Hours before Zeffen Thurow took the field at the National Sports Center to participate in the Schwan's USA Cup opening ceremony, he still couldn't quite describe how lucky he felt to have been chosen to help light the large torch in the far corner of the Blaine stadium.
"I don't think I have the words for it," Thurow said. "I'm just shocked, amazed."
The 14-year-old cancer survivor's march down the field Tuesday symbolized an even longer journey he's already made in his short life. One that, after being sidelined from playing the game he grew up loving, brought him back to the soccer field along with 1,007 teams from 17 countries for this week's USA Cup.
Thurow joined others affected by cancer in the opening ceremony procession, drawing attention to Wednesday's Kick Cancer Day — an event at the Schwan's Cup that raised money for organizations that fight breast cancer, prostate cancer, children's cancer, lymphoma and leukemia.
Even though Thurow, of Brainerd, has been in remission for a year, he's still limited by the brain tumor that once threatened his life. His coordination on the soccer field has suffered, said his father, Rodney, and the radiation his son underwent affected his growth, making him one of the smallest kids on the field.
"He gets extremely exhausted quickly," Rodney Thurow said. "He could go and run and run and run, trying to get endurance built up, and it goes away quickly."
Thurow, who is participating at the USA Cup for the first time as a guest player with a U14 team from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, refuses to let his challenges keep him from playing. He knows all too well what it's like to have something he loves ripped away from him.
"I didn't want to quit playing soccer for those two, three years that I had to have a break," he said. "I wanted to keep playing. My body just wouldn't let me."
Thurow began playing soccer when he was 5 years old living in Las Vegas. The weather there meant he could play every month except July, when it was too hot. Eight years ago, the Thurows moved to Brainerd, where there are fewer opportunities to play competitively, Rodney Thurow said. But his son's passion for the game remained.
Shortly after the move, Zeffen's desire diminished for things he usually loved to do — like watching the Super Bowl with his father — and his parents knew something was wrong.
Zeffen's mother, Charity Thurow, remembers her son having a crooked smile for quite some time before his diagnosis, but once extreme bouts of headaches and nausea followed, she knew it was time to take him to a doctor.
A CT scan taken in February 2008 proved that a brain tumor was causing Zeffen's symptoms.
"My first thoughts were, 'Oh my God, not my son,' " Charity Thurow said. "[We were] just devastated. You just don't expect someone so young to be affected by it."
Rodney Thurow was able to take a break from his job long enough to move to the Ronald McDonald House in Minneapolis with Zeffen while he received treatments Monday through Friday for nine weeks. Charity Thurow stayed in Brainerd during that time, working and taking care of their daughter, Zetta.
More than five years removed from Zeffen's diagnosis, the Thurows are back in the Twin Cities area, this time to watch both of their children compete in the USA Cup. As Zeffen, a striker, played in his first game Tuesday against a team from Ohio, he fought for balls with some boys who towered over him.
But like his mother says, soccer is about skill, not size — and a spirit that couldn't be beat.