At 10 years old, Martin Cunningham takes nothing for granted.
In only one decade, Martin has learned life’s most important lesson, and he’s not even in middle school.
“He knows how lucky he is to be out here playing baseball,” his mother, Angela, said Wednesday as she watched her only son take the field for his North Carolina AAA All-Star team in a losers’ bracket game against Georgia in the 50th Dixie Youth World Series.
“If anyone is excited to be here, it’s him.”
But Martin almost didn’t make it to Auburn with his Hope Mills team. And at one time, his parents didn’t know if he’d make it at all.
In February, Martin came home from baseball practice complaining that his left leg hurt.
His dad, Martin Sr., thought it was because of a winter of inactivity, and that the pain he was suffering from was just muscle soreness from the first week of playing something that wasn’t PlayStation 2.
If only that were the case.
The pain in Martin’s leg, right below the pelvis, wasn’t going away. So his parents took him to the doctor for X-rays.
“We thought it was maybe a fracture or something,” Martin Sr. said. “You know, something that wasn’t too serious. Maybe he hurt it running or playing around.”
But there was something seriously wrong with the 10-year-old. Something that couldn’t be detected on a simple X-ray.
“We got the results back (from the X-ray) and the doctor said ‘Good news, there’s no fracture,’” the dad said. “But he was still in pain. So we got an MRI.”
That’s when things got scary.
When the results came back from Martin’s MRI, the response the Cunninghams got from doctors in Fayetteville was breathtaking.
“They told us they had no idea how to treat him,” Angela said. “They’d never seen anything like it before.”
Panicked, the Cunninghams searched for answers. Answers that could only be found at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem - a 2 ½-hour drive from Fayetteville.
“They said we needed to get there as soon as possible,” Angela said. “And we freaked out. All they did was give us the name of a doctor and where to go. They didn’t tell us anything else.”
Dr. William Ward, a musculoskeletal oncologist and orthopedic surgeon at Baptist Medical, was assigned to the Cunninghams.
He performed another MRI on little Martin and found a 2 ½-inch lesion on his left femur where it meets the pelvis.
A biopsy was needed.
What started out as a day where the Cunninghams thought they’d be getting answers, turned into a whirlwind trip away from home to one of the biggest hospitals in the country.
They found themselves sitting outside the cancer center of the hospital, dazed and confused.
“We were looking at each other for about two hours, going ‘What are we going to do?’” Martin Sr. said. “Cancer? What?”
Martin Jr. shuffles back and forth, smiling.
His team was just eliminated from the World Series, but he didn’t care.
He was just happy to be participating.
He was just happy to be playing baseball.
“Baseball’s the one sport that I’ve been working on for a long time,” he said. “I’m not really good at anything else. Baseball’s the best.”
Life is good.
And Martin knows it.
And if he forgets, he’s got an 8-inch scar down his left leg to remind him.
“He used to complain about having to go to practice,” his mom said. “But now, you can’t get him inside. He’s always wanting to play catch, hit or doing something. He’s chomping at the bit to go out and live his life.”
A life that for one day in April was about as long as 10.
After Martin’s biopsy, Dr. Ward made a discovery.
It wasn’t cancer. Thank, God.
But it was fibrous dysplasia - a bone disease found in children that prevents the bone from hardening.
“His bone was soft like a sponge,” Angela said.
On April 11, Martin, all 5 feet of him, went into surgery where doctors performed a bone graph and inserted a 4-inch titanium rod and two 4-inch screws into his femur.
The purpose was to hold the leg into the hip, so Martin would be able to walk.
The surgery was a success, and Martin was able to go home the next day.
Doctors told him to take it easy for the first couple weeks, and to avoid walking on it for 14 days - just in time for baseball season to start.
Because of the seriousness of the surgery, Martin was not able to play the sport he loves, except for one inning in the final regular-season game.
“I was mad, because I only got to play that one inning,” Martin said. “I hated missing the whole season.”
But that one inning was enough for Hope Mills All-Star coaches to select him to the postseason squad.
“I coached Martin in T-ball,” Hope Mills assistant coach Mark Pribble said. “We knew, before he got hurt, that he would be an outstanding player this year. So we decided that we would give him a chance to play All-Stars. And we knew if he was healthy enough, he could help us out.”
And he did - on and off the field.
“Just to see him get better every game,” Pribble said, “is just awesome. For him to go from that to the World Series is just so awesome to see.”
But Martin’s dad wasn’t so sure when they first asked his son to play.
“At first, I was a little concerned if he would be able to play,” his dad said. “And plus, it wasn’t fair for him to take a spot of a kid who played in every game. But the coaches wanted him, and he wanted to do it.
“For all the stuff he went through this year, he deserves it, too.”
Happy to be here
This wasn’t the first major surgery Martin’s ever had.
He was born with no opening in his right ear. Skin covered up his ear canal, forcing doctors to create one when he was 4 years old.
“When we found out he would need another surgery (on his leg), we were like ‘not again.’” Angela said. “He’d been through enough.”
“We were wondering if we were living under power lines,” Martin Sr. joked. “We didn’t know what was going on.”
Martin still walks with a limp, four months after his latest surgery.
But it’s getting better.
“When he first started walking, he looked like Bo Jackson after he hurt his hip,” Martin Sr. said. “It was bad. But every day he gets better and is able to do more. The doctors said he wouldn’t be able to play football this year, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to play baseball.”
Even though his team had just lost two consecutive games, Martin wasn’t down. He wasn’t sulking or complaining.
He was happy.
He was … well, Martin.
“Playing in this game here, it didn’t bother me that we lost,” he said. “I’m just happy to be in the World Series. That’s enough for me.
“I’m just happy to be here.”
Martin, so is everyone else.