Photos: Timmy Ward (left) of Canton, Pa., defeated Cole Karpinski of Greenville to earn Pennsylvania all-state high school honors and celebrated with coaches Lyle Wesneski (right) and Chris Landis, one year after Ward overcame Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
By Pat McDonald
In the winter of 2019, Timmy Ward spent a lot of time in Hershey, Pa, home of the PIAA Wrestling Championships.
But he was a few minutes down the road at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center.
Ward, a 2018 state qualifier for the Canton Warriors, would have probably been one of the favorites from District 4 to make a return trip to the Giant Center in Hershey last year.
But instead of fighting his way through brackets in sectionals, districts and regionals, Ward would have to conquer a new challenge off the mat — Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
While Ward’s story created a much happier chapter in 2020 when the 170-pound junior actually made the most of a second chance at wrestling in the state tournament, he can’t help to think back to when he was forced to deal with a serious health issue.
‘It was hard to even believe’
Ward noticed a lump under one of his arms back in the summer before the 2018 football season. After about a month and the lump not going anywhere, he went to the doctor.
“I went to the doctors and they told me they didn’t think it was anything, and then we started football season,” Ward explained. “It was still there in the beginning of September, so I went back again and they did a chest X-ray and blood work and they didn’t get anything from that.”
After another month had passed, Ward was referred to a surgeon.
“We met with the surgeon halfway through football season, and he also said he didn’t think anything was wrong,” Ward recalled.
The surgeon wanted to do a biopsy of the lymph node but told Ward he could wait until after football season.
“The district finals that year, we got beat by Muncy, so a couple days later I got the surgery and then probably a week after that was when I got diagnosed,” Ward said.
The news came as a shock to say the least.
“It’s hard to put into words the feelings you get when you’re told that. It was just very scary and, I don’t know, it was hard to even believe when they told us,” said Ward, who was diagnosed on Nov. 26, 2018.
Ward would eventually go through four cycles of chemo, and the doctors would start to see success midway through the process.
“The one spot on my right side was the biggest area that I had it. I had it on my collarbone and across my chest, kind of — and then on the left side of my body, too. I got a pet scan halfway through my chemo and everything had shrunk well and they were happy with how much it had shrunk,” said Ward, who explained that each cycle of chemo lasted three weeks.
Following his final cycle of chemo, Ward would finally get the news he was waiting for.
“After my last chemo, they waited a week or two to get another pet scan and they found a little something and they didn’t know if it was cancerous or not. So we waited another month, got another scan and that was when they said it was all clear,” Ward remembered.
Ward received the good news just over six months after his diagnosis.
“It was awesome. It was kind of the same as when you’re diagnosed, it’s just like a weird feeling,” he said. “It was only a few months that I went through chemo, but it just consumed my life and it felt like it was, I don’t know, it felt like it was my whole lifetime … this whole thing had taken up my whole life, and it was only a couple months and it was gone. It was all kind of weird. It was crazy.”
The road back
The rounds of chemotherapy had drained Ward. The football and wrestling standout was basically forced to start over.
Ward, who had lost around 30 pounds due to the chemo, would get back into the gym and worked on getting some of the muscle he lost back.
While the road back from cancer was difficult, Ward was helped by the support of his family, friends and the entire wrestling community.
“Amazing. Not only Canton, but all the schools around in District 4 all came behind me and just supported me any way they could and everyone just tried to help,” Ward said.
Ward worked himself back into shape for the 2019-2020 wrestling season … and he had his sights set on a return trip to Hershey.
His parents, Tim and Michelle, knew their son wasn’t going to stop until he accomplished that goal.
“That’s kind of what his personality is like. If Timmy says he’s going to do it, then that’s what he’s going to do,” Michelle said.
“That’s the athlete he is — when he wants something to happen he’s just able to make it happen,” added Tim, who was the Canton wrestling coach for 17 years, stepping away in 2012.
After helping lead the Warriors to a Northern Tier League title, Ward would start the Road to Hershey by winning the 170-pound championship at the North Section tournament.
Ward battled his way to third-place finishes in both the District 4 and Northeast Regional tournaments as he punched his ticket back to Hershey.
“Once I got back in the room and I saw where I was at, I knew I’d have a chance of being where I’m at right now. It was just positivity and a loving family and loving friends,” Ward said during the state tournament.
Ward dropped his opening match by fall to the eventual fourth-place finisher. Some wrestlers would have trouble coming back from that — not Timmy Ward.
The junior won his next two matches to put him in the “blood round.” Win his next match and get on the podium. Lose and go home.
Ward used an escape and a takedown in that contest to earn a 3-0 win and secure his hardware.
“It was awesome to be able to go there and compete in front of my family and friends and just that whole arena … after losing that first match and to be able to win four matches in a row,” Ward said. “It was amazing to be able to do that in that atmosphere and get a medal around my neck.”
Ward admitted that back when he was going through chemo, he wasn’t sure if he would get back to states, let alone earn a medal.
“Honestly, back then, no I didn’t think I’d be there. Obviously, I wanted to be there but I didn’t know what was going to be my future,” said Ward.
He would end up placing sixth in the state at 170 pounds — and he got a chance to stand on the podium with the best wrestlers in what is arguably the toughest wrestling state in the country.
“It was crazy. You can’t put into words the emotion you feel during that time … everything was just flooding me and to be able to stand up there with those top 8, it was crazy,” Ward said.
It was a special moment for the entire Ward family.
“When we got there and he was on the podium, it was almost like a surreal feeling — like one of those feelings you have, a year before you’re like ‘wouldn’t it be great if a year from now he gets to pull this off,’ ” Michelle said.
“One of those little pipe dreams that you wish for your kids. When it actually happened and I’m standing on the floor (of the Giant Center) taking a picture of my son who a year ago, it was still just a dream, and it’s very overwhelming. I don’t even think it really sank in until a few days later. It was then just like, ‘Wow, he really did it.’ ”
The Ward family had to stay in Hershey for two extra days after the state tournament as Timmy had to get his three-month scan done on Monday, March 9.
“We went in there and got my scan done,” said Ward, who got good news and now has graduated to six-month scans. “I got to show off my medal a little bit.”
“You always hope for a full-circle moment and he definitely got to have that,” Michelle added.
Now, Ward is looking to write another chapter in his incredible story. He is looking forward to the 2020 high school football season and, of course, his senior year of wrestling next winter as he hopes to continue to inspire others along the way.
“I’m hoping this creates hope for somebody because whoever is going through just any battle in life, any difficulty, you’ve just got to stay positive,” Ward said. “Let your family love you. Let them encourage you. Let your friends encourage you because that stuff will help — and keep an open mind because down the road you might get in a situation where you need that and you may even have a friend that needs it.
“Make sure if you see someone having a difficult time, just be positive and encourage anybody.”