Nick Manzoni’s coach calls him a ridiculously talented soccer player. Which is part of the reason why not being able to play this season is ridiculously hard for the Orono senior attacker. But cancer does ridiculous things.
Manzoni, who was a Class A first-team all-state player a year ago, was considered one of the top candidates to be named Minnesota’s Mr. Soccer at the conclusion of the 2011 season. But over the summer, tests for recurring pain and soreness in his right calf showed Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare disease that accounts for only one percent of childhood cancers.
That means Manzoni (No. 10 at right) is undergoing chemotherapy, which is a weekly routine right now, followed by surgery in September and then more chemo. It also means no soccer this fall.
Not playing is “ridiculously hard, to be honest,” Nick said Wednesday night at Orono before the fifth-ranked Spartans lost a 3-2 overtime decision to St. Michael-Albertville. His doctors believe the cancer was found early enough that he should get a clean bill of health at the end of the treatment regimen. But again, sitting out his senior year is hard on him as well as his teammates.
Nick had 18 goals and 10 assists last season, when the Spartans reached the state quarterfinals. Fellow senior Willi Semsch said Nick’s play was crucial in getting through the Section 6 playoffs in 2010.
“In the section semifinals against Breck we were up 1-0 and he hit a shot from probably 35 or 40 yards out, chipped the goal, and that was pretty cool,” Semsch said. “And in the section finals against Benilde, which is probably our biggest rival, he pretty much dominated that game and scored two goals. That was huge.
“We’ve just got to step up as a team, all of us. No one of us is as good as him, so we’re going to have to do it as a team, as a whole. We’ve got to support each other.”
Another senior, Mason Whitney, said playing without Manzoni is “a huge difference because we had to completely change our offense. Generally our offense was kind of ‘Get Nick the ball, watch him dribble and watch everybody else run,’ because sooner or later about four people would draw to him and he would pass or just keep on dribbling and score a goal.”
Orono coach Brad Carlson said Manzoni is “a ridiculously good soccer player. He’s the complete package in soccer and he’s as smart as a whip.”
The cancer was diagnosed in June, and it wasn’t long before Debbie Manzoni saw a sight that brought her to tears … but these were tears of gratitude for Nick’s friends.
“He’s got some great, great, great buddies on the team and everywhere,” she said. “Nick started losing his hair and he got it buzzed but he said, ‘Nope, this won’t do. It’s still patchy.’ ”
So Nick and some of his friends shaved each other’s heads. “I came home to see all these bald heads sitting in the basement,” Debbie said. “I just started crying.”
At the Spartans’ first game this season, headbands bearing Nick’s number 10 and his initials (NWM for Nicholas William Manzoni) were unveiled. That’s just one of many ways Nick has been supported by his teammates, his friends and their families.
“He’s got good friends and they care about him a lot,” Carlson said. “His first week in the hospital, Willi and Mason spent the nights with him.”
Nick was preparing for a college showcase soccer event when the pain in his calf returned for the second time this year. He still plans to play college soccer, but the schedule has just been adjusted a little.
“I’ll see how I recover from this whole thing, but right now the plan is to recover by the end of January, get back on my club team and start playing a lot,” he said. “I might take a gap year to try and get in better shape.”
Semsch remembers Nick saying he had a pain in his leg, but soreness and minor injuries are nothing out of the ordinary for athletes.
“Then one day he said it might be cancer, and he told me a couple days later that it was cancer,” Semsch said. “I wanted him to be out on the soccer field with me, because he’s a really, really good player. And he’s one of my best friends, so it was tough in both senses.”
Before the Spartans opened the season at home against Maple Grove last week, Semsch asked Manzoni if he planned to be there. “He was like, ‘Oh, it’s going to kill me to not play.’ I know it’s just killing him,” Semsch said.
Whitney was on a school trip to Spain when he learned of Nick’s diagnosis. “It was a huge blow,” he said. “My friends told me online and I couldn’t really call him or anything. When I got home I just drove straight to the hospital.
“It’s really tough. It’s tough on all of us, and I would imagine it’s just tenfold and way, way worse for him. He doesn’t like to show his emotions that much but you can tell it’s just eating him up not being on the field, not playing with us. We’ve been building up to our senior year, we’ve been talking about it since day one. We went to state last year and we were planning on going even further this year.
“This is a huge wakeup call, when one of your best friends goes out. Everything’s fine and dandy, nobody’s ever been even sick, really. And then he ends up getting cancer.”
Cancer is certainly bad news, but there has been plenty of good news since Nick was diagnosed. The best bit of medical information came when the Manzonis learned that the cancer had not spread from Nick’s calf.
“We had so many people praying for us, and three prayers were answered,” Debbie said. “It could have spread to his lungs, to his bones and to his bone marrow. And each day for three days we received the results of those tests, saying, ‘Not in his lungs, not in his bones, not in his marrow.’ Thank you, Lord, for that good, good news.”
Nick goes into the hospital every Monday for chemotherapy, which is administered intravenously. He stays for three or five days each time. The chemo has had no side effects other than the loss of his hair.
“The doctor said he’s been like the poster child,” said Debbie. “There are a lot of things to be thankful for in the midst of a really awful, scary thing.”
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BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 11
*Miles John has driven: 1,241
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