Raising awareness after cancer scare

Record-setting punter working to give cancer the boot

Back in 2016, life was pretty sweet for Chris Brewer. The 2005 Wingate graduate had just moved into a two-story house in the amusingly named Tampa neighborhood of New Suburb Beautiful and was hitting his stride in his sales job with Glassdoor. When he wasn’t working or spending time with his wife and two young girls, he’d take his road bike out for a spin around the bay.

The 90-year-old house was great, but he seemed to be having trouble fully adapting to it. Sleeping was difficult; he’d wake up in the middle of the night drenched. “Since we had just moved into this house, I had chalked up the night sweats just to being uncomfortable and it being a new place,” Brewer says. “But they were intense. My pillow was sopping wet.”

He also had what he thought was a swollen lymph node, a condition that would often crop up when he was sick, thanks to a bout of mononucleosis when he was a kid. He called to schedule a checkup with his doctor, and because of a cancellation they got him in the next day.

When Brewer asked the doctor to check the lump in his neck, she immediately asked if he’d had night sweats. The question startled him. He started to get a creeping suspicion that this could be more than a mere infection.

His doctor scheduled a CT scan for that afternoon and blood work for the next morning.

“I was like, ‘What are we talking about here?’” Brewer says. “I was mortified. She was pretty certain that it was cancer.”

Tests confirmed that Brewer, 33 at the time, had stage 1 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He and his wife, Whitney, were in shock.

He soon found himself alone at Tampa’s Ballast Point, on the edge of a pier in the rain, watching the Thunderbirds practice for an upcoming air show and pondering his future. “I was just thinking, Holy Hell! What am I going to do?”

The man with the golden leg

 

Up through his freshman year of high school, Brewer was a strong-legged soccer player – one with such a powerful boot that he could score or assist on goals from his position as a goalkeeper. But he moved to Union County, N.C., from Greenville, S.C., midway through his sophomore year and wound up missing an entire year of soccer, which is a spring sport in South Carolina high schools but a fall sport in North Carolina. The break gave him a chance to reinvent himself.

“I’m new to school. I want to meet some friends,” he says. “Obviously the football team is the place to go.”

Turns out Brewer was a phenomenal placekicker. In one game for Sun Valley High School, he missed what would have been a state-record 65-yard field goal by a foot. After another game, he was approached by Joe Reich, then in his second year as the head football coach at Wingate. Reich wanted Brewer and his rocket right leg to kick for the Bulldogs.

Brewer didn’t even bother applying to any other schools, and although he kicked field goals for Wingate, he wound up becoming an NCAA Division II All-American as a punter, despite having never punted before entering college. Brewer likens his kicking style to his golf game – “I can hit it a long way,” he says. “I just don’t necessarily know where it’s going to go.” But he’s selling himself short: At Wingate, Brewer was known for his ability to successfully execute the “coffin corner,” which meant pinning the other team inside their own 20.

And he was accurate on field goals, too, hitting 19 out of 28 in his final two seasons, in addition to holding the Wingate NCAA-era record with a 55-yarder.

That leg strength was always Brewer’s calling card. In one game during his junior season, he set a Wingate record with an 89-yard punt. Kicking from his own end zone, he managed to pin Lenoir-Rhyne at its 3-yard line.

“I think we counted 75 (yards in the air), and it landed on its nose and just took off,” Brewer says. The punt sailed over the return man’s head.

“It was late in the second quarter, and we needed something so they didn’t put more points on the board,” Brewer says. “It completely changed the dynamic of the game.” Wingate, trailing at the time of the punt, went on to win 38-14.

Reich feels that if he’d had the connections in 2005 that he has now, he could have drummed up interest in Brewer among NFL teams. As it was, Brewer was offered a tryout with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League and played with a pair of arena-league teams but never got a shot at the big time.

The communications major has the gift of gab, and with the NFL not an option, he knew his career lay in sales. In 2009 he left football behind and concentrated on his work and family. He forged a successful career in the recruitment and software fields, eventually moving to Tampa, where his wife grew up, so she’d have family help with the kids while Brewer was on the road.

Then came the night sweats, the lump, and the uncertainty.

Cycling for a cure

 

Sitting on that Ballast Point pier, watching the Thunderbirds roll and roar overhead, Brewer decided to tackle cancer head-on. He tapped his network of friends and got an appointment at Tampa’s H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, one of the nation’s top oncological research and treatment clinics.

Brewer went through eight rounds of chemotherapy and three weeks of radiation. He continued to work at his sales job throughout his chemotherapy treatments, suffering minimal effects for the most part, aside from gradually feeling more and more drained. But radiation did him in.

“The weakness you go through – you’re just exhausted,” he says. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

But as Neitzche famously said, that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and cancer didn’t kill Brewer. If his scans continue to be clear for the next year and a half, he will be officially designated as cancer free at the end of 2021. He’s come out the other side stronger, fitter and more determined. Brewer’s diagnosis, treatment and recovery have awakened something in him. Always an athlete, he has taken it to the next level in his postcancer life. He cycles at least 100 miles a week, and in September he’ll compete in an Ironman triathlon. Afterward, he plans to get the Ironman logo tattooed over the scar on his chest left behind by the chemotherapy port.

Brewer has become an advocate for Moffitt and for cancer awareness. During his treatment, he told the medical personnel at Moffitt: “As long as I come out of this on the other side, use me whatever way you can.” Brewer is constantly raising money for cancer research, and he is featured in a new video for the American Cancer Society, released on National Cancer Day (Feb. 4). In early October 2017 he was honored during halftime of a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game for his fight against cancer.

He’s on the board of directors of Cure on Wheels, an organization that raises money for Moffitt. Brewer regularly participates in Cure on Wheels’ 320-mile bicycle trek from Tampa to Tallahassee to deliver Moffitt’s annual request to the state of Florida for more funding.

He is also a member of the Associate Board of Ambassadors for the American Cancer Society. There, Brewer puts his considerable personality to use in raising awareness of the risks of cancer. Not only is he a cancer survivor, but his father died of melanoma at the age of 45, when Brewer was just 15.

“You think about something hurting and say, ‘Ah, it’ll go away,’ and three weeks later it’s still there,” Brewer says. “Go get it looked at. Or a mole that looks a little bit off. Don’t wait. That was what killed my dad. He had a mole that he didn’t get looked at for like two years, and by the time he got treatment it was too late.”

Brewer’s civic-mindedness stretches beyond cancer awareness. He finds time around his sales trips and early-morning bike rides to make Tampa a little safer, serving as president of the board of directors of Walk Bike Tampa, an organization that advocates for pedestrians and cyclists. He’s also an assistant volunteer coordinator for the Tampa Pig Jig, which raises money for NephCure Kidney International.

Cure on Wheels seems to be the cause that sits most closely at the intersection of Brewer’s current passions. As a post-treatment present to himself, Brewer upgraded his road bike, and the regular rides helped him deal with the physical, mental and emotional toll that the treatment and haunting uncertainty of cancer took on him. Cycling has since become a need, like breathing or eating.

“If I’ve gone three days without biking, my wife will ask me to go get on my bike,” Brewer says. “It will calm me, soothe me, kind of give me my personal space.”

Occasionally, on weekends, he’ll leave the house at 2 a.m. in order to get in a “century” ride – a 100-mile jaunt that gets him home around 9 in the morning. That frees up the rest of the day for his family.

“When you’ve got three daughters, you want to spend as much time with them as you can,” he says.

Time. It’s something Brewer thanks the heavens he still has.

He’s determined to make the most of it.