Tailback Charles Scott didn't decide whether to return for his senior season at LSU until he heard from the behemoth who paves his path to the end zone. "Of course, I was looking at if Ciron was leaving," Scott said in January. "If I'd have my big boy back."
Scott's big boy, LSU left tackle Ciron Black, has started 40 consecutive games at the sport's most physically demanding position in a conference that has produced the past three national champions. If he had chosen to go to the NFL, no one would have blinked. But Black felt he had more to accomplish. He wants to receive his degree in December. He wants a crack at a second national title. He wants to play one more season for Mikey.
Like so much in college football these days, the friendship between Black and Mikey Conger began with a post on an Internet message board.
Hey Michael, I recently saw your story and wanted to have the honor to write in your guest book. My name is Ciron Black. I am the left tackle for the LSU Tigers football team. I'm also number 70 and I saw you wearing that jersey number, that's a great number by the way :). You know some people see us as heroes because of how we play but the truth is people like yourself are the real heroes. I see all the small problems I face are nothing compared to the hardships that you may go through. God has a plan for all of us and for some reason he put it on my heart to write you tonight ... if it is at all possible I would love to talk to you. My number is xxx-xxx-xxxx anytime day or night if you need someone to talk to. Hang in there buddy and just know that anything is possible through Christ.
P.S. I would love to write your name on my wrist tape as I get ready to take the field on Jan. 7th for the national championship. Let me know if that is OK.
When Black, then a sophomore, posted that message on Mikey's page at CaringBridge.org in December 2007, 8-year-old Mikey lay in a bed at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. A reaction to a chemotherapy treatment had rendered Mikey paralyzed, nearly blind and unable to speak. Doctors had told Mikey's mother, Laurina, to plan on at least another year at the hospital. Knowing Mikey was an LSU football fan -- his parents named him after Mike the Tiger -- some friends of the family sent messages to several LSU players to keep Mikey in their prayers. Black, the son of two ministers from Tyler, Texas, did more than pray. After reading about Mikey's battle with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia on CaringBridge.org, he posted the above message to Mikey's guestbook.
Laurina remains convinced a desire to watch the BCS title game helped Mikey heal faster than anyone expected. "He knew that the LSU football team was getting ready to play that game," Laurina says. "That was a push. That was a real incentive for him to get well." So, too, was the care package that arrived from Baton Rouge. It contained the game ball Black had received for his role in the SEC championship game win against Tennessee, signed by the entire LSU team. "That's why we play the game," Black said. "For people like him."
Mikey watched the Tigers beat the Buckeyes from his hospital bed. In the third quarter, a Fox camera showed Black's left forearm wrapped in athletic tape with "Mikey" scrawled in marker. Later that month, Mikey went home. Not long after, Mikey met Black face-to-face. Though Mikey was confined to a wheelchair, he never let it dampen his spirits. "He never would let you know that he was hurting," Black says. "He always had a smile on his face."
When Mikey turned 9 last July, his parents took him to LSU to see the national championship crystal ball. Tipped off the Congers were visiting, Black and LSU coach Les Miles greeted the family with a birthday cake. Mikey, on his feet again, ran to Black and hugged him. The 314-pound lineman found himself wiping away tears. A few months later, Mikey and his father came to a game at Tiger Stadium. Black, in his third year as a starter, suddenly felt like a freshman playing his first game. "I don't think I've ever felt that nervous," Black says.
While the Congers celebrated a football season away from hospitals and chemo, the Tigers suffered on the field in a rebuilding season. Despite a wealth of talent, they went 8-5 (3-5 in the SEC). That wore on Black and his teammates, and it had more than a little to do with Black's decision to return. "We have a horrible taste in our mouths," Black said. "Last season, that's not us. That's not how we play. A lot of things went wrong. There's nobody to blame but ourselves."
Now Black returns to a team with a settled quarterback situation -- sophomore Jordan Jefferson has taken ownership of the starting job -- and an established back -- Scott ran for 1,174 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2008 -- taking handoffs. John Chavis, who spent the past 14 years coordinating Tennessee's defense, has come to Baton Rouge to restore the Tigers' roar on that side of the ball.
Mikey, meanwhile, should get plenty of chances to watch Black play this season. Earlier this month, he visited St. Jude and his doctor declared his disease remains in remission. "I'm not done yet," Mikey boasted to his mother's delight. This fall, Mikey, who just turned 10, will enter third grade. Black, meanwhile, will continue to refine his game. If Black helps bring LSU another national title, he'd happily dedicate it to the boy who inspires him every day. "I love him," Black says. "I'll be friends with him until the day I die."