Harley Kessler started noticing an ache in his shins in the summer.
But Kessler, and mom, chalked it up to shin splints or growing pains. He is 16 after all.
They weren’t worried about a bump on his leg, half the size of a golf ball.
Then, three days into the school year, the pain became so bad that it dropped the Lincoln teen to his knees.
After a series of X-rays and additional tests, doctors diagnosed Kessler with osteosarcoma.
About 600 new cases of osteosarcoma are diagnosed annually in the United States. Osteosarcoma is the most common type of bone cancer among children, according to Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s.
Tests showed that the bone cancer had taken over Kessler’s shin bone. Later doctors would amputate part of his left leg, and they’d find cancerous lesions on his lungs.
Kessler is still undergoing chemotherapy, and his family is optimistic.
Before his diagnosis, Kessler hoped to make the University of Nebraska-Lincoln wrestling team. He hoped to go on to become a wrestling coach. Shortly after his amputation, Kessler told mom he planned to start training as soon as he healed.
“He’s going to continue to pursue everything he dreamed of doing,” Kessler’s mom Stephanie Duley said. “He will push himself to go forward. … That’s what a mom needed to hear.”
Kessler discovered wrestling when he got to junior high. The sport stuck. Kessler wrestled at school competitions, but it didn’t stop there. He also wrestled with his step-brother at home.
“It was always in the house,” Duley said. “We are definitely a wrestling family.”
Kessler’s wrestling family at Lincoln’s North Star High School supported him, helping with his crutches and visiting him at the hospital.
“It becomes a lifestyle,” mom said about wrestling. “They are truly a family. All of them become friends and continue to push each other. They never let go of that.”
And lately, Kessler’s been feeling the love from another wrestling family — the Huskers.
Kessler connected with the team’s coach, Mark Manning, through a Union Bank and Trust program, Magic Moments. Manning and the team took things a step further by inviting Kessler to be honorary captain during a Jan. 6 dual against Northwestern.
On his night as honorary captain, Kessler looked the part, sporting a Husker sweatshirt and stocking cap. Kessler stood on crutches along the team’s sideline during the dual.
Kessler said the energy on the sidelines was even better than watching the matches in the stands. He enjoyed a different view of things.
“It was super cool that they would do that,” he said. “I was excited.”
Duley said she’s grateful her son had the opportunity to join the team.
“Seeing his face, he truly was lit up and excited. He felt everybody’s support that day,” Duley said. “He needs that more than anything right now.”
Kessler wasn’t the only one to gain something from the experience. Husker wrestler Tyler Berger felt a connection to the teen and reached out before Kessler’s surgery. Berger sent a note of encouragement along with a pair of autographed wrestling shoes to Kessler’s hospital room.
Now the shoes sit on a shelf in Kessler’s bedroom. It’s near a Husker wrestling poster that features Berger.
Weeks later on the sidelines, Berger was gearing up for one of his biggest matches of the season. But, he said, Kessler’s presence put things in perspective.
“The battle of me wrestling a top wrestler is … microscopic compared to a young boy who just lost half his leg,” Berger said. “Seeing that and being able to talk to him was emotional and very humbling.”
Berger said he hopes to keep in touch with Kessler. While he may be able to offer a tip or two about wrestling, Berger said he’s got a lot to learn from the teen.
The way Kessler faced a difficult situation head on showed courage, Manning said.
“That’s what athletics is all about. It’s not just about winning and losing. It’s so much more. When people are taught the right lessons and principles, great things will happen,” he said of the teen’s attitude. “Harley is a great example of that.”