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A cancer survivor, UNC football’s Camden Bailey appreciates school’s awareness initiative

Charlotte Observer - 10/20/2023

Undefeated North Carolina faces Virginia on Saturday in the Cancer Awareness Game at Kenan Stadium, and no one is more aware than Camden Bailey.

Bailey, a sophomore from Jackson, New Hampshire, is a student equipment manager on the UNC football team. He’s one of those unsung types that every team, whether good or bad, needs and relies on to do the grunt work that often goes unnoticed outside but never inside the program.

Bailey, 19, played quarterback in high school and can spin the ball. He was a team captain. What differed him from his teammates was that he played with a prosthetic left leg because of cancer.

When Bailey was 14 and playing a lot of basketball, he began to feel persistent pain in his left knee. In many cases that might be something like a meniscus tear or tendinitis, something easily treatable.

For Bailey, it was something much more serious: osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer in the knee. Then came a form of surgery that seemed a bit mind-boggling to him and radical to most everyone else.

It’s called rotationplasty. The cancerous part of the leg near the knee is removed by partial amputation. The lower, non-cancerous part of the leg and foot then is turned 180 degrees and reattached to the bottom of the femur.

Once placed in the prosthetic, the ankle and foot in essence act as the knee, allowing mobility.

Imagine being 14 years old and told that.

“The first time it was explained to me, although they tried to explain to me how it worked, I just didn’t understand,” Bailey said Wednesday in an N&O interview. “I had to look up videos and read articles on how it worked and the success stories and those kinds of things before I understood what it really was.

“It was interesting to see how people were able to return to sports and have a normal life afterwards.”

Bailey, who underwent chemotherapy treatments, returned to sports. Not only was he on the football team at Kennett High but also made all-state honorable mention in tennis.

“I wouldn’t say it’s ever held me back,” Bailey said of his disability. “It was only something where I’d have to work harder.

“There were no limitations. With football, I could play quarterback without running a ton, and obviously tennis is more side to side. Those were two sports I had played my whole life. I could keep playing them after the operation, which was good.”

An inspirational teen

Neal Weaver, the athletic director at Kennett High, called Bailey “that once-in-a-lifetime kid who makes you feel like he’s even more of a man than you are, with the things he went through and the challenges he accepted..”

In addition to sports, Weaver said Bailey was president of the senior class. He was in the National Honor Society.

“He never showed any depression or disappointment or a lack of confidence that he wouldn’t be able to what he wanted to do,” Weaver said. “He did the unbelievable. He’s just the kind of kid you’re glad you were a part of, even in small way.”

During his treatments, Bailey was able to meet one of his football heroes: Tom Brady. A New England Patriots diehard, he spent about an hour with the former Pats quarterback at Gillette Stadium and threw passes with the future Hall of Famer as part of the New Hampshire Make-A-Wish foundation.

“It was a great experience,” Bailey said. “He seemed very down to earth. It was a cool afternoon.”

Part of a winner at UNC

Bailey, who is majoring in economics and sports management, joined the UNC football program this past spring as a student manager. Good timing. He’s now a part of a team that is 6-0 and ranked 10th in the polls after the 41-31 win last week over Miami in what UNC coach Mack Brown called a heavyweight fight.

“Obviously being 6-0 is something people here at Carolina haven’t experienced for a while, and just being part of that, being in the locker room being at practice, just seeing everyone in high spirits is great,” Bailey said. “Last week against Miami we saw the new (LED) lights and just the whole atmosphere was the best I’ve seen since I’ve been here. It was amazing.”

Kenan Stadium was filled and it was loud. Everyone on the UNC sideline, including Bailey, sensed that the game-long noise and support was making a difference in the intense ACC game.

This week, it’s UNC-Virginia in another ACC game at Kenan. This one comes with a message: cancer is a disease that can destroy or end lives, and early detection is a must, but the effects of it can be overcome.

Bailey is a cancer survivor. UNC wide receiver Tylee Craft has dealt with lung cancer and has been an inspiration to his teammates and coaches in his fight.

“Sometimes games like these can be portrayed in a different way and sometimes games like these, to people who have cancer, it may not seem like they’re doing anything,” Bailey said. “But from my perspective now, being behind the scenes with North Carolina football, you realize it touches more people within the facility or within the team. They actually are to raise awareness.”

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