Northwood High School football star Troy Ennis was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer in February 2021, but hopes to return to the field soon
Words and Photography by Anna-Rhesa Versola
Troy Ennis of Pittsboro steps onto the mat, planting his feet shoulder-width apart. He sets his gaze – his lashless eyes becoming laser-focused – as he lifts the weighted steel bar with explosive power.
At 17, Troy stands 6 feet, 2 inches and weighs 245 pounds. He’s larger than most pediatric patients at UNC Children’s Hospital in Chapel Hill where he receives treatment for an aggressive and rare bone cancer called Ewing sarcoma. Approximately 200 children and teens nationwide are diagnosed each year, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders.
The linebacker, who withdrew from Northwood High School this academic year, remains committed to his goal to play college football. Though his cancer treatments will continue into spring, Troy began regular workouts in December. He is on a mission to become stronger, both physically and mentally.
“I went from being totally fine with having a bad ankle, to getting in the hospital and being in so much pain that I want to vomit,” Troy remembers. “It was a rude awakening to the rest of what was gonna come.”
A Small Shadow
A year ago in February, Troy was scrimmaging on the football field despite persistent ankle issues. “I had taken a funny hit,” he says. “Each time I stepped back out on the field, it seemed like I just kept making it worse.”
No matter what he did, Troy struggled to move his swollen ankle. An X-ray showed a small shadow. “It was not until the end of March when [the athletic trainer] finally convinced us to go in for an MRI,” he says. “I had been just trying to rehab and put it off because I wanted to play the season.”
A contrast MRI revealed a mass on the talus bone, an important component between the foot and leg that helps transfer weight and pressure across the joint. A biopsy confirmed the diagnosis, but Troy and his family were not prepared for what it really meant.
“The gold standard [of care] is to take the leg because they don’t want the tumor to come back in that particular site. That’s what they do. It’s almost 90% amputations,” explains Tom Ennis, Troy’s father. “It’s very rare that they even tried to save it.”
Tom says they continue to be grateful that the surgical oncology team avoided amputation – for now. “It’s already metastasized,” Tom says. Cancer cells were found in Troy’s lungs and in his spine. The mass in his right lung was removed, but doctors warned that there are potential risks of recurrence.
In the past year, Troy underwent surgeries, radiation and 10 months of a rigorous chemotherapy regimen. By the end of February, he will have a repeat scan to provide an update on his condition before more radiation (this time on his lungs and T1 vertebra).
“He wants a chance to get on with his life and play football and the best chance for that is what we’re trying to do right now,” Tom says.
The Ennis family moved from the Chicago suburbs to North Carolina about six years ago when Troy’s mom, Shannon Ennis, accepted a job working with the women’s track and field team at UNC. She is now an assistant coach at Campbell University where Troy’s sister, Samantha Ennis, 20, is a track and field champion competing in discus, shot put, javelin and hammer throws. She also blogs about Troy and their family’s experience on a GoFundMe page. The family suspended their plans to move into a new home when Troy learned about Ewing. For now, Shannon continues her daily commute between Chatham County and Campbell’s main campus in Buies Creek, North Carolina.
“We spent a lot of months in disbelief,” Tom says. “This just can’t be real. And then you start to realize, huh, you’re in it – keep moving.”
Troy shuffled into the kitchen and mumbled a question to his dad. The answer was mac and cheese. The meal reminds him of “normal” times before cancer and a global pandemic changed everything.
Blood, Sweat and Tears
Troy’s hemoglobin levels hover around 7 grams per deciliter, roughly half of the expected amount for a healthy male, which means he has to work much harder than his peers on half the amount of oxygen he needs.
“But I lifted on the same day, so I guess I’ve gotten used to it to a certain extent because I don’t get dizzy or lightheaded anymore,” Troy says, adding that he receives blood transfusions when he experiences serious bruising. “It can be pretty annoying if I have a bruise that stays really, really painful for like three or four days just because I don’t have enough blood and blood cells to heal it.”
He remembers one recent workout. “I’m sitting there, drenched in sweat. And some of these freshmen kids are looking at me like, ‘Whoa, what’s so hard?’ And I take off my cap and say,’ Man, I’m dying here, give me a second.’”
Troy’s objective remains the same – to play college football. “That’s the goal. I’m not exactly certain what it’s looking like,” he says. But he still wants to go for it.
His dad shares a reminder that Troy’s immediate goal is to regain his health. “Our goal right now is to get it stable,” Tom says. “And, get to a point where we can determine if it is painful or not painful. If it’s a mild pain that only happens when he’s on the field, and you can take an aspirin for it after the game and recover the next day, great. If it’s a pain, every time you play on it, you’re gonna heal it for three weeks. That’s kind of what we don’t know. And [the doctors] don’t know. They’ve just told us to be careful – don’t expect to be at 100% when really you’re at 10%. It’s gonna take a long time. And just be patient. That’s hard for him.”
Troy knows his recovery may be a long road, but he’s already decided that he’ll be on the football field when he returns to school in August. “I prepare myself by remembering all the difficult things I’ve been through so far,” he says. “Nothing ahead of me is going to be as hard as what I’ve already gone through.”