UNION TWP. — Evan Nowak looked down Mount LeConte at the Trillium Gap Trail below, amazed at how far he had come.
Nowak, a senior runner on Wheeler's boys cross country team, had joined the Bearcats for a summer trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. As part of the visit, Wheeler's boys and girls teams both ran up the 7-mile trail in the Smoky Mountains.
When Nowak finally reached the top, the first thing he did was hug his mother, Beth. Then he fell to his knees and broke down in tears.
Evan Nowak suffers from chronic immune thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP). It's a blood disorder characterized by a low platelet count that can cause bruising, internal hemorrhages and fatigue, according to UpToDate, a digital reference for physicians.
Around the clock, Evan Nowak is typically more tired than your average person. He has dozed off in class and often feels weak when running.
When Nowak's platelets get low, hemorrhaging occurs in the form of dark red, rash-like blotches all over his legs, arms, chest and back. Plus, he has dealt with leg pain this season from compartment syndrome that developed in the spring.
Despite this, he has run cross country and track, and swam all four years at Wheeler. In making it to the top of Mount LeConte, he proved something to himself.
“It was definitely one of the hardest things I've ever done,” Nowak said. “I've been through so much with ITP, and I think it can just symbolize how if you keep pushing through things, you can make it and keep doing what you want to do.”
From the age of 4, Nowak was primarily a soccer player. That changed in 2012, when he discovered marks and bruises all over his legs after a club soccer match.
Nowak's family, living in Kokomo at the time, rushed him to Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis. Doctors said leukemia was a possibility.
News that he had ITP came as a relief, but it still signaled the start of a grueling treatment and management regimen. ITP is characterized by a platelet count below 100,000 per microliter of blood, per UpToDate, and Beth Nowak said tests at Riley placed Evan's below 1,000.
Initially, Nowak needed blood and antibody transfusions intended to raise his platelet levels — a low platelet count means blood won't clot as effectively, which puts contact sports out of the question. When those didn't work, he took daily injections.
Beth said doctors even advised her to minimize Evan's time in the car, as minor injuries from an accident could be life-threatening. Each week, Nowak had his blood drawn to check his platelet levels.
Nevertheless, he was determined to continue running and swimming. He's currently No. 7 of Wheeler's 13 runners for cross country and one of the team's key leaders as a senior.
“He has never held himself back,” Wheeler cross country coach Luis Guillen said. “He definitely has the mental aspect, which is so important with sports. … Sometimes he'll ask to roll out his legs every once in a while, and that's about it.”
Returning to action
In 2015, the Food & Drug Administration approved Promacta, a medication that helps raise platelet levels and has since drastically increase Nowak's quality of life. He takes one pill per day and gets his blood drawn roughly twice a month.
It also opened up a new opportunity: A return to the pitch.
Wheeler boys soccer coach Bryan Murray had a major problem on his hands.
The team was off to a strong start to the season, earning a win at reigning Class 2A state champion Bishop Noll. But when the Bearcats' goalkeeper was ruled academically ineligible, they were forced to forfeit five games and needed to find a new man in goal.
That's when Nowak reached out to Murray through Guillen. Nowak played goalkeeper until his ITP diagnosis, but hadn't returned to the sport since. With his platelet count generally under control thanks to Promacta, Nowak, his family and doctors determined he could return to soccer.
Still, however, Nowak has days when his platelet count dips below normal levels. The week he joined the team, it was the lowest it had been in about two years. Goalkeepers can take big hits in the box on corner kicks and free kicks.
“That's definitely scary,” Nowak said. “If you get kicked or hit wrong, it can be all over just like that.
“I was a bit hesitant about joining back. I was really nervous since I hadn't played since eighth-grade club. But I was thinking, 'It's my senior year, I want to get back out there and try something.' It's not really new, but try it again.”
Nowak has given the Bearcats a boost in goal after overcoming some initial rust when facing hard-hit shots. Murray said he has maneuvered the team so as to minimize Nowak's responsibility to attack the ball in a flooded box on set pieces.
Since Nowak joined the team, Wheeler is 3-1-1 with a win over The Times No. 7 Griffith. The Bearcats' only loss since then was 1-0 to No. 10 Boone Grove.
When Nowak takes the pitch, his mother sits in the front row of Wheeler's bleachers and feels a bit more than the typical motherly nerves.
“I worry, and I did kind of restrict his practice that (first) week,” Nowak said. “I try to pad him up as much as we can. … This opportunity fell in his lap, and he's so excited about playing again.”
Playing two fall sports at once has made for a busy schedule, and both postseasons are about to get underway. Wheeler faces No. 6 Clark on Monday in its Class 2A Griffith Sectional opener, and cross country sectionals take place Saturday.
Guillen said he often reminds his team of the Mount LeConte run — if his runners can do that, then they can conquer tough cross country courses, too. He believes Nowak proved something to himself that day after battling pain all week.
Once Nowak reached the summit, he didn't stop. He declined a ride down the mountain and was the third Bearcat to return to the trailhead.
“I just like to show other people that you can — even if you have obstacles in your life, or burdens — you can still push through it and show everyone what you can do,” Nowak said. “I knew the moment after we went to the hospital, I'm not gonna let this stop me from playing sports and doing what I want in life.”