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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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And baby makes three
Bucs punter Josh Bidwell refused to let testicular cancer steal his dreams of job, life and family.
By STEPHEN F. HOLDER
Published November 12, 2005
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Josh and Bethany Bidwell can't wait until the newest addition to their family inhabits the nursery.
TAMPA - Never before had two little words hit Josh Bidwell with such devastating force.
"You're done," the team doctor said, and at first, Bidwell wasn't sure whether those words referred to his season, his career or his life.
He would learn seconds later that he had testicular cancer, meaning "you're done" could apply to all of the above.
In the end, "you're done" is where it all began.
Fast-forward six years and now Bidwell, the Bucs' punter, is sitting in his living room reminiscing with wife Bethany, who is due to give birth to the couple's first child in six weeks. The sun glistens off their swimming pool. The dark blue sky is clear and Josh has a tee time in a little more than an hour. What's more, he is in a groove on the football field, leading the NFL with a gross average of 47.3 yards.
Life is good, even if it hasn't always been. Some athletes overcome knee injuries. Bidwell overcame a killer.
"I really had no dreams of ever leading a normal life again," Bidwell said Friday. "I knew there were people out there who had done it, but the way I felt, I said there was no way I could get all the way back and play football."
Major surgery and 31/2 months of chemotherapy are enough to dampen anyone's spirits. That's true even for someone with the unshakable faith that Bidwell exudes, which he credits to being a born-again Christian.
But on this glorious day, he has a clean bill of health, a baby on the way and a wife who has been there for the entire emotionally draining journey.
The baby is the next chapter in this awe-inspiring story. The surgery and chemotherapy could have had permanent effects on Bidwell's ability to reproduce, so the two were never certain this day would come.
"We knew a lot of people who had gone through cancer and were cancer-free for like eight years and had like three kids," Bidwell, 29, said. "But I've also met people who didn't.
"We tried for a little while, and we were getting frustrated, not knowing if it was the cancer or something else."
That "little while" was more like two years. And Bethany miscarried last year. That only made them appreciate their good fortune even more.
"I just think we're so blessed to be here," Bethany said.
Not that they didn't already have a unique perspective on life.
Everything changed in September 1999, when Bidwell was in his rookie season with the Green Bay Packers, who drafted him out of Oregon. He came across a lump that didn't feel right and brought it to the attention of the team's doctors. An examination was scheduled for later that day at a local hospital, and within hours, Bidwell no longer was a 23-year-old embarking on his dream of playing in the NFL. Instead, he became a cancer patient the second a physician looked at the unmistakable image in his ultrasound.
A few days later, after a biopsy, Bidwell was informed the cancer was spreading and there was no time to waste. That's when he heard those words that resonate with him today: "You're done."
Within days, he and then-girlfriend Bethany, who traveled to Green Bay a day after hearing the news, returned to their native Oregon where Bidwell would undergo treatment at Oregon Health Science University in Portland. It was the same facility that treated cyclist Lance Armstrong, another testicular cancer survivor whom Bidwell has since befriended.
First came an "extremely invasive" surgery, as Bidwell termed it, during which 45 lymph nodes were removed. When he awoke from surgery the next day, Bidwell learned his cancer was worse than originally thought, and the next step would be intense chemotherapy.
"I kept wondering, "What's next?' " Josh said. "It was just awful. Chemo kills your immune system, so my body wasn't repairing itself and my incision wasn't healing. I couldn't use my stomach muscles, couldn't even sit up."
Bidwell stayed with Bethany's family during his treatment. Bethany slept on the floor next to him for three months, helping him in and out of bed and to and from the bathroom. A well-built man who had always been an avid weightlifter, he didn't have the strength to stand on his own two feet.
Through it all, he and Bethany had the support of family and friends, but mostly, they relied on each other and their faith in God.
For Bethany, it seemed like a heavy burden to bear. She was 20, a pitcher for the University of Oregon softball team, and had given up a three-month missionary trip to Costa Rica to nurse Bidwell back to health.
"It wasn't even a decision," she said. "It's just what you do when you love somebody, and I loved him."
They're still in love. They finish each other's sentences and share the same ultra-positive outlook on life. Bethany sheds a tear when she learns her husband, in a previous interview, credited her support as a major factor in his recovery.
She was the one who picked him up when he dropped to his knees and sobbed in the parking lot at Lambeau Field. She was the one who urged him to walk three blocks on their strolls through the neighborhood when his body told him he could only make it two. She was the one who pushed him to pursue his goal of returning to the NFL after his yearlong absence.
Suffice to say his comeback is complete.
"He should be a Pro Bowler this year," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "If not, it's robbery. It's happened before. You can't count on ballots. But he's hammering the ball right now.
"People like him who have found a way to beat the odds give everybody out there hope."
The baby will be here soon. The Bidwells don't claim to know everything about parenting, but they know they want their children to learn what Josh has faced. They figure if their offspring learn half of what they have from the ordeal, they will be better for it.
"What I went through almost doesn't seem like it happened," Josh said. "It's so surreal. But the one thing that I think about all the time is how to enjoy each day. What I take from my experiences is that, when I'm gone, I want my kids to say, "My dad did everything he could to enjoy life. He lived it to the fullest.' "