Bryan Babb and Ed Shultz look a lot like the other 178 cadets in Army's football program. For that matter, they look like most of the 4,400 other cadets at West Point. Of course, in many ways all cadets look alike. They march in formation, wear identical uniforms, return salutes and haze plebes. They are shiny-buttoned, buffed-shod, sir-saying students who are supposed to be the finest examples of American youth. They are smart and polite. Every American parent would like to raise one of them.
But besides West Point and Army football, what makes Babb and Shultz most alike is the cancer. Babb was told he had cancer last year when he was 21; Shultz was diagnosed in 1986 when he was 20. Both have made heroic recoveries and are playing football once again. There's a tendency to think that two young men with so much in common would have the same feelings about what has dominated their lives: West Point, football, cancer. But Babb and Shultz approach these things from opposite points of view.
Around West Point, Babb is the cocky quarterback, an independent, almost rebel cadet, uncomfortable with the constant regimentation on campus and on the football field. Shultz is the stoic lineman, a team player, a good soldier willing to give his all for the corps. With characteristic candor, Babb says, "On a daily basis they give you a hundred opportunities to screw up, a hundred ways to get in trouble." Says Shultz, "I don't look at it as opportunities to screw up. I haven't gotten in much trouble while I've been here, I just follow the rules."
The summer before the 1986 season, Shultz, then a junior, was suffering from what he thought was a simple allergy problem. "I felt a little tired," he says. "I was coughing a lot. I kept playing and I kept getting run-down. But I had no idea anything was the matter with me."
A few weeks later, at 11:30 p.m. on the night before the Wake Forest game, Shultz went to bed. When he got up three hours later, his neck had swollen from its normal circumference of 19½ inches to 23 inches. Shultz remembers, "I woke up about 3:00 and my neck was just gigantic."
The doctors at Keller Army Hospital in West Point initially thought that he had swollen glands from an infection. "It took them five days before they finally said they didn't know what was the matter," says Shultz. "They never said anything about cancer."
The Army flew Shultz to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. After a biopsy and a week of tests, the doctors told him he had Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer that first attacks the lymph nodes. Says Shultz: "I was shocked. Who wouldn't be?"
Almost exactly one year later, again the week of the Wake Forest game, Babb, then a third-string quarterback, was throwing with another reserve during practice. "I was watching something else and let my hands down," says Babb. "The ball hit me right in the groin. After that, my testicle was a little swollen, but I really didn't notice it that much."
During the game, Tory Crawford, the No. 1 quarterback, and Mark Mooney, the backup, were hurt. That left Babb as the starter for the fifth game of the '87 season, against Boston College. "The pain really started bothering me before the BC game, but I didn't want to say anything," he says. "I was starting. I didn't want anything to blow my chance of playing.
"I thought, Well, I haven't got anything to lose," says Babb. "These people think I'm going to go out there and fall on my ass. So if I don't, they'll be surprised. The worst I can do is what they expect."
Babb performed admirably in a losing cause, rushing for two touchdowns and 119 yards against the favored Eagles. He kept his team close throughout the game, almost pulling out a win with a last-minute drive that just fell short as the game ended with BC in front, 29-24. For his effort, Babb was named ECAC Division I-A rookie of the week.
That evening, still in pain but certain that his condition was simply the result of the football hitting him in practice, Babb asked the team doctor to examine him. On Sunday morning, he was admitted to Keller, where doctors monitored his vital signs over the course of the following week.
On Saturday, still uncertain about his condition, Babb left the hospital to start the Colgate game. A vicious hit dislocated his jaw in the second quarter and left him disoriented for the rest of the day. "The only thing I remember about the Colgate game is that it was a sunny day and there were a lot of people," says Babb. He was so woozy that he asked the fullback, Ben Barnett, to help call the plays.
Later in that series, Babb fumbled at the Colgate three-yard line, and coach Jim Young removed him from the game. "They knew something was wrong," says Babb. "My legs were all wobbly." He went back to the hospital that night. "I was pissed off because I had to eat the 40 bucks I had spent on two tickets to see R.E.M. in New Haven that night."
The tests at Keller proved inconclusive, so on Monday morning he was flown to Walter Reed, just as Shultz had been a year earlier. "I was dropping my pants for the whole urology department," Babb says. "They're very good people, very good doctors, but they told me, 'Yeah, the testicle's got to come off, it's got to come off. If it's that hard, that big, it's got to go, even if it's not cancerous.' So they took it off the next day, the 20th of October, my 22nd birthday."
Five days later the doctors told Babb that he had cancer. They gave him a choice: He could have surgery right away and then face two months of chemotherapy or he could go through four months of chemotherapy. The surgery would explore how far into the abdomen the cancer had spread. Babb opted for the operation, because it was the choice that took him away from football and school for the shortest period of time. "I have a scar like this," says Babb, running his left index finger from his groin up through the center of his chest. "It's no big thing."
There are generally few side effects from having one testicle removed. "They put in a prosthesis, you can't even tell," says Babb. But, initially, the doctors did give him one piece of disturbing news: it was unlikely he would be able to father children. Says Babb: "That bummed me out because my sister has a baby girl. I love playing with her all the time. I cried for a couple of hours over that. That's the only part of this that really bothered me—about the kids.
"I was ticked off because I was finally playing ball and they took that away. Then I was upset about maybe not being able to have a family. And then I was just happy to be alive." Babb was even happier to learn in January that the original prognosis was wrong and he will be able to have children after all.
Babb is reflective and open—almost glib—about his cancer and treatment. Shultz is far less talkative on the subject, seeing his disease as just a momentary glitch—a snafu to be eliminated as soon as possible. When told he had cancer, Schultz's response was simple: "So when am I going to get rid of it? That's what I want to know. I don't care what it is or what it's called, just get rid of it."
Shultz had radiation treatments on his upper body for 2½ months. Like Babb, he also had abdominal surgery. But when he's asked about his treatment, Shultz, unlike Babb, doesn't describe the foot-long scar that runs up the center of his torso.
The noble death for a West Pointer is to perish in battle. In peacetime, he's supposed to father the next generation of military leaders, serve his country and fade away.
Twenty-year-old cadets are not supposed to get sick. In fact, they are expected to be the picture of health. Height, weight, vision and hearing are all factors taken into careful consideration for those who enter West Point. A candidate can be disqualified for unfilled cavities, asthma or an ulcer. To be injured in battle or even on the football field is acceptable, even heroic. But weakness and coughing and fighting for breath are not proper symptoms for a cadet. Pain may come by way of shrapnel or maybe a crackback block but not from something inside a cadet's own body.
Cancer has not cooperated with those expectations. In the past 17 years, there have been five cases of cancer, none of them fatal, among members of the Army football team: Jack Roth, 1971, Hodgkin's lymphoma; Bob Johnson, 1974, bone cancer; Rich Baxter, 1985, testicular cancer; Shultz, 1986, Hodgkin's lymphoma; and Babb, 1987, testicular cancer.
This high incidence of cancer has raised the possibility of there being cancer-causing environmental factors in the West Point area. To the Army's credit, it has investigated the matter fully. "We looked at it," says Barry Wolcott, chief medical officer at the academy. "We'd have been crazy not to look." Thus far, there doesn't seem to be any obvious cause for the cancer at West Point.
In fact, the three types of cancer that have been contracted by the cadets are among those most often found in their segment of the population, making it unlikely that an environmental factor unique to the academy is the cause. Had the five cadets contracted a rare form of cancer, there would be much more cause for concern. Says Dr. Chad Helmick, a medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta: "These are relatively common types of cancer among young adult men. Among young white males in the U.S., Hodgkin's and testicular are two of the three most common cancers."
Fortunately for Schultz and Babb, Hodgkin's lymphoma and testicular cancer are also two of the more treatable kinds of cancer. Both stricken cadets have recovered. The likelihood of recurrence is relatively low.
Twice within a year, Coach Young was forced to call meetings to tell his players that one of their teammates had cancer. "I never had to tell a team that before," Young says. "They were shocked. You just don't expect that to happen to a young man."
Shultz had completed the radiation treatments and was back in school by the time Young told the team about Babb. "Right away everybody came running to me," says Shultz, who had fought his way back to second-string offensive tackle by then. "They asked me, 'What are the doctors going to do? How's he going to turn out?' "
Babb was a sophomore when Young told the team that Shultz had cancer. Babb didn't know him well. "I was pretty far down on the totem pole, getting run over every day with the jayvee," he says. "You don't get to know the guys. We're so busy, we have so much to do. But yeah, you do step back and say, 'God, I don't want that to be me.' "
Both Shultz and Babb were determined not only to return to West Point but also to play football again. Shultz came back in February 1987, and started lifting weights and running. "I knew that if I got away from football for more than a few months, I wouldn't play again," he says.
Shultz came back to the team in the spring weighing 235 pounds, 20 pounds lighter than when he left. His stamina was gone. The radiation that had burned the cancerous cells in his chest had also killed the healthy cells in his lungs. This season, his stamina is better, but his upper-body strength is still not what it was. Now a tight end in short-yardage situations, he will be one of three players splitting time at that position on the '88 squad.
"If I notice a scout player taking it easy on me because maybe he thinks I'm weaker, he's not making himself better, he's not making me better, he's not making the team better," says Shultz, the team player. At the end of the season, he will become only the fifth five-year letterman in the academy's history, the first since 1929.
Babb may apply for a fifth season of eligibility next year. In the off-season he threw every night and lifted weights three times a week. Once in a while he had to take a week off because his incision hurt so much. A broken collarbone in spring practice hampered his comeback as well. This fall, Babb is one of five cadet quarterbacks on the depth chart. He spends most of his practice time as the quarterback for the scout team. It is a testament to his abiding love for the game that Babb, who could certainly walk away from football with no disgrace, is willing to accept such a thankless role.
Superintendent Lieutenant General Dave Palmer, who is as soft-spoken as a three-star general can be, boasts that the West Point system is designed to foster that kind of perseverence: "Cadets are selected for their ability to handle stress." Says Babb: "You always have days when you regret being here, but then again you feel that you can handle anything. People say to me, 'Oh, you're so courageous, you have so much courage, blah, blah, blah.' But the thing is, what's the choice? You lie down and die? You haven't got a choice."
West Point is none too subtle in the public display of its heroes. Everywhere you look there's a statue of Patton or a monument to Eisenhower or an engraving in limestone of a quote from MacArthur. But did any of these military icons know more about courage than Babb and Shultz do?