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HILLSVILLE — Lucas Webb smelled croutons.
He might have been half-asleep, his hair and eyebrows gone, his body weakened by chemotherapy, but his nose still worked. And the smell of food — the mere concept of food — made him sick.
His mother knew that. That's why Debra Webb, who otherwise never left Lucas' side, always ate her meals in the hospital cafeteria or in the hallway. Just this once, though, she had tried to sneak a salad in.
"Mom, what is that?" Lucas said.
"I didn't think you'd smell it! I didn't think you'd smell it!"
"Well, I smell it."
If Lucas Webb could go back and change any of it, he wouldn't. Not even moments like that, when an empty stomach churned inside his 120-pound body that lived on freezer pops and water. Not the diagnosis of testicular cancer in June 2008. Not the surgery. Not the 20 chemo treatments at a Winston-Salem hospital that fall.
None of it.
"I wouldn't take that experience back for anything," says Lucas, who lives in Carroll County. "If I could go back in time, I would definitely do that again."
The teen who emerged from that ordeal is now one of the most positive, uplifting people you'll ever meet.
He's also among the more decorated athletes in the region. The 2010 Carroll County High School graduate recently was named first-team All-Group AA in soccer by the Virginia High School Coaches Association.
He also garnered first-team All-Region IV and Southwest District player-of-the-year honors. He is a second-team pick on the All-Timesland boys soccer team, sponsored by The Roanoke Times.
In the process, he inspired the Hillsville community, which packed the football stadium for a fundraising powderpuff game and bought "Lucas Strong" bracelets by the thousands.
"I would just go to random places and see somebody wearing that bracelet," Webb said. "I was like, 'Aw, man, that's the coolest,' you know?"
Everything that was cool to Webb before is even better now. He's been declared cancer-free since Sept. 29, 2008, the day before his 17th birthday. He just registered for classes at Liberty University — a destination he never dreamed he'd reach before he was diagnosed.
He plans to study sports management. But he also wants to take classes on religious speaking, perhaps as a way of sharing his story.
It's a tale Brian Wood has told dozens of times, but the sense of amazement never leaves him. Wood had just taken the head soccer job at Carroll County when Webb, a sophomore midfielder and forward, was diagnosed.
"I felt that would probably be the end of his athletic career," Wood said.
Debra Webb began to cry when she got the news. Lucas did not.
"Mom," he told her, "I'm going to be all right. God's going to get me through this."
Immediately, she stopped crying.
"I was amazed," Debra said. "He took it like it was a job, like, 'OK, we have to do this.' He looked at the bright side of all of it. He got us all through it."
The bond between mother and son — already strong to begin with — grew tenfold that fall as they made trips to Winston-Salem every three weeks for chemotherapy.
When the treatments ended, Lucas began working out for soccer. He attended every off-season training session the team held, then went to the Carroll Wellness Center for more exertion. Gradually, his strength began to return.
He played in every game as a junior.
"After everything that he had gone through, the word 'can't' wasn't accepted on that team anymore," Wood said. "He didn't just say, 'Do it.' He did it himself, then said, 'Come on. Follow me.' "
At 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, Webb entered his senior season in the best shape of his life. He tallied 14 goals and seven assists en route to the all-state award.
"It was a blindside," he said of the honor. "I didn't see it coming. I didn't think anyone knew about little ol' Carroll County. Well, it's not that little, but to me it is. It was a big blessing.
"It was one of the high points of my life."
Another was the powderpuff game in the fall of '08. The outpouring of community support overwhelmed Webb.
"Even people who didn't know Lucas, they would hear the story from someone else, and they would come out and support it," said Marion Harris, the former Carroll County soccer coach who helped organize the event. "The stands were full. I think we had to postpone the game for almost 30 minutes because of the line that was coming in."
The game has since become a tradition in Carroll County. So has the constant relay of Webb's story.
"I've told people one-on-one quite a few times," Webb said. "Some people it really impacts. You've just got to remind yourself it's not my story, it's God's story for me. I really am glad this whole situation happened, because it's given me a point of view that other people don't have."
Every six months, Webb returns to the hospital for blood screenings. So far, the cancer has stayed away.
He knows there's a chance it could come back at any time, but he does not fear it. If another round of balking at the smell of croutons is in his future, he'll deal with it, just like he did the first time.
"When I first got diagnosed, it hit me hard," Webb said. "But before I had a chance to fall back, God caught me.
"That's exactly what happened: He caught me, and I've been standing up ever since.
"It's changed my life for the better," he added. "I just love it."