Stephen Golis just can't keep the grin off his face.
The 18-year-old is busy at work inside his parents' jewelry store on this sunny afternoon in early March. But his mind is elsewhere -- namely the lacrosse field at Bluffton High School located just a few miles down the road.
The recent graduate exhausted his eligibility with the Bobcats last year, but his heart never seemed to leave. He still finds himself thinking of his replacement in goal, sophomore Christian Rodriguez, and the plans he has in store for him.
"That's what I was thinking about last night," he says. " ... I was noticing in one of the games, he would hold his stick with two hands but when the ball goes bottom left, he goes with one hand. I'm thinking about taping his hand to the top of the stick."
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The two don't appear to have much in common with one another. Golis is three years older, a graduate of Bluffton High last May and a current student at the Technical College of the Lowcountry. Rodriguez is just a sophomore, still plenty of time to go with his Bobcats compatriots. The pair had no lifelong relationship before becoming teammates and do not spend time together on the weekends now.
"I didn't really know Stephen before (lacrosse)," Rodriguez says.
And yet, both teenagers share similar life-altering experiences -- experiences that helped form a unique bond between them they likely won't forget.
IN NEED OF AN OUTLET
Golis had to find something to do. He needed an outlet that finally would force him up off the couch.
"I was a lazy kid," he says, laughing at the memory now.
His situation wasn't proving to be any help, either. The then-freshman had lost his left leg several years earlier, when as an eight-year-old, Dr. Ralph Moore III of Beaufort discovered a tumor growing just below his knee.
He called it osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer that would soon metastasize to Golis' lung, forcing him to undergo surgery where doctors cut around his shoulder blades.
Stephen and his mother, Eva Golis, quickly headed north to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York in search of treatment. The news awaiting them wasn't good.
Doctors were giving Eva's son nine weeks to live.
"It spread fast and quick," Eva said. "He got there and it was Stage 4. It was horrible. They didn't think he would make it."
Chemotherapy treatments ultimately helped save the Bluffton Elementary student's life. But his triumph over cancer wouldn't come without a price -- his leg.
Losing one of his extremities had an impact on the amount of physical activity he could handle. Golis had played soccer as a child, and continued to do so even after losing the leg, but he soon began to fade away from exercise almost entirely.
He was approaching 200 pounds entering his first year at Bluffton High.
"I couldn't just sit in my house doing nothing all the time," he said. "It was either sit on my butt and still gain a couple more pounds (or get out there)."
He ran through a checklist of sports available to him. Soccer was an option. So too, was wrestling. But...
"I was worried about people getting hit in the head with my leg," he said, smiling. "So I was like, 'Nah, I don't want to kill anybody.' "
Then he heard about lacrosse. The decision was a quick one.
He was on the junior varsity team as a freshman, and it didn't take much longer before he found his way into the goal. His first day at practice, a larger teammate gave him a bruise that stuck around for two years, he said.
"I was, like, cringing every day," Golis' mother said. "After the first year, I started to yell and I started to get more into it and the mouth started going. And then I started to get into it with the boys."
Stephen eventually got down to 123 pounds during his four-year stint with the Bobcats. He developed friendships with his teammates, who would jokingly tease him over his prosthetic leg, and seemed to have everything he could want in this newfound sport.
Then came Christian Rodriguez.
SEARCHING FOR CONFIDENCE
Cameron Etheridge had been bugging his friend Christian for weeks.
The eighth-grader had gone out for the Bluffton junior varsity lacrosse team the year before and was trying to convince Rodriguez to join him. It took some prodding -- six or seven conversations in all, Etheridge said -- but he just couldn't get his buddy to bite.
"In the beginning, he was a little bit doubtful," Etheridge recalled. "He was a little bit shy about it. He didn't believe that he could reach the varsity level."
Rodriguez's nerves were justified. After all, he likely would be at a disadvantage because of his prosthetic left leg.
He can't rattle off any fancy medical jargon to describe what happened all those years ago. All he knows is that the leg was significantly smaller than the right one at birth -- the bone stopped growing, he thinks -- and he would need a prosthesis in order to walk. Now he takes twice-yearly trips to Greenville for check-ups and to resize the prosthesis if needed.
No one would blame him if he didn't want to play. But then Etheridge and his friends approached him with the news that another boy with a prosthetic leg, Stephen Golis, was the starting goal keeper for the Bobcats.
His interest was piqued. He knew that, despite his fears, he wouldn't be alone.
"They mentioned that a kid with a prosthetic leg started playing," Rodriguez recalled. "I was like, 'If he can do it, I can probably do it, too.' "
"He really inspired me," he added. "He was always out here doing his best at goalie. He was a great goalie. Just seeing him made me want to be better."
So he came out for practice, and Golis was there waiting. The two shared their stories on how each lost the leg, and they slowly began to develop a partnership through Bluffton lacrosse.
"It was a really weird coincidence for me," Golis said. "I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm not the only one.' I was pretty happy about that."
Rodriguez lasted in the net for only a day, Golis said, before moving to attack. He scored a pair of goals against Beaufort High upon making varsity, a memory he still cherishes, and promptly picked up a few fans soon after.
" 'I think it's so cool that you're going to play,' " Golis' mother told Rodriguez after spotting him outside the school one day. " 'You're going to do great, don't let anybody get you down.' "
It would be hard to find anyone getting him down these days. His teammates like to rib him -- "Hustle up!" they yell during pre-practice runs -- but they do it out of love, he says. Little seems to shake his confidence.
"That just gives me more inspiration to go with them and prove them wrong," he said, laughing.
He has little left to prove. His teammates have seen the work he puts in for some time now.
"Christian's been like this his whole life," Etheridge said. "He's used to it. He's seen everything. Yeah, he can't move as fast, but I certainly find him to be one of the hardest guys to knock down, physically and emotionally. His level balance is insane, his mindset is balanced. It's crazy.
"He believes in himself."
Participation has been hard to come by over the last several years for the Bluffton lacrosse program.
Forty percent of first-year coach Herman Kramer's varsity team had not picked up a stick before this season. Sixty percent of the junior varsity squad is new to the sport, as well.
That type of attrition isn't surprising for a team like Bluffton, which has lost 25 consecutive games dating back to a 17-6 win over Beaufort High on March 8, 2011, the same game in which Rodriguez scored a pair of goals. The program has lost 39 out of its last 42 games in all since early 2010.
"The program has been pretty rough recently," Etheridge said. "You've got to have a lot of heart to stay out here. You've got to really love the game.
"Christian and Stephen, they both showed that. Some people, yeah, they were good, but they didn't have the heart, so they left. They didn't love the game. (Rodriguez and Golis) have the heart. All the way."
The Bobcats want to see that student support change. Rodriguez and his teammates have spent a good portion of their time roaming the hallways of Bluffton High trying to recruit their friends. After all, if two kids with prosthetic legs can do it, why can't an able-bodied teenager do it, too?
"Life deals a bunch of strange and varying things every day," Kramer said. "You come out here and you've got a guy (like Rodriguez) that's willing to do something and try to work hard at it.
" ... I don't know if I view it as a disability. He goes out and makes it happen. It's been a pleasure to see that. Some kids may say, 'Oh well I can't do that because of...', or 'I can't do that because of...' Christian is an excellent example of that."
The Bobcats were recently in Charleston for a game when an opposing coach jokingly asked Kramer, "How many guys do you have with prosthetic legs in Bluffton?"
Kramer smiled back and laughed at the innocent comment. Truth be told, he would take a heck of a lot more if they showed the same tenacity Rodriguez and Golis do.
"I would rather have a team full of guys with heart and perseverance that want to play hard and learn," he said. "(Rodriguez) comes out here, works hard and tries to improve every day, just like the rest of those guys."
There may never be another prosthetic leg roaming the lacrosse fields of the Lowcountry again once Rodriguez moves on. That's fine by Golis and Rodriguez. They like the distinction.
But they wouldn't mind another one coming along to keep the streak alive.
"We were wondering about that," Golis said. "Once Christian is gone, we need to get another kid with one leg. We just need a transfer."