American football is back in Wales this weekend as the South Wales Warriors host Oxford Saints. The visitors’ quarterback has already won a much bigger battle, though, as Twm Owen reports.
South Wales Warriors’ next challenge is to face a man who has overcome one of the biggest.
Quarterback Ben Denton will lead the Oxford Saints against the Warriors on Sunday, having returned to American football after battling a rare cancer.
The 27-year-old missed almost all of the Saints’ championship-winning 2016 campaign as he underwent treatment for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia, a cancer of the white blood cells.
Throughout his gruelling chemotherapy, Denton was determined to return to the team and on Sunday will feature as the newly promoted Saints visit Llanharan (2.30pm).
Both the Saints, and the Warriors – who have dropped down from the Premiership – are seeking their first wins of the British American Football Association (BAFA) Southern Football Conference Division One Central campaign.
The Saints’ 8-35 Easter Sunday home loss to the Sussex Thunder was a poignant fixture for Denton who returned as starter against the team he was due to face in the 2015 play-offs until learning his diagnosis just days earlier.
Denton recalled: “I think it (the diagnosis) was on the Wednesday before the quarter-final on the Sunday against Sussex. I was then having pretty intense treatment for about eight months, before it eased off for a bit, and I was off work for a year. So it has kind of come full circle.
“I was 25-year’s-old, in my best physical state, I’d ran four marathons at that point, and was going to the gym four or five times a week, eating healthily and playing football every week. I couldn’t believe something like that could happen to me, it was pretty shocking.”
Denton, a solicitor, had gone for tests after feeling unwell ahead of the 2015 third tier play-off fixture having led the Saints to a 6-2 regular season record.
“We’d played Cornwall a couple of weeks before and I felt OK but I was at practice on the Sunday and I knew something was wrong, I was tired and felt weak. I thought I had an infection, or something like a gluten intolerance, it was the same symptoms, and the doctor said it could be celiac disease.
“I pushed for more tests and those showed up all the white blood cells, it was quite surreal.”
Just as Denton had been planning an assault on the play-offs he faced an even bigger battle.
“It was intense chemotherapy. The first month felt OK but after that it started getting worse and worse and I felt really sick and lost all my hair twice and gained weight because of the steroids.
“I was quite poorly for a good six months but I was cared for pretty well as I was in and out of the Churchill Hospital in Oxford.
“The uncertainty was the worst thing as you have so many tests and nobody knows how you’ll react to treatment and you obviously worry it won’t go into remission and come back.”
Denton returned to the Saints to play a very limited role in the 2016 play-off campaign which saw them crowned Division Two South champions after an undefeated season.
“I just had to keep going and keep positive,” said the 6ft 2″, 15 stone QB of his mindset during his illness.
“I was back to work in August and have been playing football every week since September so I know I’m getting there now.
“Football has definitely been a good thing to have to focus on and to get fit enough to play. It’s been really good psychologically. I was always really adamant I would get back to playing again but it was frustrating. It was a long time to be sat on the side lines as the guys were going for an amazing undefeated season but I was always sure I would get back to playing.”
Quarterback Destin Maulding, who has returned to America, led the Saints last season and Denton said he was able to learn from the American’s approach to leadership in the pivotal position ahead of his own return to action.
That return required the green light from doctors who said it was crucial Denton was once again able to produce platelets – the blood cells which help stop bleeding.
“The doctors said there was no reason I couldn’t play again so long as the blood levels were fine and I felt OK and the platelets were good, if you don’t have enough of them you just keep bleeding. The treatment wipes out the good blood cells as well.”
Back in physical shape Denton and the Saints, who also include running back Antonios Athanasiou from Caerphilly, will be looking to get their season on track, having also suffered pre-season losses to Division One North newcomers the Leicester Falcons and a 42-0 defeat at the Farnham Knights.
The Warriors defeated and lost to the Knights in their Premiership encounters last season.
“Nobody really knows how strong each team is but people keep saying Sussex are strong this year. South Wales Warriors are probably the most unknown of the whole division,” said Denton.
“They elected to come down and you never really know with a team like that. I’m sure they’ll have a core of Premiership standard players but in our sport depth of squad is important but I think they will be really tough as well.”
Sunday’s fixture is at the Dairy Field, Llanharan RFC and entry is free while the clubhouse is also open.