A little less than a year ago, Medical College of Georgia Hospital surgeons cut open the back of Malik McCuller's head and removed a brain tumor.
On Saturday, the 8-year-old quarterbacked a flag football game with his friends at a surprise birthday party in his honor at Lakeside High School's Panther Stadium.
"Malik is such an inspirational young man that I, and many others, felt that he was more than worthy of the effort that was put forth today," said Jeff Collman, the assistant principal of Blue Ridge Elementary School, where Malik is in the third grade.
Mr. Collman was the primary organizer of the football-themed party that included more than 100 guests, dozens of bottles of soda, about 20 presents, eight Lakeside Middle School cheerleaders, five large birthday cakes and a clown.
Among the presents were resolutions honoring Malik from Gov. Sonny Perdue and the state House, signed footballs from several professional and college football players and officials, and a football helmet signed by many professional quarterbacks, including Jim Kelly and Matt Hasselback.
"That one was my favorite," Malik said, referring to the helmet. "That is really cool."
A little stunned by all the attention, Malik, whose birthday is today, said he is just happy to be having fun.
"I feel pretty good," Malik said before taking to the field to play with his friends.
The fact that he feels capable of playing a game of football, Malik's favorite sport, is a testament to his strength, said Malik's nurse, Kelly Edwards, of the Children's Medical Center.
"After his surgery, he was so weak and just wanted to lay in bed," she said. "All I had to do was push him just a little and he was ready to fight. Everything he has done since then has been through his own willpower."
It hasn't been an easy time for Malik. His father, Stephen, died from a massive heart attack two years ago. He has since lost two grandparents.
Despite the tragedies weighing on his shoulders and the ongoing burden of near-weekly chemotherapy treatments, he continues to play with friends, go to school and tries to live as normal a life as possible.
"The doctors give him an 85 percent chance of recovery physically, but spiritually I think he's doing much better than that," said Malik's mother, Itina. "With God's help, he continues to amaze me every day."
Mrs. McCuller's voice trailed off as she watched her son deliver a pass to a teammate.
And on the sidelines, cheerleaders chanted for the day's hero - Malik.
"All across the nation, there's a third-grade sensation that'll make you want to slide and move from side to side."
Reach Donnie Fetter at (706) 868-1222, ext. 109 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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