Titan on the mind of many

Teammates and coach rally around a former player battling cancer.

The most inspirational player for the Cal State Fullerton men's basketball team isn't on this season's roster.

He is in Texas, battling for his life against acute lymphocytic leukemia.

It was a battle Andrew Awad thought he had won a year ago.

After overcoming the blood and bone marrow cancer the first time, Awad joined the 2004 Titans as a walk-on and became their symbol of toughness, heart and inspiration. This year, the team has dedicated their season to him.

"I'm flattered," said Awad, who is being treated with a new form of chemotherapy at MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. "We got real close last year in a short time. That means a lot to me."

Early last December, Awad was as relieved as he had ever been since beating the leukemia from his first diagnosis in 2002. But shortly after, he began noticing that his strength and speed were declining. His worst fears were confirmed following what he thought would be a normal team practice.

"It was around this time last year," Awad said about experiencing the symptoms once again. "You just know. You just feel it. You're not moving as well."

He withdrew from the university immediately to return home to Fresno and received treatment from Stanford University Medical Center. It was a treatment he knew all too well.

The pain of doctors drilling into his un-numbed spine to scrape out bone marrow and the chemotherapy that made him throw up constantly were not experiences easily forgotten.

But Awad was a fighter then, and he knew he would have to be a fighter now.

"Everyone has different ways to deal with it," said Awad, whose unwavering faith has been tested multiples times.

Doctors tell him that he only has a couple of weeks to live, only to find new treatments that will sustain his body for a short time before it rejects them again.

"I pray a lot and just focus on my family. I focus on them and getting better," he said.

It is with that same enduring spirit and perseverance that Awad built a connection with the people he came in contact with in his time at CSUF.

"I've always really respected Andrew because of his toughness," said Titan Head Coach Bob Burton, who met Awad three years ago at West Valley Community College. "What he's gone through is just unbelievable. I think about him everyday and what he's gone through."

Burton was the only person at CSUF to watch Awad play when he was truly healthy, before the leukemia, before the chemotherapy, before the pain.

"Andrew and I know what a good player he is," Burton said. "And I don't think the players ever really even got to see how good he was. They saw how tough he was and had tremendous respect for him, but I think even more than that is if he would have been healthy they would have seen what a good player I knew he was."

Teammates who knew Awad the year before told his story to the new incoming players. From then on, the team became galvanized around one name.

"They said his name [for inspiration and motivation] in the first day of practice when we huddled. They've said his name since day one," Burton said about the team using Awad as a rallying call. "They really cared about Andrew. He was here a really short time, but he really had an impact on the coaches and the players."

After every game, Awad, a basketball fanatic since age six, said that Titan players would call him and give him updates on their season.

"We're real close," said junior guard Bobby Brown, who keeps in touch with Awad via instant messaging. "For the short time that he was here, we bonded real well. He was like my brother. I know he has my back no matter what and I have his too."

Though it is difficult for the players to keep in constant contact with Awad, they make sure to always keep him on their minds. Basketball may be a hard sport, but knowing their friend is battling cancer helps the team keep things in perspective.

"You think about what he's going through, and all this hard stuff we're going through is pretty much easy, compared to what he's going through," senior guard Vershan Cottrell said. "A lot of people say it's hard playing basketball. "It's hard going to school. It's a lot easier than what he's going through."

Though basketball still remains important to him, Awad has changed his focus towards the most important things in life. The people.

"When I get better, I want to go back home and help out the kids at the pediatric center I saw at Stanford," said Awad, who was impressed by the center's care of children. "When I came [to MD Anderson] I saw a lot of things that they didn't have that Stanford had. School can wait and jobs can wait."

While the nerve damage that he has suffered makes it nearly impossible physically for him to ever play basketball again, Awad has not lost his love for the game.

This season, there is one team especially that he will be pulling for.

"I love them," Awad said of the Titan players. "No matter what, I want them to keep fighting and never count themselves out."

As for himself, Awad draws his inspiration from a quote he received from Darleen Keroles, a CSUF student that was so inspired by his story that she contacted him and has visited him in Texas. The two have developed a strong friendship that has helped Awad through his fight.

"I know God won't give me anything I can't handle," Awad said while quoting Mother Teresa. "I just wish he didn't trust me so much."