NORTH ADAMS -- Difficult opponents have always been a part of sports. But tough opponents don't creep up solely on the playing fields.
Cancer is one of those opponents no one -- athlete or not -- wants to face.
Once Tanner Bird found out he was staring down Stage 2 Hodgkins Lymphoma, he turned to his love of baseball for relief.
"Cancer is a scary word. I'm still scared," Bird said Thursday afternoon, more than a month after he was diagnosed. "When you start talking about all the medical terms and talking to all the doctors it's all new to you and you don't know what to expect and you don't know what to do. So when you get back to something that you're really comfortable with it's really fun. It's more about just wanting to play and get out there. At the end of the day, I just wanted to play baseball. I didn't care if we won or if we lost. I just wanted to go out and have fun.
"You get to take your mind off it. It's three hours out of the day where you don't have to think about cancer."
Bird, who turns 19 on Sunday, was officially diagnosed the day after his first American Legion baseball game for North Adams Post 125 in early June. But the 2012 Hoosac Valley graduate didn't let cancer take him off the field. He played in the majority of games for Post 125 and played for the Pittsfield Pirates of the Eastern New York Travel League.
"After the first two days or so, I think he brought himself back to the Tanner that most people know," said John Bird, Tanner's father. "He's going to beat it and kick it.
"His activities have only been reduced a little bit. I mean, instead of going 110 percent, he's only going 90 percent. That's what I see as a father. He's still pretty active."
The Adams native played in a baseball game the day after his first chemotherapy treatment. After his second treatment, he played about three hours after he finished the session in Boston. After a quick trip down the Mass Pike, he jumped onto the field and played in Post 125's final game of the season. He hit a triple and scored his team's first run of the game.
"His attitude never changed, he gives you 100 percent all of the time," Post 125 coach Bob Rumbolt said. "He's always been a great ball player and continues to be a great player and a great kid. I think this has, and will, make him a stronger person. He was more of a vocal leader on the team this year."
Playing sports his entire life, Tanner is used to bumps and bruises. But the one he found in early June couldn't be chalked up to any sporting event. So he went to see his doctor. After several tests, scans, trips to Boston and a biopsy, the Birds' worst fear was confirmed. He is still awaiting results on a biopsy from his kidneys, but the original prognosis is expected to be good on that front. He is scheduled to continue chemotherapy treatments until December 6.
Tanner played three sports in high school. He was the quarterback for the Hurricanes during his junior and senior years. In the winter, he developed into a 100-point scorer for the Wahconah cooperative hockey team. He finished off his school year by playing shortstop for the Hoosac baseball team.
He will enter his sophomore year at Franklin Pierce University in the fall, where he is a marketing major. He played baseball this spring and will play again next season.
Sports have long been a major portion of Tanner's life, but he found himself appreciating his time on the field much more this summer.
"I didn't really care about winning as much," he said. "I want to win, but it's really just about playing the game and having fun. I stopped taking innings for granted. You always think like ‘Oh, I have so many more years of playing.' But in retrospect you really don't know how many more you have to play."
Tanner received plenty of support on the field from his American Legion teammates while playing this season.
"Every game and every practice that he attended, he brought a great positive vibe for us," said Nolan Bird, Tanner's cousin and Post 125 teammate. "He had a really good outlook on the season.
"Everyone on the team just showed him so much support, but he gave it right back to us. He loves the game and just loves playing it and being on the field."
Off the field, Tanner receives plenty of support, as well.
He's leaned on his mom, Sally, for plenty of advice.
"She's been great," he said. "She had health issues herself, so if I ever have any questions about how it feels, I filter it all to her. It's nice to have a person who has been through a similar thing to lean on."
It expands beyond his mom, dad and older brother Matt, however. His girlfriend, Courtney Bussiere, has been instrumental in starting fundraising efforts to help with medical costs. Not only do the medical bills begin to pile up, but the trips to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and the overnight stays also add expenses.
Bussiere came up with an idea for a bracelet to sell. The maroon and white bracelet reads: "Tanner STRONG. Strength & Courage." And she has been selling them to friends and people in the community.
"I've seen them before, and I knew it was popular with all the kids at school," Bussiere said. "I just think they are cool. They are a good way to keep him with you and be thinking about it. They are popular, all the kids seem to like them."
She plans to continue selling them, and has received permission to sell them outside Walmart in North Adams, but has not come up with a date they will do that.
The Birds have also heard of other ideas such as golf tournaments and spaghetti suppers, but have not been involved in the planning of those events.
"It's really nice. The community has come together for me," Tanner said. "Some people talk about how [the Berkshires] are a boring place to live, but it's a really comfortable place to live. Everyone really cares about each other."
Tanner is scheduled to go through another round of tests and scans after undergoing more treatments on August 16. His doctors and nurses will sit down and evaluate the treatment and make sure everything is working the way it should. At that time, a plan will be laid out going forward.
He plans on playing fall baseball at Franklin Pierce, but is more focused on getting ready for the spring season.
It's been a difficult summer for the Bird family, but one thing is for sure -- baseball has been a welcomed distraction.
"It's hard seeing your son go through this and go out on the field and play," John said. "That's one of the greatest parts of sports. It can kind of take you away from reality for a bit.
"I'm just a proud parent, I mean I was proud of him long before this, but the way he's handled this is just incredible."
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On Twitter: @NAT_DigitalSam