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Justin Bolton, a member of the unified tennis team at North County High School in Anne Arundel County, is the U.S. Army Impact Player of the Month.
Bolton, a sophomore, has survived two bouts of brain cancer. He was nominated for the award by his coach, Lisa Magness.
"He's playing unified tennis and it's amazing to see," Magness wrote in her nomination. "Justin is doing a great job and has made our other student-athletes more aware of this horrible disease. The way the other student-athletes look after him and care for him is amazing."
Bolton's impact on the North County community goes far beyond the tennis court, as he has become the heartbeat of the school.
He's been fighting cancer for the past two years. Bolton entered high school requiring a wheelchair to get around, but that didn't stop him from thriving in his new environment.
"Most freshmen will battle finding their way around the hallways and making new friends. Justin battled that and so much more," North County assistant coach Marianne Shultz said. "He started school in a wheelchair, which brings lots of looks, but he met his classmates with smiles and humor."
Unfortunately, Bolton's health declined and his cancer came back. He was forced to take a leave of absence from school, splitting his time between being at home and the hospital.
Even though Bolton wasn't able to physically be at school, modern technology made it possible for him to still walk the halls of North County.
"Justin was able to work through classes for a while with a robot that allowed him to be at school, sort of like FaceTime. This enabled Justin to see his friends and do his schoolwork," Shultz said. "As the robot traveled the hallways, students would say hi and encourage Justin to keep fighting."
The low point for Bolton was this past summer when the disease nearly took his life. He kept battling though, and his cancer eventually went into remission.
Bolton was able to be in school at the outset of his sophomore year. An avid sports fan, Bolton wanted to play on one of North County's teams, and unified tennis was the perfect place to start.
"Justin takes all the information and advice that's given to him from his coaches and teachers and applies it to the best of his ability both on and off the court," North County special education department chair Katie Berish said. "He understands that winning isn't everything and is a true team player. Justin has taught his coaches, teammates, teachers, and friends about life and enjoying the small moments. He refuses to give up on the court and in the classroom, takes each day and lives it to the fullest. Justin continues to impact all those that he crosses paths with, and is a true inspiration to all."
On the court, not only has Bolton participated, he's excelled.
He earned a bronze medal at the Special Olympics Fall Fest Oct. 21. Bolton was also a member of the team of four partner pairs, which helped North County win the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association unified tennis state championship.
It's been a special year for the North County unified tennis team, and there's no doubt where the group has gotten its spirit from.
"You see our other players working harder, understanding differences and accepting them, and sparking a spirit in our athletic program," Shultz said. "We're also having more classmates from numerous teams coming to watch and support unified tennis because Justin made them aware of the sport. Watching him tell jokes on the bus rides and everyone laughing until the tears run down their faces, seeing students be compassionate and willing to give rather than receive -- it's been special to watch. To see life return to Justin is amazing, but to see the life he brought to his teammates is why I believe he is an impact player."
The Impact Player of the Month Award is given to an individual who has impacted his or her team in a positive way, both on and off the field.