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Not just for kicks

Revolution’s Boggs earns his assist - in research lab

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By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / July 22, 2011

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The white coat erases everything, including the bruises and the concussions, the sore muscles and tired joints, the workouts and drills, the wins and losses.

New England Revolution midfielder/forward Zak Boggs, his cleats and jersey left behind in Foxborough, sits on a chair, pulled up to a lab bench, moving liquids from one tube to another, readying them for a trip to a centrifuge in his job as a volunteer cancer research assistant.

He smiles, pokes fun at technician Adam Curatolo, who prepares tasks for him - “I don’t give him the glory stuff to do, I give him a lot of the scut work,’’ Curatolo said, half joking.

Adds Dr. Marsha Moses, the director of the project, “He’s just another science nerd with us.’’

It is two days after the 24-year-old Boggs took the field against Manchester United, playing with soccer stars he idolized as a child. He has traveled to Boston to work on the 12th floor of the Karp Research Building at Children’s Hospital. It’s not something he talks about often. His road roommate, Stephen McCarthy, only found out when Boggs needed to stay late after a team-arranged visit to the hospital.

His teammates left. He stayed, put on his lab coat, and picked up his pipettes.

“I just want to help and give,’’ Boggs said. “That’s all I want to do. I want to learn. Every time I’ve ever volunteered anywhere I always feel like I’m coming off as being selfish because I feel like I get more out of it than I would have ever thought possible.

“I see the birth date of a child and then I see what date that they had their operation and I see they’re 4 years old. It’s not right. It’s sad and you realize how lucky you are. And then you realize that that’s going to change not only this person’s life, but the family’s life.’’

Rare request When Moses got the initial e-mail from Boggs, she was, admittedly, skeptical. She had never received an inquiry from a professional athlete. So she looked him up, searching for some reason a Revolution player would be interested in volunteering at her lab.

“I thought, ‘Could this be real?’ ’’ Moses said. “I thought it was really unique, really terrific. And I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ ’’

Boggs, who had spent his college years at the University of South Florida volunteering at the Moffitt Cancer Center and the Shriners Hospital, had accompanied teammates on a trip to beautify the Yawkey Family Inn midway through last season. He had expressed interest in giving his time, and received Moses’s contact information. The former Rhodes Scholar candidate wanted to utilize his degree in biomedical sciences and see if scientific research might be in his post-soccer future.

“He’s certainly a quick study,’’ Moses said. “He’s got the intellect. I think he’s got the interest and the drive. I think he has the right temperament, very patient. Zak is very humble and unassuming and, although that might not fit with what people often think of in terms of famous scientists, he’s got just the right mind-set and the right temperament. Plus, he understands the potential significance of what we’re doing. If any of these are bona fide proteins that we can develop into cancer diagnostics, it could . . . ’’

“Change a lot of people’s lives,’’ Boggs said.

Boggs has, primarily, been helping with research into the development of “safe and early cancer diagnostics and prognostics,’’ Moses said, adding that there are too many cancers, including some childhood cancers, for which there are no tests or merely adequate tests.

They wanted to develop tests that caused no pain, particularly because they are based at a children’s hospital. Moses and her team turned to urine, attempting to identify proteins that would distinguish someone who has cancer from someone who does not. Boggs has been helping to run tests on many of the urine samples.

Boggs has seen the effect of cancer. When he boarded at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., he would spend summers with the Munson family, having played soccer with the older son. The family - which had two sons, or “two sons and me,’’ as Boggs said - took him in, particularly Barbara Munson, who welcomed him and made him feel at home, even as she was suffering from liver and lung cancer.

“She was a fighter,’’ Boggs said. “Every day she had a smile on her face and every day you never would have known. Just to be with her and be with the family and see how they cared for each other and see how they fought as a unit, it wasn’t just her. It was a really sobering experience, and something that I’ll never forget.

“She called me another son, and I called her my second mom. But those boys and the dad, my heart goes out to them.’’

Barbara Munson died in March, just a week before the Revolution’s season started.

“I see what it does to the families and it’s terrible,’’ Boggs said. “So it’s not just the person that is afflicted with it that it kills. It really takes a part of the family. I’ve seen that.’’

Pressed for time There is less time for Boggs to spend at Children’s this season, though. After sustaining two concussions in a six-week period, Boggs missed the second half of the 2010 season, his first after being chosen in the second round of the draft. He has now become a fixture for the Revolution, increasing his presence and his minutes. Still, he manages to make it to the lab 3-4 hours once a week.

“I’ve always been one that does a little more, I’m always working hard,’’ Boggs said. “Maybe I don’t rest enough.’’

That’s certainly possible. There’s the soccer. There’s the cancer research. There’s the master’s degree in marketing he earned in December from the University of South Florida, the one that McCarthy didn’t even know about until recently. There are the Chinese classes he’s thinking about, and the piano lessons. Oh, and the fact that he’s a former West Virginia state champion in marbles and has qualified for the national jump rope tournament.

And he gives his sister Tori - a world record-holder in jump rope - the credit for being the athlete in the family.

“He’s always been the type of person that if he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it at its best,’’ said Boggs’s mother, Rochelle. “He wants to be the best soccer player. He wants to be the best student. If you’re going to put your time there, then you might as well do the best you can.’’

There is, he said, more school in his future. “You don’t get to look under microscopes enough, I don’t think. Any time I got a chance to do that, it was awesome’’

He is likely to take the MCAT, with medical school potentially in his future, though for now he will concentrate on soccer, interspersed with the trips to Boston to work with Moses in the lab.

He does have larger goals, though. As his father, Joseph, said, “He basically wants to cure cancer.’’

“Actually, he looked at us and said that,’’ Rochelle added.

“ ‘I think I’m going to be the one.’ ’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmalieBenjamin.

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