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UT Tennis Player Sean Karl Loses Fight With Cancer At Age 20

Sean Karl, an elite tennis player, served as an inspiration to many as he bravely battled Ewing's Sarcoma for two long years. Sean passed away on Sunday. He will be missed.

RIP Sean
RIP Sean

A 5-Star Recruit Ready To Enroll Early

Sean Karl was a standout tennis player with boundless potential.  He won three consecutive Class AAA state singles titles for Ravenwood High School in Brentwood, Tennessee.  He was the #1 ranked 16 year old in the country.  He was a 5-star recruit.

Following in the footsteps of elite in-state players Tennys Sandgren and Rhyne Williams, Sean decided to stay in his home state and play tennis for the Vols.  He made Head Coach Sam Winterbotham a happy man by giving him a solid verbal commitment well before the start of his Senior year, deciding to graduate early so that he could enroll in January, and all while constantly preparing himself for the step-up to SEC-level competition.

He did this by playing prestigious national junior events, and battling in hard three-setters with guys who are already making a name for themselves on the ATP tour.  He knew that UT had one of the best tennis programs in all the land, and needed just that little extra something to reach the summit of an NCAA Title.  He could help get them there.

His Toughest Opponent, and His Fight

But while playing in a tournament in October 2012 (his senior year in HS) -- which was just a month before he would officially sign with the Vols -- Sean began experiencing back pain during his matches.  The prognosis was not good: Sean Karl had Ewing's Sarcoma (which is a rare type of tissue and bone cancer arising mostly in adolescents).  The outpouring of support was immediate and amazing.

Word of the diagnosis reverberated from The University of Tennessee through the entire state, and all around the tennis community as a whole.

The tennis community is a tight knit one.  You shouldn't be surprised that Roger Federer sent him encouraging words.  That  guy standing next to Roger is Paul Annacone, his old coach and a former UT tennis player.  You also shouldn't be surprised that Rafael Nadal sent him a signed racquet and a handwritten note.  Rafa used former Vol Tennys Sandgren as a warm-up partner during the French Open. But, honestly, I have no idea if that's how Rafa got word of Sean's illness. I'm telling you, tennis is just tight-knit like that. Bottom line: it wasn't long before anybody and everybody associated with the game knew Sean's story, and the ensuing tsunami of encouragement and support could do nothing if not enliven.

It surely did.  And then on top of having world class support and encouragement to galvanize him, Sean's disease did have at least one weakness: Ewing's Sarcoma doesn't stand up well to radiation therapy (i.e. there's even an academic article that describes that the radiation "melts it like snow").

It wasn't long before Sean was back on the practice courts, and rounding into form . It appeared he'd defeated the toughest opponent he'd ever faced.

Six months ago, Sean Karl spent his days between chemotherapy appointments and blood transfusions. The athlete who'd played tennis his entire life could barely muster five minutes on the court.

But if you saw him today, you'd never know. It's all back- his strength, his hair, and his tennis career. In June doctors gave him the good news. He was cancer free.

Little by little, Sean got his endurance back. He could hit, he could run, but most of all, he could continue his dream of playing at the University of Tennessee.  Sean planned to redshirt his first semester to give himself time to built his game back. But after a battle over cancer, no hill seems too steep.

In fact, no redshirt needed. He's already started playing matches. He even picked up his first collegiate victory.*

*And then four more.

"In The Back Of My Mind, I Kind Of Knew"

Cancer doesn't care much for happy endings.  Cancer is nobody's homeboy.  Cancer sucks, man.

Sean Karl appeared to have beaten cancer.  He was taking classes at UT.  He was playing tennis for UT, and not just in an honorary rah rah type of way.  No no.  He was getting his strength back and his game back, and was beating top collegiate players along the way.  He'd soon be in full strength and in top form, and he'd be a force.

But in a cruel twist, something else started coming back as well.   Though Ewing's Sarcoma has the advantage of being treatable with radiation therapy, it has the disadvantage of tending to recur.

What really gets to me about the above video clip is Sean talking at the 1:45 mark about the cancer returning.  Months ago when I watched the same clip, I figured it was just another setback to overcome, and that in a few months I'd be again reading about how Sean was practicing every day, getting his strength back, getting ready for match play.

And that's to his credit because he doesn't give you a chance to believe anything else.  He simply states it matter-of-factly as a simple statement of what happened.  Both his words and his body language say "(a)why should I get hung up on something I can't control, and (b) it ain't no thang anyway, by the way."

It's only now that I wonder if he knew then that his prognosis wasn't good. He was almost certainly aware that when Ewing's Sarcoma recurs, it is more likely to be in a metastasized state, and that when it metastasizes, the chances of surviving it are slim.

"My dad always used to tell me that life's short, and that you might as well enjoy it."

For Sean Karl, who passed away on Sunday at age 20, it was way too short.  But I know he enjoyed it.

R.I.P. Sean.