Still smiling, still fighting: Yulee student doesn’t let cancer break him

Hornets freshman football player Tzion Caffee is in treatment for leukemia

Yulee freshman Tzion Caffee. (Courtney Caffee-Johnson)

NASSAU COUNTY, Fla. – Tzion Caffee is still smiling. Still going.

The Yulee High School freshman football player is battling a relapse of leukemia. He’s fighting it in honor of his friend, former Hornets mascot, Jacob Berglund, who died from leukemia on Easter. Caffee is battling the disease for the others that he’s met during treatment along the way.

In pictures and Facebook posts, Tzion, 16, never looks beaten. He’s often smiling.

“He’s always been like that,” said Tzion’s mother, Courtney Caffee-Johnson. “He’s always smiling. He always has a smile.”

Tzion battled through one round of B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia two years ago and is in the midst of another grueling physical war against the disease as he prepares for a bone marrow transplant next month. The athlete in Tzion is ready for the battle, and, ready to get back to sports.

Tzion began feeling bad again last December and his mother said that she started getting that unsettled feeling that their battle was going back to the starting point.

On Feb. 4, those fears were confirmed.

Courtney said that even though she was readying herself for the possibility that Tzion’s cancer had returned, the reality of hearing it was jarring.

“You’re just never prepared. I thought I was. I compared his pictures from 2018 to the picture that he took at the end of January to see [noticeable swelling],” she said. “I thought I would be prepared for it. I wasn’t. I had to pull over on the side of the road [when she received the call]. I was a mess.”

Tzion said that when he got the news he did what made him happy.

“That day I was supposed to go to football practice, but I couldn’t because I had to go to the hospital,” he said.

Later that day, Tzion took refuge in something that he loves — sports. He went to a friend’s house to play basketball and unwind from the news.

Ready for chemo!! 🥳

Sharing how positive Tzion is when going through chemo at 6 in the morning! 🧡💜Early morning shenanigans before his bone marrow biopsy and chemotherapy. #enjoy

Posted by Fighttzionchandler- Tzion's Travel Through Leukemia on Saturday, April 18, 2020

It was a cruel back and forth.

After undergoing a year of treatment from January 2018 to 2019, Tzion was able to return to playing sports while remaining on a maintenance course of treatment for cancer. He would have remained on that maintenance plan through the end of 2021, his mother said, going for bloodwork and spinal taps monthly, had the cancer not returned.

Tzion wound up in the hospital for more than a month and even got a video message from former Yulee star Derrick Henry.

Derrick Henry encouraging Tzion through his 2nd battle with Cancer

Tzion received this video from Derrick Henry that we woke up to! 🧡🎗 His reaction was priceless, I’m still trying to figure out how to load the video but a special “Thank you” to those that made this happen! Derrick Henry “Thank you”. You made a fighter who was ready to give up, pick up his armor again and “FIGHT” we Thank you for letting God work through you! He’s so exhausted but today he’s smiling 🙌🏾 #Blessing #Thankyouall

Posted by Fighttzionchandler- Tzion's Travel Through Leukemia on Friday, February 28, 2020

Berglund, his friend and fellow Yulee freshman, was also in the midst of a similar battle. He relapsed exactly one month after Tzion.

Tzion saw Jacob during a parade through Jake’s neighborhood on April 10. He made a sign for Jacob that said, ‘Jake, I will fight my battle for you.’

Sadly, Jacob died on Easter.

Tzion has undergone an initial biopsy and testing since his relapse and has responded well to the chemotherapy treatment. The next phase is a bone marrow transplant this summer.

Zion’s 8-year-old sister volunteered to be tested as a bone marrow donor and is a 50% match. He’s now worried about what she may have to go through for him.

“When he found out she was going to be a donor he was like no she is not and he cried,” Caffee-Johnson said. “And I feel like any other person would be like, ‘yes, I have a donor.’ But he was like, ‘no she is not.’”

Tzion’s doctor is still looking for another bone marrow match. He will undergo the procedure at the end of May. That’s one step closer for Tzion to returning to something that he loves.


“I want to play football and baseball that is one of the first things I want to do once I am all-clear for the go,” he said. “I want to get back on the field.”

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