Jon Lester and Phil Kessel certainly haven’t chatted casually about it or spent fleeting moments pondering it, but the two young 20-somethings thriving in the city of Boston have so very much in common.
To take a cursory look at the massive pitching frame of Jon Lester and the lithe, slight hockey scorer’s body of Phil Kessel is to size up a pair of athletes that seemingly don’t have many similarities – either in actual physical size and stature or in athletic skill set.
Lester is a 6-foot-4, 225 pound piece of Northwest Pacific work who oozes the kind of size and core-strength frame that baseball scouts covet and pitching coaches crave.
Kessel is a 6-foot, 189-pound speed demon built more for blinding quickness and agile, deft moves blended with otherworldly hand/eye coordination on the ice than anything else. Kessel’s box of tools is certainly geared more for skating and shooting than for feats of power and endurance in the athletic arena.
But both talented youngsters have the single most important thing in their lives in common. Both Boston prodigies have faced off against and bested the most dangerous opponent they’ll hopefully ever have to battle: cancer.
In terms of personality, talent, background and unbreakable strength of spirit the young Sox and Bruins superstars’ timelines of sickness and ultimate success is downright uncanny. Both busted onto the Boston professional ranks during the 2006 seasons and flashed brilliant glimpses of promise during the early stages of their pro development.
Kessel, the fifth overall pick in the 2006 draft after a pristine amateur career with the US National Team Development Program and the University of Minnesota, had four points in his first eight games for a moribund Bruins outfit during the first month of the 2006-07 season, and quickly gained a reputation as a shootout specialist.
Lester made his debut several months earlier during the summer of 2006 and fashioned a 3-0 record and 2.95 ERA after the first full four weeks of his Sox career.
Both seemed well on their way to Boston superstardom as a 22-year-old left-handed stud and 19-year-old goal-scoring winger.
Both were the prized apple of their organization’s collective eyes and appeared poised to take their place within the Pantheon of Boston pro athletes, but something tragic and troubling attacked both young men in the invulnerable prime of their young lives.
Within four months of each other, Lester and Kessel were each diagnosed with different forms of cancer. Lester’s summer ended with a diagnosis of Non-Hodgkins lymphoma on Sept. 1, and four months later it was announced that the teen-aged Kessel was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Since recovering from the sickness that forced each player to stare unblinkingly into the mirror at their own mortality, both Lester and Kessel have been the pictures of strength, virility and health. Lester was the workhorse for a Red Sox starting rotation last season and became the de facto ace of the Sox starting rotation that came within a bounce or two from getting to the World Series for a second straight year. Lester threw an emotional no-hitter and piled up the most innings (regular season and postseason) for a Sox starter since mound horse Curt Schilling tossed 249 1/3 innings in the 2004 drive to a World Series title.
“His strength was not only maintained throughout the year, but increased through the year,” said Sox pitching coach John Farrell, who watched Lester gain ten pounds of muscle during the baseball season. “[Lester’s] size and physical strength continued to grow and gain, his delivery became more efficient and his pitch distribution became as good as it’s been throughout his career. It was all because of the work that he’s done.
“How many situations do you have where a guy like Jon has done what he’s done?” added Farrell. “There’s always going to be the great unknown of how much he was really being affected by the cancer. It could have gone back to the early parts of 2006 before it really even showed up [in testing].”
Lester’s tale was one of a young man felled by sickness just three years ago, who simply regained all of his tremendous strength and forged the strongest link in Boston's starting chain.
“It was tough,” said Lester of the road from cancer patient to pitching workhorse. “It was a long road back. When I did get back, I wanted to be at a certain level and I wasn’t at that level. It took a while.
“It was tough mentally and physically to go out and pitch every five days. I just want to be a normal guy and go out there and pitch.”
Kessel has likewise enjoyed good health since beating cancer into submission, and has in fact played in 158 consecutive NHL games since returning from his illness – after missing only 11 games -- on Jan. 9, 2007.
“I'd never, never, never want to miss a game. I love it so much. Even if you have little bumps and bruises, you're always going to play,” said Kessel. “I don't know. I guess I'm fortunate to not have any injuries so far, really bad injuries. So you just go out there and play and hopefully nothing happens.
Just as Lester seemed to continue gaining strength and stamina and virtually transformed himself from the consistency-plagued pitcher Sox fans have grown accustomed to, Kessel has become the poster boy for recovery in his second year removed from the cancer that put his life and hockey career into perspective at an alarmingly young age.
“You always love the game, but you never realize how much you miss it until it's gone. You know, I never realized [until I was sick],” said Kessel. “When you're not playing, you don't know what to do. You're just so bored. I just couldn't - now when I look back at it, you just couldn't be someone that didn't play hockey. I love it so much. My love for the game, I missed it so much I had to get back right away.”
Now the 21-year-old isn’t surviving, he’s thriving. Kessel has scored a point in 18 straight Bruins’ games – a streak that puts him in the Black and Gold record books with franchise greats like Ray Bourque and Adam Oates – and he’s third in the NHL with 21 goals behind only the Flyers’ Jeff Carter and Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek.
But, despite all the impressive statistics dotted along Kessel’s NHL ledger this season, the one stat you keep going back to with the young speed-merchant is the 158 consecutive games played since that fateful 2006-07 season. That, along with Lester’s remarkable innings pitched workload, heroically proclaim the duo’s good health over the last two years, and their unbreakable determination to look cancer in the eye and defeat it.
“Everything's going good there,” said Kessel. “I have to get checkups every once in a while, every couple months. But there's nothing. I'm healthy.”
Both Jon Lester and Phil Kessel are healthy – as it should be for such physical specimens – and truly define the word hero in this day and age of PR spin and photo-op philanthropists.
Joe Haggerty is a regular contributor to WEEI.com.