PROVO, Utah — Eric Merkley isn't one to complain, so when he began walking with a limp in his leg, there had to be something wrong. He just had no idea it was a tumor.
Cancer in the leg of a 17-year-old basketball player? Preposterous. Absurd. Ridiculous. And very real.
Merkley found out he has a 9- by 7-centimeter size tumor in his left leg. He found out on Jan. 19 and the next night he told his teammates. On Jan. 21, Merkley's season officially game to an end in a 62-44 win over Uintah.
Merkley officially started the game but it was really more of a tribute. Uintah allowed Salem Hills to get the opening tip uncontested. Jake Skinner tipped the ball to Merkley. A timeout was called and Merkley was presented a basketball autographed by his teammates. The fans gave him a standing ovation and he took a seat on the bench, officially ending his season.
"Our students have been great. I knew when it came time to support Eric that they would rally around him," said Salem Hills Coach Jimmy DeGraffenried. "We had a great showing. The kids did a great job of coming out and supporting him. We thought it (getting the opening tip) would be a nice way for Eric to get his last time on the court. We thought it would be a fitting way to let everyone show their love and support for him. Even some of the Uintah players wrote his number on their arms."
Eric's father John Merkley said the family was surprised and touched by the overwhelming show of support for their son.
"The whole community is rallying behind Eric. He's going to be OK," he said. "We had no idea this was going to go on. We knew Coach DeGraffenried was going to start him and immediately call a timeout. When we walked through the door and saw all these white shirts I told my wife 'look at this, look at this.' This is amazing what the community is doing for Eric."
Merkley was averaging seven points a game for Salem Hills this season despite the discomfort in his leg. He started feeling a pain in his leg during the summer where it was believed to be a strained muscle. He was going to physical therapy, but the pain continued to get worse. After X-rays were taken and an MRI was ordered, Merkley got the news. It didn't take long for the word to spread.
Even before the game, it was clear that there was a swelling of support. Most of the student body wore white T-shirts with his No. 5 on the front and "Merk" on the back. The cheerleaders opted for a different version. They white T-shirts with the phrase "We love Eric," on the front.
As for the game, Merkley watched his team open the game on a 12-0 run to set the tone for the night. Kolby Linford scored four points, Josh Treanor converted a 3-point play and London Simonsen sank a 3-pointer and then hit a jumper to put the Skyhawks up a dozen. Uintah finally scored on a jumper from Kalen Williams with 2:30 left in the quarter.
Salem Hills led 24-18 at the half and finally broke the game open late in the third quarter. Skinner got the crowd fired up when he drove the baseline and threw down a two-handed dunk.
Uintah's Matt Cushing converted a 3-point play, but Linford answered with a 3-pointer and Treanor added two free throws to give the Skyhawks a 45-31 lead at the end of the third quarter. Simonsen opened up the fourth quarter by knocking down a 3-pointer to give the Skyhawks a commanding 48-31 lead.
Simonsen led Salem Hills with 18 points. Treanor had 12 and Linford finished with 10. Skinner scored eight points and 15 rebounds. Cushing led Uintah with 12 points.
The win helped Salem Hills improve to 2-1 in region play heading into a pivotal game against Payson, which was on Tuesday.
Tuesday was also a big day for Merkley. He was scheduled to visit Primary Children's Hospital where he is expected to get a diagnosis on his condition.
"I was really in shock because all this is happening. It was really special. I'm really blessed to have the support and all these people behind me," Eric Merkley said. "At first when you find out you have cancer it's an unreal feeling, like you're dreaming. I've come to reality with it. I'm ready to take it head on. It's just a bump in the road. It's not going to phase me or define me at all."