BLACKSBURG — With his dad spotting him Friday in Virginia Tech's football weight room, Chase Ringler desperately threw every ounce of his 54-pound body into trying to bench press the 45-pound bar above him. At first, the bar barely budged, but he slowly got it to raise a few inches above his chest before locking his arms.
It was just a small measure of Chase's strength, but he doesn't have much to prove anymore. Good luck finding an 8-year-old tougher than this kid.
"Most adults wouldn't be able to go through what he went through with the same mentality," said Whitney Ringler, Chase's mother, who like her husband Richard is a 1993 Denbigh High and a '97 Tech graduate.
More than three years later after being declared free of the insidious disease that threatened to take his life, Chase is learning what it really means to be the son of Hokie parents. He received the royal treatment from Tech's football program this weekend, thanks to Tech running backs coach Shane Beamer and contributions from Tech message board readers.
In 2007, Chase complained of pain in his knees and in his neck. Tests in Charleston, S.C., where the Ringler's reside, initially revealed nothing, but doctors were at least able to rule out meningitis. Doctors were in the process of evaluating Chase for rheumatoid arthritis, before CT scans showed something more suspicious.
A cancerous tumor about half the size of a golf ball was discovered on his left adrenal gland. As devastating as the news was that Chase was dealing with stage 4 neuroblastoma cancer at the age of 3 1/2, the situation took on an even more grave tone when the cancer was found to have spread to his bone marrow and skull.
"I realized his whole life is changed," said Richard Ringler, Chase's father and a chemical engineer. "You don't get better from this and just go on with the rest of your life. Your whole life is going to be affected by this. Then, it starts to sink in that he could really die. That probably took a year before I really realized, 'He might not make it through this.' That was the scariest point."
Neuroblastoma is a rare malignant cancer in infants and children that develops from nerve tissue. In most cases, the disease is found to be high-risk, meaning it has spread to other parts of the body. Survival rate for high-risk patients is 30 percent, but it can be less for children diagnosed after the age of 2 1/2 years old, like Chase. For children that experience relapses, there is no cure.
Chase underwent immediate surgery to remove the tumor. He also had an affected kidney removed.
In the next 2 1/2 years, he underwent a constant stream of tests, scans and treatments that included 14 rounds of radiation, eight rounds of high dose chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant and six months of Accutane treatment. That's not to mention countless biopsies and scans.
As brutal as the treatments were for Chase, they also took an emotional toll on Whitney, Richard and Erica, Chase's now 11-year-old sister. During the 2 1/2 years of treatments, most of which were administered at the Medical University of South Carolina Children's Hospital in Charleston, Whitney estimated the family spent 300 of 365 days a year in the hospital.
"It was rare that we were even home," Whitney said. "When I'd say we'd have to go back to the hospital, I didn't want to go, but he'd say, 'Can we have the play room? Can we have the room with the blue walls?'
"He knew he was sick, but he wasn't thinking like that. It was kind of his 'normal.'"
Nothing was more painful for Whitney, Richard and Erica to watch than the 11 monoclonal antibody treatments Chase underwent.
The monoclonal antibody treatments, which involved medicine that attached itself to every nerve ending in Chase's body, took place at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. The Ringler family traveled 11 times to New York for one-week stays, with three weeks of breaks in between each round of treatments.
"I've never seen anything like it, and I hope to God I never see anything like it again," Whitney said. "It was the most intense treatment I've ever seen. Every kid in that place is just amazing."
Every morning before he'd have the treatments, Chase heard screaming outside the door of his room in the pediatric day hospital at Sloan-Kettering — the terrified wails of children as they received the treatment in a real-life house of horrors.
Waiting for his own treatments to begin, Chase processed the reactions of other children the only way he knew how.
"He'd call it 'trouble,'" Whitney said. "He'd say, 'It's time for trouble.'
"For a parent to watch it, it's just excruciating."
Whitney said Chase would show pained expressions when he had the treatments, and he broke out in hives all over his body, but he gritted his teeth through it all.
Chase had his last treatment in July 2009, and every scan since then has come back free of cancer. Though the treatments are over, the fight against neuroblastoma continues.
Adam White, a native of White Stone who is an alumnus of Christchurch School, met the Ringler family about five years ago at a hospital fundraising volunteer walk in Charleston.
Chase had just undergone his bone marrow transplant and was wearing a Virginia Tech cap, which immediately caught White's attention. White, 31, is a big Tech fan. His father is a 1960 Tech graduate, and his grandfather is a former assistant commandant in Tech's Corps of Cadets.
After becoming friends with the Ringler family, White got involved. He's now director of development for chaseafteracure.com, a non-profit group that has raised more than $300,000 for childhood cancer treatments, and raises awareness for neuroblastoma treatment.
"It makes a big difference to me to know I'm so connected to the family when I do the work," White said. "It's awesome."
White has been active for years on the HokieHaven.com and VTScoop.com message boards. He went to the message boards to share Chase's story. White said about two dozen Tech fans have responded by chipping in with donations, and by contributing to a weekend of surprise events in Blacksburg for Chase.
Chase only knew he was going to Saturday's game, not that he'd get to run through the weight room where he strained to bench press that 45-pound bar.
He didn't know he'd get a guided tour of the locker room, players' lounge and coach Frank Beamer's office from Shane Beamer, whom Tech fan Kyle Linegar reached out to via Twitter to see if he'd mind getting involved. Shane jumped at the opportunity.
"I really admire how strong Chase's parents are, and how strong Chase is," Shane said.
"He's full of life and he's strong and full of positive energy. It was awesome to see. I'm glad Kyle reached out to me. I probably got just as much out of it as they did."
Chase also got to watch Tech's final walk-through practice Friday afternoon in Lane Stadium, where he met quarterback Logan Thomas, his favorite current Tech player.
Of course, Thomas is no substitute for Chase's all-time favorite Hokie, David Wilson. So, one of the highlights of the day came for Chase when he was presented with a Tech mini-helmet signed by none other than Wilson himself.
Why is Wilson his favorite player?
"He does backflips," said Chase, who once saw a video online of Wilson turning nine consecutive backflips.
Chase also was given a personalized Tech jersey signed by several players and coaches, pants, gloves and several other pieces of memorabilia. He and his parents got to tailgate Saturday with Thomas' parents, before getting a prime viewing spot for the pregame team walk to the stadium.
Then, Chase and his parents got to watch the game from indoor club level seats in the south end zone of Lane Stadium — a particularly welcome gift given the fact temperatures dipped into the low 30s at game time.
"They set up quite an experience for us, and we're very, very thankful for that," Whitney said.
Chase always will have reminders of his struggle. In addition to living with one kidney, he has hearing aids, and he may not be able to have children of his own. His blonde hair fell out as a result of all the treatments, and it has been slow to return.
Otherwise, Chase is living the life of most normal 8-year-old boys. Despite all the treatments, he's on track academically as a third-grader in Charleston at Reeves Elementary School, where he's a straight-A student.
He's one of the fastest swimmers on his swim team. He's an accomplished soccer player, and for the first time Monday, he'll get to play for a flag football team.
He wants to play tackle football. Mom is a little reluctant, but if anything, Chase has shown he's tough enough for just about anything.
"He's amazing to me," Whitney said.