Kyle Frazier was cruising through his final semester at Glenn Hills High in Augusta in the spring of 2019, looking forward to graduating and starting his football career at Savannah State University, when he first noticed something was amiss.
The standout defensive tackle had an abnormal growth in his neck. At first he thought it might be a harmless infection, but a trip to the doctor led to a biopsy and a diagnosis that the 17-year-old had cancer — Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Frazier went through more than two years of chemotherapy and radiation treatments — losing about 50 pounds and having trouble getting out of bed on many mornings. But with the support of his family, friends and the Savannah State program, he won his battle and was declared cancer free on Dec. 31.
He has served as an inspiration to his teammates and reached another personal goal when he led them out for the Tiger Walk preceding SSU’s spring game in March.
On this week’s edition of “Monday Night Football,” the Georgia Make-A-Wish Foundation teamed up with the Los Angeles Rams to feature Frazier as a part of their Crucial Catch Captains program, dedicated to fighting cancer through early detection.
Frazier’s favorite player is Aaron Donald, the Rams’ star defensive tackle. Frazier’s initial wish was to meet Donald and have him and his teammates visit an SSU practice. Although COVID-19 concerns have put that scenario on hold, on Monday night when the Rams host Chicago, a cardboard cutout of Frazier will be in the stands to acknowledge his recovery.
When he heard about the honor, Frazier asked that his teammates, who meant so much in his recovery, be included and the Rams agreed. So cutouts of the entire SSU team are set to be featured at the game.
“Kyle has been through the ringer and he’s handled everything like a champ,” SSU coach Shawn Quinn said. “He’s just a great guy to be around. Most in his situation would have went down on the mat and said ‘no mas,’ but he’s worked so hard to get back in football shape. That chemo takes its toll, but it seems like he has flushed it from his system. Now he’s in our rotation at defensive tackle. You can see the physical change he is going through and how he’s getting his self-confidence back.”
Quinn said it was an emotional moment when he saw Frazier lead the team around the bend before the spring game.
“I saw his mom and we both got teary-eyed,” Quinn said. “It was great to see all his hard work come to fruition.”
Frazier said his mother, Kenya James, was his anchor through the whole ordeal.
“I had a great support system, led by my mom, and I tried to treat fighting the cancer like I was playing a sport,” said Frazier, who played football and basketball at Glenn Hills, while excelling in the classroom.
“I put on my game face and tried to take it day by day, but the journey was hard. A lot of days I couldn’t get up and move, and I had side effects of losing my taste, bad diarrhea, constant nausea and bad fatigue.”
Frazier said the chemotherapy treatments were worse than the radiation. He would receive a treatment at 10 a.m., and not be able to walk and talk until the next day by around 1 p.m., he said.
“My mom was my backbone through all this, she was my caretaker,” said Frazier, who turned 19 in August. “She made sure I did all the right things, and at the same time she was dealing with a serious illness with my little sister, Kianna.”
Kianna James, 8, has gaucher’s disease, a genetic disorder with no cure, which affects the bones, liver, spleen and lungs.
“Watching my mama stay strong for Kianna, keeping a bold face and holding it down for our family meant everything to me,” Frazier said. “And Kianna is an inspiration. She’ll have a treatment, take a 10-minute nap and be running around jumping and playing.”
Kenya James said her son and daughter have been fighters from the start.
“I think of my four kids, God knew who to give these things to, because they’ve never complained,” said James, who works as a cardiac imaging specialist at Aiken Regional Medical Center. “Kyle went to the prom the same week he was diagnosed. He may have cried for like 10 minutes when he found out, but he’s been playing since he was 4 and always said he would be back on the football field.”
James is grateful for Quinn and the SSU football program for the way they have supported her son.
“We called coach Quinn to let him know about Kyle’s cancer thinking they might rescind the scholarship offer, but coach Quinn said, ‘Oh no, Kyle’s a Tiger and that’s never going to change.’ That meant a lot to us,” James said.
When Frazier started treatment, he weighed about 285 pounds and dipped down to 238 pounds. He’s now 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds and getting stronger every day.
His mom made smoothies and teas to help during his recovery, and when Frazier had to stop eating red meat and sugars during his treatment, she made sure the whole family followed suit.
“He was never ‘Woe is me’ and, for the most part, Kyle never complained, even when he had ulcers in his stomach and couldn’t eat,” James said. “Even as his mother, that impressed me the way he went through it.”
Frazier’s love for the game started as a youngster and has never waned. His mom said he would practice swim moves that he saw on YouTube when he was in a grade school. Now he is looking forward to continuing to play at the college level.
On Monday night, Frazier, who is now a spokesman for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, will receive a customized Rams jersey. He is excited to be recognized and watch the game on TV with his teammates.
“I saw this as a setback, but now I’m thanking God,” Frazier said. “I think he put me in this position to see how I would do. I want people to be aware of cancer, and I think I got it for that reason. I was probably diagnosed just for this.”