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Austin Rehkow battles for Bills spot while his little brother fights leukemia

PITTSFORD - Austin Rehkow stands on the sideline at St. John Fisher College, gripping his shoulder pads and holding his helmet in one hand. His hair is drenched with sweat after a two-hour training camp practice. Nearby, a swarm of fans dangle over fences and chant “Shady” as they await autographs from Buffalo Bills star running back LeSean McCoy.

The only way any of them know Rehkow is by matching the number on the back of his practice jersey with a name on a sheet of paper. For the most part, the undrafted rookie punter blends in among the other 89 players here. But one thing about him is different.

Rehkow wears a thin orange rubber wristband on his right wrist. The white lettering is fading, but you can make out two ribbons and the letters “C-T-R” in between.

The ribbons advocate cancer awareness and C-T-R stands for Cameron Tyler Rehkow, Austin’s 11-year-old brother battling leukemia. Those are also the initials of “Choose the Right,” a motto of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Rehkows belong to the church, and the saying encourages people to live righteously.

Cameron was diagnosed with leukemia in April 2016. He missed all 13 of Austin’s games his senior year at Idaho because he was too sick. He was supposed to attend Austin’s Senior Night on Dec. 3 against Georgia State, but an unexpected sickness prevented him from doing so. Instead, Cameron stayed with his grandmother in Spokane, Wash., while Austin, his parents and two other brothers celebrated one final home game.

As the family walked onto the field for the ceremony, they FaceTimed Cameron in front of over 11,000 people. Austin, the oldest of four boys, told the youngest that he loved him and to stay strong.

"You could just tell," said Ryan, the second-oldest brother. "It was not as happy as it could’ve been."

Then, wearing the same orange wristband, Austin made a promise without knowing if he’d be able to keep it.

You’ll get to see me play again.

***

Cameron returned home from school on his bike, nearly out of breath.

His dad, on bed rest after hip surgery, joked with him. “You must’ve been riding really fast!” But when his youngest son didn’t laugh along, rather complaining of chest pain and difficulty breathing, Freddie Rehkow knew something was wrong.

In the weeks and months prior, the Rehkows noticed signs. A cough that began in late 2015 carried over until March 2016. A vibrant 10-year-old was lethargic, no longer able to dart up and down a basketball court during his AAU games. On his second-oldest brother’s visit to BYU in early April, Cameron lagged behind his other family members and even vomited a couple times.

The laborious bike ride happened on a Monday. On Tuesday evening, Cameron had blood work done. Around noon on Wednesday, he was at school, his mom at work, his father immobile at home when the phone rang.

You need to get your son down to Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital.

The call came on the home phone, but Freddie couldn’t reach it. He called his wife, Kim, on his cell to relay the message. She left work early, picked up her youngest and rushed to the doctor. When they reached the third floor, doctors whisked Cameron away for more blood tests. Doctors applied numbing cream so they could locate the best entry point on his skin, while Kim struggled to hold back tears waiting outside.

Not long after, on April 13, 2016, Cameron was diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

T-ALL, the medical abbreviation, is an aggressive type of leukemia that progresses quickly. It results in a lack of normal white blood cells, according to the Mayo Clinic, leaving those who have it prone to more frequent and severe infections, excessive weakness and shortness of breath, among other symptoms.

Shortly after the diagnosis, doctors told Kim they needed to do a chest X-ray on her youngest son. Why, she asked, if leukemia is cancer of the blood? She stood behind a computer as the X-ray results appeared, revealing a large mass in his chest.

“Wow,” she thought. “We have more than leukemia here.”

The mass turned out to be part of the leukemia, T-cells that weren’t functioning correctly and accumulating at the thymus gland below the breast bone. It had grown rapidly and restricted Cameron’s airway. At the time, 97 percent of his cells were leukemic. Luckily, the mass responded to treatment well and shrunk quickly.

Kim had no idea what could’ve happened if Cameron had gone to the hospital only a few days later.

“Had you not had him in here,” the doctor explained, “it probably could’ve been a couple of days.”

When Kim learned her son had evaded death, she asked what needed to be done upon taking him home later that day. You don’t understand, the doctor stressed, he’s lucky to even be walking in here right now. Kids this sick usually have organs shutting down.

The 10-year-old filled with life was suddenly drained of it. He laid in a hospital bed in Spokane, already having defeated the odds but with more stacked against him. A family of six who spent months with questions finally had an unfathomable answer.

From left: Landon, Austin, Ryan and Cameron Rehkow. (Courtesy of Freddie Rehkow)

Austin stood in a WinCo Food store in Idaho when he got the text from his dad.

Call me when you can. I need to talk to you.

Austin first thought he was in trouble and rushed back to campus. He could tell by his dad’s tone that he wasn’t, that something more serious had happened. Cameron hasn’t been feeling well, Freddie started. But Austin already knew that.

“They’re thinking it’s leukemia.”

Austin was in denial. There’s no way, he thought, that this could happen to a Rehkow, a boy from the active, energetic family filled with good health and athleticism.

When reality hit, Austin locked his door and shut the lights. For an hour, alone, he cried.

“Nothing can prepare you for that news,” Austin said. “It’s a really tough pill to swallow.”

Austin always vowed to look out for his youngest brother. He felt it his responsibility as the oldest. Now, though, he felt powerless.

Before Cameron’s fatigue set in, the brothers threw a football together in the backyard. They ventured to a nearby park to play volleyball and kick footballs for fun. They played basketball, rode jet skis and went bowling. These days, Cameron is restricted mainly to playing XBOX with whoever is home.

“We have a very special bond,” Austin said. “It’s the oldest and the youngest.”

Right now the oldest and the youngest are separated by about 2,400 miles, but they text and FaceTime when Austin’s schedule allows. Cameron just passed the one-year mark of chemotherapy. Now he’s in a “maintenance” stage, requiring a spinal tap once a month and oral chemotherapy every day for the next 2 ½-3 years.

This week is the first time since his diagnosis that Cameron is away from home. He’s at nearby Camp Journey, a week-long sleepaway camp for young cancer survivors. There are doctors and nurses there, but not having Cameron sleep at home is a foreign feeling to his parents.

From all the chemotherapy and steroids and medicine, he has difficulty walking and running. But when Kim visited camp Monday to bring Cameron to chemotherapy, he was throwing a football around with other kids.

“It’s the first time in a year we’ve actually got to see him be a kid,” Freddie said.

Not all days are like that. There are ones when he can't eat, can't stand up, can't be the Cameron of old.

They wonder if it's the end.

Yet each time, Cameron battles.

 

Cameron wears an Idaho football helmet. (Courtesy of Freddie Rehkow)

Austin fiddles with his wristband while explaining its meaning.

Minutes before, he wrapped up a post-practice kicking session with veteran kicker Steven Hauschka and long-snapper Reid Ferguson. This could only be a temporary home for the rookie competing for a spot on the 53-man roster, but he’s impressed through six days of training camp.

“The ability he has to do all three (kickoffs, field goals and punts) … really plays to our benefit,” Bills special teams coach Danny Crossman said, “which is why he’s gonna get work at all three both in practice and in the games.”

The battle he’s in pales in comparison to his brother’s, but both push each other in their respective ways.

When Cameron seems uninspired in his fight against leukemia, Austin urges him to persevere because that’s what he’s trying to do to make an NFL team. When the stresses of the NFL combine, draft and training camp have consumed Austin, he doesn’t have to call his brother. He just looks down at his right wrist.

“As I’m going through all this, I can look down and have a piece of him with me,” Austin said. “I get a calming sense just being able to have him with me.”

The last time Cameron was supposed to watch Austin in person was eight months ago. Idaho had a bowl game after Senior Night, but Cameron was still too sick to attend. When Austin made his promise, he didn’t know if he’d get drafted, if he’d get signed as a free agent, if he’d have a chance to ever step foot on an NFL field.

On Aug. 10, when the Bills host the Vikings in their preseason opener, a familiar face will be on hand.

Along with the entire Rehkow family, Cameron will be in the stands, watching his oldest brother continue to battle while he does the same.

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