Just past the point where gravel meets pavement on a secluded lane in southern Stafford County, a series of dark green rectangles are blocking the path. Dan Harding waves a reporter through—it’s OK to drive over the driving range mats.
In the front yard, Harding’s twin sons, Ben and Drew, are wielding sand wedges. At 8:54 and 9:04 a.m. this Tuesday, respectively, the Stafford juniors will tee off at Magnolia Green Golf Club after guiding the Indians to the state tournament for the first time in school history.
But they honed their swings here, on a 5.5-acre property a mile from the Potomac River. Two separate bouts with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia—culminating with bone marrow transplants in 2010—left the Hardings with extremely compromised immune systems, and consequently, limited avenues for physical activity.
For the next few years, while their peers joined youth league teams and planned sleepovers, the twins chipped away at their isolation on a pair of homespun greens roughly 40 yards apart.
“We felt left out,” Ben Harding said. “Everybody could go to the public pool and stuff like that, we couldn’t really go out. We could only pretty much just go out in our yard and hit.”
‘PRETTY GOOD ODDS’
The first thing Angela Harding noticed was the bruising. Even the slightest contact, such as a finger poke, caused Drew to turn black and blue. His belly was also distended, the product of white blood cells accumulating in his organs.
When they ran his complete blood count at the pediatrician’s office, “It maxed it out at 250,000,” Dan Harding said. “It wouldn’t count as high as Drew’s.” (A normal count ranges from 4,500 to 10,000.)
At 18 months old, Drew was diagnosed with T-cell ALL and immediately began chemotherapy. As an identical twin, Ben had a significant chance of contracting the same disease, which he did a year later.
The twins remember nothing from their first go-round with cancer. Their relapses are a different story.
In November 2009, the glands under Drew’s neck and armpits became swollen. Doctors at Inova Fairfax Hospital confirmed what his parents had suspected—the cancer was back.
“Me and Ben both were crying,” Drew Harding recalled. “He knew I was going to have to go [into treatment] for a long time. Once I was better, it happened to him. And then we were both crying again.”
The twins hadn’t yet started first grade, but even their simplified understanding of the illness was deeply troubling.
“In the terms my mom and dad used, they said that I had bad blood,” Drew recalled. “I told myself, ‘This is serious.’ ”
The medical staff at Inova advised the Hardings to consider Duke Children’s Hospital in Durham, N.C., where doctors were pioneering a bone marrow transplant using umbilical cord blood. Unlike allogeneic transplants, which require a close genetic match (usually a relative), the procedure at Duke would use unmatched donor stem cells to fashion a completely new immune system for each boy.
After researching their options, Dan and Angela Harding decided on the procedure, which boasts an 85 percent survival rate.
“Those are pretty good odds,” said Angela Harding, “so we put our trust in the Duke doctors.”
On March 23, 2010, Drew received his new immune system via IV while playing Lego Batman on his Wii.
The twins’ sibling rivalry is apparent before they reach the first tee.
During a recent practice round at The Gauntlet Golf Club, Drew wore a red golf shirt and Ben a blue one. Drew’s golf bag is topped with N.C. State headcovers, his brother’s (a bit more predictably) Duke.
Even in matches, when they’re compelled to wear the Indians’ white golf shirts for a uniform, they’ve found a way to distinguish themselves. Drew sports a red belt, and Ben—you guessed it—a blue one.
“When I first met them, that’s how I told them apart,” head coach Tommy Harrison said. “To this day, they still do that. They’re twins and they compete.”
Together, the Hardings have led Stafford to a banner season on the links. Neither is a long hitter—years of radiation and chemotherapy have exacted a toll on their physical growth—but what they lack in distance, they compensate for with a deft touch around the greens.
On Sept. 23, Drew carded a 76 as Stafford won its first Commonwealth District championship in 12 years. A week later, Ben shot the same score to cement the Indians’ first-place finish in the Region 5D tournament.
Despite being interchangeable as Nos. 1 and 2 in Stafford’s lineup, the twins don’t like playing in the same group. One reason became apparent during their practice round. When Ben, a lefty, dunked in an eagle from 160 yards out on the notoriously vexing No. 8, Drew hardly acknowledged him.
He was already plotting a way to one-up the shot.
“They have to be competitive in everything they’re doing,” said teammate Davis Smith. “And while they’re happy for each other when they shoot a good round, sometimes they’re not really happy for each other.”
A NEW NORMAL
About a mile from Duke Children’s Hospital is Hillandale Golf Course.
Following his transplant and a treacherous “en-grafting” process that lasted 42 days, Drew was discharged from the hospital’s transplant floor and checked into an adjacent Comfort Inn Suites to complete treatment.
Around that same time, he started accompanying Dan on trips to the putting green at Hillandale. Through its HEARTS (Hillendale Embracing a Really Tough Situation) Club, Hillandale provides “a no-cost golfing environment” for hospital patients and their families. As Ben recovered from the same procedure 11 months later, he, too, took advantage of the greens there to regain stamina.
“That’s when it really opened our eyes,” Ben said. “That’s when we knew we wanted to play golf.”
Drew, who was roughly a year ahead of his brother at every stage of illness and recovery, was eager to get him back on his feet.
“You can say all you want about them being rivals or competitive, but when they were sick they were right at each other’s sides,” Dan Harding said.
Back home, there was plenty to catch up on. Drew had missed all of first and third grades, Ben all of the second and parts of the third. While the twins were sick, the Hardings weren’t able to attend family Thanksgiving dinners or Christmases.
Each room on the transplant floor had its own ventilation system and a strict gowns policy; Dan and Angela Harding took great pains to re-create a similarly sterile environment.
When the twins’ older sister, Addie, got home from school each afternoon, she’d go straight to the shower or a sink equipped with anti-bacterial soap.
“She always kept them together, always kept them smiling,” Dan Harding said of Addie, now a senior a Stafford. “She always gave the appearance of it all being normal.”
Normalcy is no longer a mirage in the Harding household. Though the twins continue to visit an oncologist every two years, they’ve been cancer-free for almost a decade. And each September, they return to Durham and Hillandale to play in a charity golf tournament benefiting patients in the same transplant wing they once called home.
Next year, Drew and Ben could find themselves pitted against one another for an individual state championship. But on Friday afternoon, as they lobbed golf balls at the pins beside their house, everyone seemed more concerned with the present.
“If you were to tell me 11 years ago, this is what we’d be doing after hearing the diagnoses we heard, I would’ve just jumped for joy,” Dan Harding said. “I don’t know how many nights I prayed for this right here, watching them grow up.”