St. Jude Storied Lives | Episode 3


Without soccer, Craig might not have come to St. Jude. One day in high school, he got injured at practice. A trip to the doctor led to a diagnosis of a hernia and a torn spleen. And a blood test showed something more: leukemia.




This is “St. Jude Storied Lives.” I'm Joel Alsup. When I was a kid, I had a type of bone cancer called osteosarcoma, and I was a patient at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. And now, many years later, I'm blessed enough to be back working to tell the stories of St. Jude. What life is like for patients and their families – during the time of treatment and the time afterward. And that's what this podcast is about.

St. Jude saves lives, and those patients go out into the world and get to live their lives. And after a while, their cancer story is just a part of their whole story. And the cool thing about St. Jude is that it's just the beginning of a lifetime of friendships, relationships and even family. For me and so many others, it's a place that teaches you what's important.


It really taught me how to slow down and appreciate, you know, the things that are going on around you. But also, don't be ashamed to tell somebody you love them because you literally never know when those moments can be taken away because it can happen literally in a snap.


So, it's my absolute pleasure to introduce you to Craig. He actually came to St. Jude in 2008 when he was 15. At that point in his life, he was trying to make a name for himself in high school and trying to live up to the example of his siblings. He’s the youngest of six kids and they all played sports, and his favorite sport has always been soccer. And actually, playing soccer is the first step on the path that brought him to St. Jude.


During soccer practice one day, one of my teammates, who was actually a cousin of mine, he knocked me down during practice. I got home, was laying on the couch. My mom was like, Just go soak, you're probably out of shape. So I went to the tub to go soak and I had a knot in my abdomen about the size of a tangerine.

And so we called our pediatrician, who thankfully was a friend of the family. Told me to ice it and he’ll see me the next morning. And he confirmed it was a sports hernia, which was something I had been dealing with. And he was admitting me into the general surgeon to get, you know, that next additional look at.

So I'm on the examining table with the general surgeon. I couldn't breathe. So they ran the ultrasound up my side and they saw my spleen was swollen and it was torn. And so I was admitted into the hospital that day and given a blood transfusion in hopes that my spleen would heal on its own.

And, you know, things were actually starting to look good. You know, my blood counts were starting to level out a little bit. My spleen was starting to not swell anymore, and it started to look like it was healing on its own. But a nurse walking by, hearing the conversation between my doctors and my parents, she ran a random blood culture, and that's when she saw something different in my blood, which happened to be leukemia.

And the very next day I was at St. Jude because Hurricane Gustav was landing in Baton Rouge. And it actually did damage to the house that I was growing up in at the time. And so, who knows if I wouldn't, you know, those things didn't happen in a line like they did, who knows how sick I would have gotten, you know, if they would have been able to find it so fast and X, Y, and Z.

And yeah, I was introduced to the St. Jude family August 29, 2008. It was my first day on campus.


And, you know, being a little bit older, being a teenager, what went through your mind when you heard your name and cancer in that same sentence?


Being the athlete that I was at the time, honestly, things were starting to kind of really feel like I was about to come into myself in a great way. And then my mom being the teacher that she is, four out of my five older siblings graduated high school early. My mom graduated high school early, my grandparents.

So academics and athletics always aligned with me to a great extent. You know, some girls kind of starting to like you a little bit. So, for me, it was really, it's like a hurricane. The best way I could describe it. It's just like that calm before the storm.

I found out I was diagnosed in the morning, and I was going to be at St. Jude the next day. So, like within, I guess you could say 12 hours, my room started to get flooded with some of my favorite people, some of my most memorable people. And that's when it started to kind of hit home for me as a teenager because it's not the little kids that you see on the television. It’s really myself. Like, I know everything that's going on.

You know, it was definitely very eerie. You are already going through a lot of things emotionally as a teenager. And so that was my journey as a patient like as a teenager. My mom, she, my parents in general, they took care of me a lot, my siblings as well. But it still was a lot on my own.

Like, me taking care of my medication, making sure I took my pills at a certain time, making sure I was able to eat. You know, it’s really – a lot a lot of the onus is on you as a teenager that a lot of folks don't necessarily think about when they think about St. Jude.


And just so people understand, too, what are we talking about as far as your treatment? How long did it last? What did it involve?


So being diagnosed with ALL, that requires your first 8 to 10 weeks being here. And at the time, I told you I was diagnosed, because they found out I was sick because of a hernia. So, you can't have surgery because that makes cancer cells spread.

So literally my first month or so, I was on bed rest pretty much. I could only get up to go to the bathroom. It was literally painful to walk, you know, because of where the hernia was in my abdomen. And I lost virtually most of my muscles in my legs. So, it took a while for me to even be able to power walk.

And so, once I was finally out of the hospital, we went to the Ronald McDonald House and we were there for, I think, another month and some change. I was able to go back to Baton Rouge for a couple of days and then back to Memphis. So I was mainly here in Memphis from August to the next July, pretty much. I guess I was able to go home maybe for short periods of time, a week or two at most, and then was back up here doing different rounds of chemotherapy.

Also, you know, steroids. The first thing they kind of give you, so learning how to handle those emotions and that shift. It was a tough battle, first couple of months for sure.

I think I started to get the hang of it once I started the St. Jude schooling program because like I said, I mean, I'm truly a product of academics and athletics. And so with athletics being gone, my mom definitely was, she was a stickler for the academics for sure. And so, with me going to the schooling program, it just helped me get some sense of normalcy and some consistency with, you know, with the routine and whatnot.

Schooling at St. Jude affected me in the long haul with what I pursued when I got to college as well. And getting that first experience of one-on-one teaching. I was in the gifted program before I arrived to St. Jude, but this was even more intentional because it’s one on one with your instructor, and you don't have to feel embarrassed about not knowing something. You can just ask the question and they’ll explain it for you. And I truly, truly love them just from pushing me. At the time I started to take physics and stuff like that, and I had no clue what I was doing at first. And so just having that assistance from them, it really aided me a lot.

So, 15, 16 I was with them a large part that, you know, that time of my life and just learning a lot of different things and actually ended up taking some college courses with them. And so, they were very instrumental in me going to college a year early.


And as you finished up that treatment, wholly going back into school, how did you feel as you returned back to your normal life?


Oh, man, that's the unique, the tough, the dynamic, the weird, all the adjectives. That's what it is like returning to school after this kind of journey, especially in the time that I left. I'd already did school. So, I was already a freshman. Kind of made a name for myself, being the only freshman to start varsity on the soccer team. And then so early in my sophomore year was when I was diagnosed.

So, when I returned and I returned as a senior, It definitely was like, what happened? You know, I think folks kind of thought it was like the pandemic, like, did we just forget a year or something with Craig? And so it was kind of like reintroducing myself to people.

Obviously, my body structure had changed. At one point in time in treatment, I went from, I think I started at like 160, 155. The steroids had me at 205 and then at one point in time I couldn't eat for 10 days. And so, I went from like 180 to like 128. So drastically lost a lot of weight, gained it back.

My face was huge when I returned to school. And so, it was really like re-introducing myself to a lot of folks and finding my place again. Begged and begged and begged my doctors to allow me to play at least baseball or soccer. He was like, Look, I'm not going to let you do both. Choose. So, I had to choose one or the other.

I chose soccer because that's where I really felt, you know, the most family feel just with my siblings playing. And that's what helped me kind of get through, I guess you could say, senior year.

And one of the biggest things I learned with my cancer journey is who truly loves you. Who's authentic in their relationships, and who's not going to be weird, you know, no matter what.

And so, like a great group of my friends from back then are still a great group of my friends right now. And so especially during those, you know, collegiate years and during those high school years when I was still under treatment, they treated me like normal. They still crack jokes.


That’s all you want when you're going through this.


Yeah, they still made fun of me and whatnot, you know. And I mean, still literally to this day, those are truly, truly, still some of my best friends in the world. So, that group of guys just have always been, you know, a lot to me and continue to be a lot to me. Because before being sick, while being sick and afterwards it still was always the same kind of energy and the same kind of love.


That's great, man, because I remember too, even though I was much younger than you when I was going through treatment, is you just wanted desperately to feel normal and feel that same sense from your friends, so I know how thoroughly important that was.

And you know, another thing for me too, even though I was younger, like it wasn’t just physically I transformedwhen I went through this, it was it was mentally changing too. How do you feel like maybe your mentality changed as you came back into school?

Was there a perspective shift at all for you?


Definitely. I mean, it brought my family closer. You know, being the youngest, you feel like a runt sometimes, and especially with the age gap that I had with them, I definitely felt like a runt. And then all of them came to visit me at some point in time and that meant a lot to me.

Also, I've always gone to church, but I got saved during that time and really realized the impact of God, and how to slow down. I mean, I know that was kind of crazy for a 15, 16 year old, but it really taught me how to slow down and appreciate, you know, the things that are going on around you. But also to lean into your conscience. You know, know that what you're feeling right now is real. You know, if you feel happy, you are happy. Don't be ashamed to tell somebody you love them because you literally never know when those moments can be taken away, because it can happen literally in a snap.

So it just taught me to value the small things a lot more and just be more intentional with telling people I love them. Like that was one of the biggest things, just being able to tell folks, I love you, like after a phone call, a text, anything. I mean, getting rid of that toxic masculinity that they call it, you know, just embracing the feminine side of yourself.

I mean, we all have a masculine and a feminine. And so, like as a man, I think the earlier on you embrace that, the better you are in life. Because you notice a lot of things are just prideful, and pride usually is empty. You know you don't have anything to kind of lean on. But love, that's really based on something that you can actually pinpoint and count on, you know, forever.

And so for me, it was just really realizing the power of love and what it really can do. And so I think I definitely returned a different person. Still the happy go lucky guy that I am, you know, to this day. But it just helped me to love a lot harder and a lot stronger.


Yeah, that's so important. I know, especially as a parent of a teenager, being able to hear a teenager talk about love, I'm sure for your parents was a big deal to them. So that's awesome that it helped you kind of shift perspective that way.

So, to take it back too. You said you decided soccer would be the thing you got back into. How did how did soccer go once you got back to it? And did you keep pursuing it after high school?


I always knew I was going to have some fame, some success, especially when it came to sports. So, I would autograph my pictures for my grandparents. I mean, as early on as like eight years old, eight, nine years old, I would just autograph the back of their pictures to tell them, Y’all won't have to stand in line when this becomes very valuable.

And begging my doctor to get back on the field, that was a slow process. Like the season started off really slow for me, started off on J.V. again. And so, it was really weird. But I think after the first month in the season, I started to kind of feel myself again. Scored a hat trick, and I think that was like the first turning point for me. And from there just kind of like continued to tick up and tick up and tick up, and ended up playing varsity again. Towards the end of the season, I started to think like, where can I go to school and still play soccer potentially.

I knew it was going to be a battle because I still had to get medically cleared because I still was on chemotherapy, you know? So, I just took all into consideration when I was applying for colleges. My mom, she kind of encouraged my older siblings to go to historically black colleges and universities just so we can get that experience of knowing our history.

You know, the saying goes, if you don't know where you come from then how will you know where you're going? And so, going to a historically black college was very, very important. And at the time only two HBCU’s had soccer teams, so it was Howard University and Alabama A&M. But it was really upon my visit to Howard that really, it solidified everything for me.

I mean the people, it's really like a family. Honestly, was just so family oriented. And soccer was still in the back of my mind because I knew I wasn't going to be able to play for at least two years, for me to even have a miracle chance of being cleared because I was going to have to have the surgery to get my port removed, you know, kind of have the chemotherapy out of my blood and really work my way up to get back in shape and whatnot, because this is division one soccer we're talking about here.

And so, you know, it just was in the back of my mind, not necessarily high priority, but it was in the back of my mind. And so just went through school, just getting back physical into physical activities, had the port removed and everything. And I met some Brazilian guys that stayed in my dorm, and they had lost the ball and I kicked it to them and they asked me if I knew how to play soccer. And I was like, Yeah. And so they invited me to play soccer with them. And then, mind you, this is my first time playing soccer in like two or three years. And I must have did really well.


I was going to say, jumping back in with Brazilians to play soccer is pretty brave. They’re historically pretty good at soccer.


Yeah. Yeah. I was a little nervous, but like, after the first 5 minutes, it felt normal. My body was a lot more ready than I was mentally. And so just being back out there, it was like, Oh, this is my love, this is my passion. And that kind of got me back into soccer, really just playing with those guys and the opportunity presented itself.

And so I ended up, walking onto the Howard men’s team my senior year. And it was truly a life changing experience because once you reach a certain level in athletics, you realize it's not necessarily about skill because we all have a certain level of skill. It's about the mentality. And so that was the biggest thing for me, just learning how to get up early, learning how to be mindful of what you're eating, being mindful of staying consistent with being endurance, and running a lot, and whatnot, that was what it did for me.

It was learning the routine of being a professional and it really just helped me to get in line with like, Oh, I can do this seriously. It pushed me in a lot of great ways to not only finish school, but knowing that I could actually be a professional one day if I, you know, follow the routine, if I follow this route, if I do everything like I'm supposed to do, then, you know, the opportunities will present themselves. And I just have to be ready when they do.


You know, not only were you driven for soccer, you've got a higher degree. You got a master's degree, too. How did school continue for you? What did you get your bachelor's degree in and what did you continue on for your masters?


I initially enrolled in pre-med biology. And I had the idea I wanted to be a pediatrician, come back here, but I told my mom when I first started treatment, I was going to be a part of the St. Jude mission for the rest of my life. And I didn't know what that meant at the time at 15. But obviously you fast forward and I see so many different ways of how that statement has come true.

But in pre-med biology, I was going to take an early childhood class so I could learn what it's like to be around kids all the time. From that class, I fell in love with education and so I started working my way into transitioning over to the education field. So, I ended up switching my major to elementary education. And I graduated with my bachelor's in elementary education in 2016, which is also the same year I walked onto the men’s team.

And so I was like, you know what? My mentor, who was the person that kind of convinced me to even switch my major, he was the head of our special education program. And so, my oldest nephew, he was born with special needs, my second oldest niece, she also has special needs, and I was very impactful in raising them.

And so, they had a huge impact on my life. Then obviously the St. Jude schooling program had a huge impact on my life. Me being in gifted and talented had a huge impact on my life. So, it just was like a lot of alignment and things presented themselves for me to say, you know what, let me go straight into this special education program because it's my calling.


What is life like for you every day? What kind of perspective do you wake up with? What is what is your goal for each day?


Man, my goal for each day really is just to be intentional. Be intentional with love. Be intentional with, you know, discernment. I strive to lean on those lessons that I was taught early on as a child, you know, pre being diagnosed and then obviously refining and honing post diagnosis. And so, every day it's just about being intentional with the relationship that I build in that I have, I feel like there’s so much negativity out here.

I just want to be a positive person. Not saying that I'm always happy, but I am happy. I would like to say at least 75% of the time. And so just leaning on those things and then giving back to my nieces and nephews, giving back to the kids at St. Jude.

I strive to be humble. One thing that I am doing my best to do right now is not necessarily not to be as humble, but to embrace the good things that are coming to me, and also embrace that I'm a leader and I'm a vessel. I'm a light. So for me, that's really the only thing that I strive to do every day, is to have a positive attitude and just be intentional with the relationships that I have.


Craig, you're a good man. Thank you so much for your perspective, for your wisdom, and for this beautiful life you've lived and sharing that with us.


Oh, man. Thank you, Joel. I told you again it’s an honor to be here. So, thank you.


So, when Craig got cancer, he had to put his dreams of soccer stardom on hold. But one important thing is his mom wasn't going to let him skip school. And the great thing is there's actually a school on the St. Jude campus. So Craig was able to keep up with his studies while he was going through treatment. And educational support is just one way St. Jude thinks about the entire wellbeing of children who are being treated for catastrophic diseases.

And that holistic support is only possible because of continued financial support from donors. You can give to St. Jude online at or click the link in the episode description. Together, we’ll make cures possible for every child, everywhere.

This podcast is a production of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. It's recorded by Andres Garcia and Nathan Black. It's produced by Geoffrey Redick. It's edited by Grace Korzekwa Evans. The music production is by Kazimir Boyle, and Louis Graham is the executive producer. I'm Joel Alsup. Thanks for listening and join us next time.

More audio stories