Musical medicine
Brothers-turned-'Tumornators' to hold Buckhead benefit

Over the phone, you'd never guess Drew Leathers lives in a state of perpetual discomfort and near-constant pain.

Not until, on a Thursday night, the 20-year-old Lilburn native says, "if you have any more questions, call me back. I'm always up."

The parting words seem innocuous but are, unfortunately, not an exaggeration. Leathers hardly sleeps at all. Agony won't allow it.

He has a condition known as Schwannomatosis, which means a seemingly endless number of noncancerous tumors, laced throughout his entire body since birth, now push mercilessly against his nerves as they slowly swell with age.

"Me being comfortable doesn't necessarily exist," he said, describing an ever-present feeling of tightness. "The new level of 'comfort' for me is this."

The disease is a rare form of Neurofibromatosis that has only recently been identified and diagnosed, and pain-induced insomnia is, comparatively, one of its more charming little traits. Even worse are the frequent bouts of invasive surgery (so many Leathers has lost track), the slightest touches feeling "like a hammer covered with nails" and a stunted level of mobility that always threatens to be further hindered as the tumors continue to grow.

"There are a few that are inside my spinal column still that are really putting pressure on my lower extremities," he said. "The possibilities of paralysis are a very real thing."

Despite the danger, Leathers has become adept at hiding his anguish behind a trademark smile. Older brother Chad, 23, said he's heard Drew alter his voice to cheerfully answer a phone call, only to let hurt strain it once again when the conversation's finally over.

"He can change his personality to sound like nothing's wrong," Chad said. "But in actuality, he's sitting there fighting to keep everything normal. He doesn't want to be looked at as a sympathy case."

Nevertheless, Drew's story has inevitably reduced anyone who's heard it - or been by his side through it - to tears. But not him. Not anymore.

The Leathers family is through crying.

Rise of the Tumornators

For Christmas last year, the most important present Drew Leathers received was surgery in a Baltimore hospital, where doctors operated on several tumors growing inside his legs.

Afterward, on the way back to Atlanta, his family made a conscious decision to stop mourning Drew's illness and start fighting back.

But how?

Over the next two months, under the guiding hand and respective talents of Chad and middle brother Ben Leathers, 21, a fundraising effort was born, resiliently dubbed "Tumornators."

Chad set up a Web site, www.tumornators.com, that featured a slide show describing Drew's grim daily reality. Ben wrote and performed "Little Brother," the somber yet steadfast ballad that echoes behind it.

"Hold your head up, march right on," he sings, "We'll be right here till the war's won."

With the added exposure, the Tumornators were soon lent a helping hand in the form of a high school chum of Chad's turned hometown hero: Atlanta Braves right fielder and fellow Parkview grad Jeff Francoeur.

"Jeff kinda called me out of the blue, really, after he had seen the slide show back in March," Chad said of the major leaguer's support. "So he called and said, 'Hey man, I want to get involved ... I really want to help out where I can.'"

And he did, pledging $500 for each one of the 19 home runs he belted this season.

"What's really been amazing is his willingness to participate and his true excitement about helping," Chad said. "He's really been involved and really been excited about it."

The Leathers brothers, who have funneled every bit of the nearly $70,000 in donations they've collected so far directly to the Children's Tumor Foundation, have no designs on turning Tumornators into an independent nonprofit. But they do seek wider recognition.

"We want to kind of continue on our path and growth," Chad said, "and try to turn Tumornators into something that can become a little more nationwide, because there are so many people affected by this disease."

Despite the trio's dire circumstances, their brotherly bond remains refreshingly healthy. Still tempered - like all normal sibling relationships - with occasional rounds of bickering, the duress has only brought them closer together.

In a recent show of solidarity, the guys paid a visit to the famous South Beach tattoo parlor Miami Ink.

Chad and Ben had their skin scrawled with replicas of their little brother's surgical scars, while Drew, always the jokester, opted to transform his longest one - an 18-inch vertical incision traversing the length of his lower back - into a zipper.

The 'fun' in 'fundraising'

The Tumornators' newest endeavor, a benefit called Rock4Research to be held at Buckhead's Peachtree Tavern Friday night, was born of Ben Leathers' deep involvement in the Athens music scene.

An avid drummer and aspiring producer, Ben helped hatch the idea of a charity show that would help gain ground in the Tumornators' ongoing battle.

Another of Chad's former Parkview football teammates, singer-songwriter Matt Moore, offered up his assistance.

"He came to me and said, 'I want to help. Do you think we could put on a concert for you guys?' And I said, "Absolutely.'" Chad said. "So he's really been pivotal in getting this whole thing set up."

Francoeur will be back as well, offering the incentive of a VIP lounge for a slightly higher ticket price.

With this event, the Leathers brothers say they wanted to do something edgy, something to attract the attention of the college crowd - Drew's friends and peers.

"It was kind of a way to keep fundraising fun," Chad said. "As opposed to having, like, a stuffy dinner or a bake sale, it's something we could have fun with and still make a difference."

By the way, at some point in the night, Ben will take the stage on drums with a very special guest guitar player - Drew Leathers.

The youngest brother said he's looking forward to the experience.

"I'm not gonna lie, I guess I do enjoy the attention," he said with a laugh. "I think all three of the Leathers boys are born performers."

SideBar: If You Go

What: Rock4Research benefit concert

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Peachtree Tavern, 3179 Peachtree Road, Atlanta

Cost: $8 per person at the door, $15 for VIP tickets

Info: Visit www.rock4research.com or www.tumornators.com.