By Cam Smith
Just before competing for Nashua High School South in the Meet of Champions, a state-wide wrestling tournament in New Hampshire held during February of 2019, Nathaniel Tejeda noticed a bump, which he described to be about the size of a ping pong ball on his neck.
Tejeda took the mat the following Saturday morning with a smile as he always did, with the thought of what that bump could be lingering in the back of his mind.
After wrestling at the Meet of Champions, Tejeda would have to face his biggest opponent yet.
On Sunday morning, Tejeda and his parents met with his primary care physician in Nashua, N.H., to assess the situation. This ultimately led him to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Mass. for further testing.
After several x-rays, ultrasounds, CT scans, and a biopsy, the doctors came back into the room with news that sent Tejeda and his family into a state of disbelief.
“I was more in shock than anything,” Tejeda said. “I wasn’t really scared, more like, ‘why? Of all people?’ I’m almost done with high school and I’m about to move on to bigger and better things. But now, this just comes up out of nowhere.”
The doctors informed Tejeda and his family that he had been diagnosed with Stage II Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer found in two or more lymph node areas on the same side as the diaphragm.
When times were tough and Tejeda was at his lowest, it was positivity, determination, and a reason to smile that formed the three pieces to a complex puzzle in the battle against cancer.
“I was just trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel rather than dwell on what was happening,” Tejeda said. “I’m not going to let this bump in the road stop me from accomplishing what I want to do in life. Just keep going forward and don’t look back.”
Doctors inserted a port-a-cath, a small catheter connected to the superior vena cava, one of two main veins that carries deoxygenated blood back to the heart, into Tejeda’s chest in order to begin chemotherapy.
He was in for the fight of his life.
“They explained it to me and said that it was going to be a minimum of four months of chemo,” Tejeda said. “Then I ended up having to do about two months of radiation.”
For any parent, seeing a child go through something like this is heart wrenching. Tejeda’s parents had his back and supported him no matter what.
“His positive mind set that he’s got this. That is what gave us strength,” Tejeda’s father, Franklin said. “He was determined from the first time he heard, ‘Looks like cancer.’ He was determined to beat it. He really was our anchor and still is today. I was determined to be right by his side from beginning to end.”
The support for Tejeda only grew. His town of Nashua, N.H., rallied around him. A GoFundMe page, called #nothinbutsmiles, was set up to help with the costs of treatment. After raising $16,730, it was clear Tejeda had the backing from the entire Nashua South community.
“I had a lot of support from my hometown of Nashua,” Tejeda mentioned. “I was just really grateful to even live in that city. I had just an amazing support group from my teachers, to random people.”
He and his mother worked together to create the motto, Nothing but Smiles.
Tejeda was a cheerful kid who ran around the football field not quite knowing exactly what he was doing, but was just happy, smiling, and enjoying the game. This led to one of his football coaches calling him “Smiley” back in fifth grade.
The nickname has followed him to Alden Street. As a first-year student-athlete, Tejeda made his way back to the mat as a member of the Springfield College wrestling team.
After sending an email over the summer to head coach Jason Holder, Tejeda expressed his desire to get back out and compete. But, he was unsure of whether his diagnosis would hinder that.
“He emailed me right up front. That was one of the first things he said — that he had been diagnosed,” Holder explained. “He said that he was still interested in coming out for the team and I said absolutely. I asked him to stay in contact with me throughout the summer just to let me know how he’s doing and that sort of stuff.”
With wrestling, many picture aggressiveness or intensity. Although Tejeda shows that in the wrestling room and is built well, he brings out a different side of the sport.
“Well, everyone calls him Smiley, right? His name is Nathaniel and I’ve called him that,” Holder said. “He says, ‘Nah you can just call me Smiley.’ It’s great and that’s what he is. He’s a pleasant kid, he’s a hard worker and he enjoys the sport. But, he’s just a good kid to be around. He’s a nice kid with a positive attitude, and I appreciate that.”
“There’s no point in looking down on yourself when you realize there’s a lot more people in worse situations than you. I just had that mindset the whole time,” Tejeda said. “If you just think positively and just continue to believe that good things are going to come, good things will come.”
After a long nine months of chemotherapy and radiation, good things did come for Tejeda.
As of Oct. 11, 2019, doctors told him that he is now in remission.
Cancer didn’t win. Tejeda did.
He has been an inspiration and has touched the lives of so many people along the way.
“I want to be just like my son,” Tejeda’s father said. “I want to have the fighting spirit, the determination to go after what he wants, the courage and smile that comes from deep inside his heart.”
By beating his biggest opponent off the mat, Tejeda can now turn his attention to wrestling and representing Springfield College – with a smile, of course.
Photos courtesy of Nathaniel Tejeda