totally different, but that same feeling of sadness or being afraid I could definitely feel that for him," said Hernandez, who was a frequent visitor at Children's Hospital while also keeping a steady flow of cards and letter flowing from Atkinson to Boston when he could not be there in person.

That support is still not lost on Lira.

"I remember he wrote me a letter and told me that if I had any questions that he would always be there for me," said Lira with a smile.

Six years later, Hernandez still is. Watching from the sidelines of Tuesday's 3-1 win over Spaulding, it's Hernandez's voice that challenges Mealey's vociferous tones. "Tim deserves to have a goal. He's done everything today but score."

Although a foot taller than Lira, it's clear that when it comes to soccer, Hernandez looks up to the diminutive striker.

"I started playing because of him. He was playing in first grade and I started in second," said Hernandez, a National Honor Society student who also referees youth soccer games in his off time.

"He's a tremendous player. When I watch him, I honestly think of what his potential could have been if he hadn't missed two years of practice."

Bright futures

While they will both undoubtedly reunite during the vacations to kick soccer balls in one backyard or the other, this durable duo will finally be separated next fall.

Lira, who would like to pursue exercise science in college, hopes to be playing soccer at a Division 3 school. It's a very reasonable goal according to Mealey.

"Absolutely. He's a little guy anyway and even more because of the leukemia, but he's very strong," said Mealey of Lira, who is tied for the team lead with three goals. "He put 15 pounds of muscle on this summer and he absolutely gives you the toughest 70 to 80 minutes of the game. He handles the ball real ball well. He's the kid I always call out during a drill to demonstrate something."

Hernandez, a math and science whiz who's ranked in the top five percent of his class of over 400, has the likes of Cornell, Williams, Pennsylvania and other prestigious institutions offering to fly him down just for a visit. "He's very cerebral and, to his credit, he is starting to earn a lot of time in the midfield," said Mealey. "He's so dedicated and absolutely loves the game."

As painful as a past as it was, Lira never wants to forget it.

"I think about it all the time," he said, surveying the sun-splashed Timberlane field and a dejected group of Spaulding player walking off it.

"I like to think how far I've come and it's a good feeling." A knowing smile and nod from Hernandez only echoes that sentiment.

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