ORLANDO -- He didn’t catch a pass, make a tackle or play a single down this season for the Miami Central Rockets.
But Leonard Gourdine walked out of the Citrus Bowl on Saturday afternoon and onto the team bus the way he had dreamed of back in August — with a state championship medal around his neck, a huge smile on his face and joyous teammates around him.
Wearing the No. 84 jersey that was supposed to be his this season, Gourdine served as an honorary captain before the Rockets went out and beat No. 1-ranked Gainesville 37-14 in the Class 6A title game.
The fact Gourdine was in attendance was a victory in itself.
The 15-year-old freshman spent the past four months battling leukemia and was only cleared to make the trip with his teammates when doctors gave him the news Wednesday he had been praying for — his cancer was finally in remission.
“I can’t explain how good it feels to be here,” said Gourdine, who was released from the hospital on Wednesday and made the trip up with his teammates to Orlando on Friday.
“A freshman with a ring? You can’t explain it,” Gourdine said as his teammates lined up to receive their medals. “I told my teammates today that I beat cancer’s butt because they’re all I got — them and my mom.”
Gourdine, a former standout at Gwen Cherry Park, was going to be a part of Central’s high-powered offense this season, according to Central coach Telly Lockette. But on Aug. 17, just two weeks before the Rockets opened their season at nationally ranked Grayson, Ga., Gourdine went to the hospital to try and figure out why his nose had been bleeding each day after practice.
After a series of tests, Shakeida Norton, Gourdine’s mother, said doctors told her that her son’s white blood cell count was 10 times the normal amount and he had early stages of acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) — a fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Coincidentally, Norton said, it was the same disease Gourdine’s cousin had been diagnosed with just two months earlier.
Gourdine spent “40 painful days” in the hospital, his mother said, as doctors gave him blood transfusions and injected him with chemotherapy through his spinal cord.
“Those treatments made me throw up a lot,” said Gourdine, who lost nearly 30 pounds and said Saturday he’s now weighing 137 pounds. “I was calling my mom every day I was in there, telling her I think it’s time for me to die. She said ‘Don’t think like that, grab your bible.’ I started praying to God and left it in his hands.”
In the meantime, Gourdine said, he kept up with Central by watching highlights online. His mom went to the Booker T. Washington game on Sept. 8 and even taped the game for him. After his first stint at the hospital ended on Sept. 27, Gourdine gathered enough strength the next day to go support the Rockets in their game against Miami Columbus. Central won 28-17 and didn’t lose a game after that.
“Leonard was always in our thoughts,” sophomore receiver Da’Vante Phillips said. “At first we felt bad because we weren’t going to visit him; he was pretty sick. So one day we all said we’re going to go show love for him because he’s a Rocket.”
When Gourdine was in the hospital for another nine-day stretch in October, the team went to see him and presented him with a football. Gourdine was hospitalized twice more after that.
“He wanted to get better for this trip,” Lockette said. “We’re happy he made it. I thought it was special to have him on the sidelines.”
Norton said her son still has another six months of being cancer free before he can be cleared to return to football.
“Right now they do not see the cancer in my blood cells,” Gourdine said. “I hope it stays that way. I can’t wait to get back out there and play.”