Drew Bentley doesn't talk about "getting to the next level," which, in high school football parlance means playing in college. He already feels like he's scaled a mountain just to play his senior season at Grafton High.
Bentley has reached heights almost unimaginable a year ago, throwing key blocks on touchdown runs in the Clippers' 38-24 win over Courtland on Saturday in the Region I Division 4 final. A win by Grafton (9-3) this Saturday against Briar Woods (12-1) would lift Bentley to the peak: a berth in the state championship game.
"I feel blessed that we've gotten to this point, but I'm not satisfied," said Bentley, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound offensive guard. "All I wanted was to have the experience of playing as a senior, and I thank God I've been feeling so good the past 12 weeks.
"I want to keep going."
Who can blame Bentley for being a little greedy? Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) — a chronic, inflammatory arthritis and autoimmune disease — painfully robbed him of virtually his entire junior season.
And while advances in treatment that made it possible for Bentley to play this season offer hope for his future, the disease could diminish his quality of life in adulthood. So he savors every moment of what he realizes is his final go-round on the football field.
"There are risks to playing now, but the psychological risk of missing out on this season outweighs the physical risks," he said. "I figure if I have to pay later, I might as well do something I love now."
And Bentley loves football. Most of all, he loves celebrating in the end zone after pulling on a block, leveling an opposing defender and opening the way for a touchdown by one of the Clippers' star backs: Dylan Bartells or Marcus Spearman.
He's been extremely effective in helping Grafton reach its second state semi in school history.
"Our guards are our mobile offensive linemen," Grafton coach Jared Van Acker said. "They do a lot of down blocking, trap blocking and pulling out on sweeps.
"So he's got to be very mobile as well as going one-on-one with you in the trenches trying to push you around. He gets out there, lead blocks and packs a punch."
Mobility. It's a simple concept Bentley appreciates more than most teens.
The first symptom of the disease, a sore, swollen and stiff knee, hit when Bentley was a freshman. The confusing thing, he said, was that he hadn't done anything to hurt it.
His mother, Gina, was heartbroken, because AS is usually inherited. She suffers from arthritis and recognized the symptoms immediately.
The disease proved manageable enough in its infancy his freshman and sophomore years. Doctors would drain the knee of fluid, inject it with steroids and Bentley would play as usual.
But AS hit Bentley full-force, with all of the accompanying symptoms, during practice prior to his junior season. The knees were sore, but now he experienced pain in his hips.
There also was joint pain in the spine, which often leads to motion-restricting bone fusion in adults with AS. And because AS is an autoimmune disease, Bentley often felt fatigued and nauseous.
Some mornings as a junior he couldn't get out of bed. Other mornings, he'd ride with his father, Andre, to Grafton, but remain in the car in tears, too tired and sore to walk into the school.
"Sure, I asked myself, 'Why me?' sometimes," Bentley said. "But I have a strong faith and I knew there was a purpose to this, that it would make me stronger."
Medicine helped. Enter Dr. Christopher Hakim and nurse practitioner Misty Mason, whom Bentley began seeing at Arthritis & Rheumatic Diseases P.C. in Williamsburg in late 2010.
Bentley's previous doctors had counseled caution and advised him to forgo football to avoid stress to joints that might plague him in adulthood. Hakim devised and Mason implemented a treatment plan, including new biologic drugs, which they felt would help Bentley get back onto the field as a senior.
"She sees a lot of older people who can barely walk," Bentley said of Mason, whose son Trent plays on the offensive line at Mathews High. "In me she saw someone with the opportunity to be active and enjoy life, rather than be miserable."
Bentley's regimen includes anti-inflammatories daily and weekly injections to bolster his immunity. And every six weeks he endures a four-hour marathon during which he receives a drug intravenously to treat his immune system.
"We hope that the new biologic drugs not only control the symptoms but prevent progression of the disease," Mason said. "As long as he listens to his body, doesn't play with hot joints and communicates clearly what kind of shape he's in, he should get through the season."
Bentley was training for football again soon after starting treatment with Hakim and Mason. He's remained healthy and injury free throughout the season, and has started all 12 games.
One of his biggest thrills was going head to head on occasion with Courtland defensive lineman Chris Kernisky, the Region I Player of the Year, in Grafton's regional championship game victory. Bentley felt he held his own.
"It was a big challenge," he said. "He was bigger and probably stronger, but that doesn't mean he was tougher."
Bentley's parents can't imagine that many teenagers are tougher after watching their son rise to the top of his personal Everest in the past year.
"I'm very proud of him," Gina said, choking up as she did so. "Drew makes it very easy, because unless he's on his back he doesn't complain."
Andre, who played linebacker on scholarship at East Carolina and Hampton, said, "I have a real admiration for him, because he's needed 10 times more toughness and perseverance, and 10 times more faith to meet his challenges than any I faced.
"He's learned that storms are going to come in life, but what matters is how you handle them. He's used this as an opportunity to let God's light shine through him and be an inspiration to others."
Group AA Division 4 semifinal
WHO: Briar Woods (12-1) vs. Grafton (9-3).
WHEN: 4 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Bailey Field (at York High).Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times