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Wembley honours cancer battler Prescott

CHALLENGE CUP FINAL: Leeds v Warrington
Venue: Wembley Stadium Date: Saturday, 28 August Kick-off: 1430 BST
Coverage: Live coverage on BBC One and BBC One HD, BBC Radio 5 Live, and BBC Sport website. Pre-match coverage from 1330 BST on red button

By Julian Shea

Former league star Steve Prescott (picture courtesy of Hull FC)
Prescott in action in his playing days with Hull

The phrase 'guest of honour' is often one that is wide open to interpretation. But that will definitely not be the case at Saturday's Challenge Cup final at Wembley, as rugby league honours one of its bravest and most respected figures.

The man doing the handshakes before the game between Leeds and Warrington is Steve Prescott, the former St Helens, Hull and England full-back whose life has been turned on its head since his diagnosis with a rare form of cancer in 2006.

In the four years since, Prescott has thrown himself into the world of charity fundraising.

He has run marathons, rowed, cycled and sky-dived, pushing his body and spirit to the limit to raise awareness of his condition - pseudomyxoma peritonei - and money for Try Assist, the renamed Rugby League Benevolent Fund, and the Christie Cancer Hospital in Manchester, where he is still being treated.

Prescott's initial diagnosis came at what should have been one of the happiest times of his life.

"It was the day my baby son came home from hospital after being born, and the same week my elder son started school," he told BBC Sport.

"That was when I found out that I wouldn't live to see them grow up.

"I'd had a lot of indigestion and my abdomen was really sore and I'd been going to the doctor for about six months.

"They said things like my stomach was producing too much acid but it got to the point where I'd had enough, so I paid to see a specialist and as soon as he saw me, he knew there was something wrong."

Prescott's initial reaction was one of overwhelming fear, literally retreating to his bed, unable to deal with his new reality. But then friends intervened, and things began to change.

You end up living scan by scan. Once it's over and you get some good news you're happy for a few weeks, until you start to think about the next one

"Hull Academy coach Steve Crooks used to coach me and we'd become friends. He forced his way in to the house, came into my room, got me out of bed and told me to face it, which is what I did.

"Players like Stuart Fielden, Lee Radford and the England coach Steve McNamara all came round to try to help, and fans were very generous to me too.

"It shows how caring people can be, which is why I want to give something back.

"I want to raise awareness of the two charities and also show that people with cancer can still do things. The fitter you are the more you can do - it's not all about hiding away, you've got to get out there."

Inspired by the kindness of strangers and friends - such as former Saints team-mate Tommy Martyn, who sold his 1996 Challenge Cup winners' medal - and hardened by a career in the toughest of sports, Prescott felt he had a duty to give something back.

"The first fundraising thing we did was to walk from Hull to Old Trafford in Manchester for the Grand Final in 2007.

"It was very difficult as I'd never walked that distance before but since then I've done another walk, boxing events - all kinds of things."

In saying 'all kinds of things', Prescott's modesty somewhat glosses over the extent of his achievements.

In May 2008 he ran the London Marathon, having undergone chemotherapy during his training period.

Steve Prescott (picture courtesy of Hull FC)
Prescott has received huge support across the league community

In October of the same year he did a second Hull-Old Trafford walk to deliver the match ball for the Super League Grand Final, and in August 2009 his adventures took him overseas.

Prescott and friends rode 700 miles across France, rowed 24 miles up the Thames and ran a half-marathon to deliver the Challenge Cup final match ball to Wembley.

All this work earned him an MBE in the 2010 New Year's Honours list, but he is by no means done yet.

"Our biggest challenge yet is coming up for this year's Grand Final in October," he said. "We're going to run four marathons in four days, from Hull to Manchester, then get fans to do a fifth before the game when we get to Old Trafford.

"We did look into trying to do Mount Everest next year, but with the cost and the implications, we've shelved that idea.

"I know we shouldn't be looking ahead too much as I don't know how my body will be, but we're planning to do Land's End to John O'Groats next year, with the Three Peaks thrown in along the way.

"And we did think about swimming the channel, but I'd probably need armbands and a float for that one. There are plenty of challenges out there, so we'll wait and see."

Prescott does not have a time limit or financial goal in mind for his efforts, saying "people might get bored of me".

But having initially been given six to 12 months to live in 2006, it is clear that his fundraising efforts are benefitting him as much as the charities he is helping.

"You end up living scan by scan," he said.

"Once it's over and you get some good news you're happy for a few weeks, until you start to think about the next one. I'm not getting carried away about the future, I don't know what's ahead of me."

606: DEBATE
Chris Holme

In the rare quiet moments he has, Prescott is doing his best to enjoy life with wife Linzi and their two sons, aged eight and three.

"They know Daddy has a sore tummy and that I go and see a special doctor but they don't ask too much," he said.

"The time will come when we'll have to tell them, and even thinking about it now makes me upset.

"I know I've got an incurable disease, they don't. I know some people tell their kids early to give them time to get used to it, but I think let them live their life as they are - they don't need their parents' problems to deal with."

The rugby league community's propensity to look after its own was ably demonstrated by the response to the death of amateur player Garry Purdham, brother of Harlequins' and England's Rob Purdham, in the Cumbrian shootings earlier this year.

And Prescott has benefitted from it too.

"The communal aspect of the game is the main reason I've done what I've done and got myself together," he added.

"The support from fans and players has been immense, I owe a lot of people a huge debt that I don't think I'll ever be able to repay."

The game's authorities have shown what they think of Prescott's efforts by making him guest of honour for Saturday's game - something which he clearly treasures.

"Usually it's somebody like an MP or the Queen who gives the trophy, so to be given that chance is overwhelming," he said.

"Apart from Saints and Hull, Leeds and Warrington have probably supported the foundation the most - the players and officials have done so much for us, and one Warrington fan did a parachute jump with me the other week, so I'm glad it's two teams who have helped us so much who are in the final."

And despite all the challenges Prescott has faced so far, he admits to finding himself awestruck by the prospect of Saturday's tribute.

"I don't know what I'm going to say to the players," he said.

"I know quite a lot of them personally, and I've been in that situation when you shake hands with the guest of honour - I think it was John Prescott and Nick Faldo when I played in the final in 1996 and 1997.

"I don't know what I'll say to them - should I try to motivate them?"

Anyone who has encountered Steve Prescott would agree that he did that a long time ago.



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see also
Best of the Challenge Cup so far
25 Aug 10 |  Rugby League
Ref's-eye view of Cup final weekend
26 Aug 10 |  Rugby League
Leeds 6-30 Warrington
28 Aug 10 |  Rugby League
Challenge Cup Final is a sell-out
20 Aug 10 |  Rugby League
Silverwood handed Cup final role
18 Aug 10 |  Rugby League
Leeds 32-28 St Helens
07 Aug 10 |  Rugby League
Warrington 54-12 Catalans Dragons
08 Aug 10 |  Rugby League
Brave Prescott honoured with MBE
31 Dec 09 |  Rugby League
Prescott faces toughest fight
29 Mar 07 |  Rugby League
Martyn sells medal for team-mate
15 Jan 07 |  Rugby League
Injury finishes Prescott
18 Jun 04 |  Hull


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