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LOCAL HERO: Football helped exiled Scot Graham Tatters survive cancer

Graham Tatters was ready.

He placed the ball on the penalty spot and stepped back. The defender had done this on countless occasions before, why should this time be any different? He took a deep breath, ran forward, planted his right foot and swung his left towards the ball.

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But the ball didn’t move. Instead, Tatters collapsed, his standing leg having buckled beneath him.

Five years on, the 24-year-old’s recollection is laced with humour but at the time it was no laughing matter for a young man whose dreams of becoming a professional footballer had been ravaged by cancer.

The Scot was just beginning his second year at the University of Carolina, having left Elgin City to take up a scholarship in the US city of Charlotte, when he awoke one morning ahead of an exam with pains in his chest and left arm and the kind of dizzying feeling that more often accompanies an excessive night on the lash.

“It seemed pretty insignificant,” Tatters recalls. “But I was struggling to focus so I went to the doctors and they told me there was nothing wrong and that I was just a bit stressed.”

The sporadic sensation was soon accompanied by a worsening cough, which sceptical medics eventually conceded was probably the result of a virus, but Tatters deteriorated to point that he was unable to run more than 10 yards before being immobilised by a bout of barking. Brother Stuart, who was also in the US, insisted they visit his doctor, who immediately sent them to hospital after Tatters took another turn in the surgery.

“They noticed a small bump on my chest which I just thought was a knock from football but they x-rayed me and found my left lung was completely full of fluid and my right lung two-thirds full,” he explains.

“They sent me for an MRI and another doctor almost sent me home again saying I had pneumonia, but then a 9lb tumour came up on the scan. If I’d left it a couple more days it would have been too late.”

The brothers sat in the hospital, looking at each other, neither willing to make the transatlantic call to their parents. Tatters admits he was too busy “doing the math” on his recovery time when the doctor eventually picked up the phone on their behalf.

“Football was the one thing in my mind because it helped stop me thinking about everything else,” admits Tatters, whose mother Paula moved to the US to look after him while father Graham, the chairman of Elgin City, kept working in Scotland to try to pay for the astronomical medical bills not covered by his heath insurance.

“It was stupid, I should have been worrying about whether I would live but when they told me it would be seven or eight months of chemo I was trying to work out when I could come back.”

It might seem trivial but football and the prospect of playing again was what helped Tatters emerge from the darkest period of his young life. The penalty incident -- which came during a window in his chemotherapy -- was just the first of several setbacks including bouts of anxiety and depression and the side effects of a drug that hampered his nervous system to such an extent that his second touch routinely became a header. However, his determination was such that he adapted a game that was hitherto based on athleticism and believes he became a better player in the process.

He is not the only one who thinks so, either. Earlier this year, after completing his degree in communications, Tatters signed a full-time deal with Wilmington Hammerheads, playing left-back for a side who finished regular season champions in the third tier of US football before losing out in the play-off semi-finals. However, when his contract expired at the end of the six-month campaign in October and with a lack of senior football for him to play until the new year, Tatters opted to return to Elgin with American wife Dana, and has signed, once again, for his hometown team.

So instead of flying to the likes of Bermuda for matches, he is now taking bus journeys to Annan. “I’ve been going to Elgin’s ground since I’ve been in a pram and played in the under-15s so it’s strange to come back and it’s definitely not a style I’m used to,” he admits with a laugh. “But I think American teams could learn from the third division because quite often they try to play a type of football that is beyond their ability and they would be a lot more productive just lumping it forward like they do here in the mud and the rain . . .”

While his wife is less than impressed by the climate, Tatters would be more than happy to remain in Scotland and believe he would not be out of place in the first division. To that end, he has created a website showcasing his abilities and, while even the most average amateur can be made to look like a YouTube superstar by clever editing and a backing track, the powerful left-sided performer appears a prospect.

“People have short attention spans so I’ve got to grab someone with those clips,” he says, explaining that nursing school would become an option should he remain part-time.

“If nothing happens, I’ll be happy to play at Elgin but I’ve been full-time since I was 18 and I’m not sure if I’m ready to give that up yet, so we’ll see what happens in January.”

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