Fred Dickson is a cancer survivor, a father of three, an aspiring author, a master plumber and an inspirational speaker
The 53-year-old also happens to be a semiprofessional football player.
The 6-foot-5 defensive end with the white mustache and shaved head is the oldest player on the Arbutus Big Red, a team that's made up largely of teenagers. Dickson believes he is the oldest semipro football player to start a game.
A Woodlawn alumnus and a former college player at Salisbury, Dickson was inspired to return to the field by an apparent recovery that was not supposed to happen.
On Jan. 18, 2010, Dickson realized that his throat was bleeding internally. He was swallowing blood. He went to the hospital and in a three-day period was passed from an emergency room doctor to a throat specialist to a surgeon.
“I go to the surgeon, he says, ‘You've got the worst cancer you can get,'” Dickson said. “The following day, I'm meeting with a funeral director.”
Diagnosed with Stage IVA tonsil cancer, Dickson decided to become the first patient in a new treatment process suggested by Johns Hopkins surgeon Patrick Ha.
The surgery was a success. The cancer was removed. Then came rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
For a while, Dickson could ingest food only through a tube. He bears the scars of his treatment — on his stomach, where there was once a hole for food, and on his upper chest, where the doctors installed a port for chemotherapy.
A long scar runs down the left side of his neck, which had to be sewn together after his skin was pulled back during surgery.
“You can't swallow, you can't sleep, you can't talk. Everything. Your taste goes away. You don't have nothing,” Dickson said. “You're just waiting for somebody to bring a can of food to shoot into your stomach.”
The pain was unimaginable. “I cried to die every day,” he said.
Dickson doesn't like to dwell on the low moments. He prefers to remember the good ones.
He was a cast member in “The Replacements,” a 2000 Warner Bros. film about a group of football flameouts who replace striking professional players.
Dickson was one of the players on strike, but his size — he was 320 pounds at the time — became a problem.
“Every scene I was in, I was causing problems because I was so big,” Dickson said. “They said, ‘Fred, put your hands up,' and my hands are 9 to 10 feet in the air.”
Dickson stayed in touch with people from the set. In 2006, he went to Las Vegas with Craig Comstock, an assistant director who worked on the movie.
Dickson won $10,400 playing blackjack. But instead of saving the cash, he decided to get something to commemorate the trip.
He bought two giant King Kong posters, one for Comstock and one for himself, paying $9,600 with shipping.
“I don't have anyplace for this thing; it's like 7 feet tall,” Dickson said.