In early 2008, on his way home to Brainerd following an indoor soccer tournament at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Rod Thurow noticed something was wrong.
His 9-year-old son Zeffen, fresh off of an appearance in the tournament, had fallen asleep in the back seat, only to awaken feeling nauseous.
“To be honest I didn’t really put a whole lot of thought into it,” his father said, reflecting on that day, five years ago, when he first began to feel that something was amiss.
In the weeks that followed, Zeffen’s health continued to deteriorate, as his frequent headaches and bouts of nausea became more and more common.
Finally, on Feb. 6, 2008, Rod Thurow had seen enough; it was time to visit a doctor.
“When we came in with the symptoms he immediately sent us over to the hospital to have a CT scan,” Rod said. “By the time we got to the clinic he had already called the (University of Minnesota).”
Within hours, Zeffen was being rushed to Minneapolis and primed for the operating table, where doctors would eventually confirm the Thurows’ worst fears: their son Zeffen, a promising young soccer player and energetic 9-year-old, had brain cancer.
“I was young; to tell you the truth I didn’t really think much of it,” Zeffen said. “Most of what I can remember, I was sleeping.”
His father however, recalls his son’s time in the hospital as any parent would.
“You go from having what you thought was a healthy, young, vibrant soccer player, to a frail child just lying there,” he said. “It’s scary, it was shocking.”
Zeffen had been diagnosed with Medulloblastoma, a rare form of pediatric brain cancer that accounts for nearly 20 percent of diagnosed cases, after a tumor was discovered attached to his cerebellum, the portion of the brain that deals with motor functions.
And while survival rates are considered relatively high amongst younger patients, the impact that the diagnosis had on Zeffen and his family was immediate.
He and his father moved from their home in Brainerd into the Ronald McDonald house in far-away Minneapolis, as young Zeffen began a two-month course of radiation and chemotherapy, both life-saving procedures, but both with a hidden cost.
The previously energetic soccer player began to lose much of his vaunted athleticism, as his body bent to the intensive demands of cancer treatment.
“His muscles and joints were very frail,” Rod said. “He needed to use a walker to get around school in third grade.”
Eventually, doctors suggested that Zeffen undergo a series of unproven treatments designed to increase his chances of survival, odds that his father remembers as being around 50 percent under conventional treatment options.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of hesitation by us not to do it,” Rod said of the unsure nature of these new options. “Fifty-fifty didn’t really intrigue me, it didn’t really drive me.”
Rod’s faith in the unproven eventually paid off, as Zeffen’s condition began to improve.
“My fifty-fifty is sitting next to me being interviewed,” Rod says.
But although Zeffen is now five years removed from his rush to the operating table, the scars of his battle with brain cancer remain.
Because while Zeffen is still an aspiring young soccer player, repeated bouts of chemo and radiation therapy have diminished some of the athleticism that made him such an effective competitor.
“That can get heart-wrenching at times,” Rod says. “I know what he was, and I know what he is.”
Fatigue remains an issue for the now 14-year-old Zeffen, as his stints on the soccer field are often limited. However, he remains determined to regain his old form, driven in part by the success of his younger sister Zetta.
“Before I had cancer I thought that I was the best soccer player in the world,” Zeffen says. “Now my sister, she’s better than me. And the only way I’m going to change that is by working hard.”
Zetta introduced her brother to Schwan’s USA CUP after competing in last year’s tournament, a fact that eventually motivated Zeffen to take part as well.
But while his Brainerd club won’t be sending a team to Blaine this year, Zeffen found help in the form of USA CUP’s guest player program, designed to help place players from around the world on teams competing in the tournament.
Now, Zeffen will join a new club, as he takes the field with Brazilian side Rio de Janeiro Select, representing the home country of his favorite professional soccer player, Rafael de Silva of Manchester United.
“It’s very exciting,” Zeffen said. “It’s cool to play with a country that has one of my favorite players from one of my favorite teams.”
And while Zeffen may always be considered small at just 4-foot-10, the treatments that saved his life have done little to quench his ambitions as a soccer player.
“That’s not going to come,” Rod says, referring to his son’s diminutive stature. “But if you look at someone like Messi who’s only 6 inches taller than that; well [Messi] is quite the package.”
In fact, the celebrated Argentine forward isn’t the only soccer star on the world stage to field questions about his stature.
A list of the world’s best would be incomplete without players like Messi, teammate Xavi Hernandez, Manchester United star Wayne Rooney, crosstown rival Sergio Aguero of Manchester City and gifted Argentinian forward Neymar, all of whom have Zeffen beat by only a few inches, standing at an aggregate height of just 5 feet 8 inches.
“Soccer is a very equalizing sport,” Rod says, a fact that continues to drive his young son.
Zeffen was inspired by his father to take up a job as a referee as well, where he continues to stay involved, even when his health limits his on-field aspirations.
“I still enjoy playing, but [refereeing] still doesn’t take as much energy,” Zeffen said.
And while Zeffen still carries radiation’s scars, the energetic striker and aspiring referee continues to prove that, in soccer, size is just a number.