KU football player D.J. Marshall beats cancer

Kansas football player D.J. Marshall stands above the team’s practice fields next to Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, Kan. Marshall was diagnosed a year ago this month with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After six months of treatment and a year of prayer, his recovery appears complete.

Kansas football player D.J. Marshall stands above the team’s practice fields next to Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, Kan. Marshall was diagnosed a year ago this month with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After six months of treatment and a year of prayer, his recovery appears complete. Photo by The Associated Press.

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — For coaching, the Kansas Jayhawks have Turner Gill. For inspiration, Gill and everyone else connected with the program has D.J. Marshall, a living example of courage and grace in the face of danger.

Near the once-promising defensive end’s collarbone is a scar where doctors removed a swollen lymph node and discovered cancer. Another scar on his chest marks the spot where surgeons implanted a small port to deliver chemotherapy.

It wasn’t just Marshall’s football career that was threatened. When he was diagnosed a year ago this month with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his life seemed in danger, too.

But after six months of painful treatment and a year of prayer, Marshall’s recovery appears complete. Even though there are no guarantees he’ll regain enough physical strength to play football again, he crossed one more important threshold this week when he finally rejoined his teammates at practice.

“I’m excited for him. I know he’s excited about it. And he’s looking forward to moving on to the future,” Gill said. “It’s been an inspiration for everybody to know that you have hope. You don’t ever give up, you always get back up and keep going again. You keep believing, you have faith. You have faith in your doctors, you have faith in your family, you have faith in your teammates, you have faith in your coaches. He’s demonstrated that.”

After the ordeal that has so radically changed his outlook on life, football doesn’t seem nearly so important to Marshall anymore.

But most importantly, the cancer he battled for a year now “just feels like another bump in the road,” he said.

It started with a bump on his shoulder. Team doctors told Marshall not to worry, so he ignored it. But when fall practice opened, something felt wrong. He lost 35 pounds. He was getting tired too easily and couldn’t keep up with teammates.

Coaches at first were critical. They told him to quit getting distracted by girls.

“I had people tell me I was the worst scholarship player here,” he said, “and that I was giving the least amount of effort, that I was never going to play.”

He went to Lawrence Memorial Hospital looking for answers and had a biopsy. He was in a car with his parents, who had driven up from Mesquite, Texas, when the call came. He had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

D.J’s mother broke down. Then D.J. broke down. They weren’t sure what Hodgkin’s was, but they knew it was a form of cancer.

“Just the fact that someone tells you it’s cancer, you feel like it’s life and death automatically,” Marshall said.

He began treatment at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa, Okla., in November 2009. Dr. George River, a medical oncologist at the center, gave him an encouraging prognosis — 77 percent chance of recovery.

“I’m going to send you through hell, but you can make it out,” Marshall recalls being told.

Once every two weeks, he would drive from Lawrence to Tulsa for eight hours of chemotherapy and physical therapy.

The pain from chemotherapy felt like “the worst arthritis ever,” he said. After each treatment, every bone in his body would ache for days. His resolve during the 12 treatments amazed Dr. River, who was used to hearing patients whine and complain.

“It was a rough treatment. He got banged up,” Dr. River said. “But he never lost faith, he never lost his enthusiasm.”

David Marshall was there for every treatment. He says it felt as though he was watching his son grow from a boy to a man.

“He really showed me how mature he was in the way he handled this,” the elder Marshall said.

Heather Marshall drew strength from watching her son make his stand.

“I saw a part of him, a strength in him that I hadn’t seen before,” she said.

As if chemotherapy wasn’t enough, Marshall was also taking 21 credit hours — a rare course load for a member of the football team. But classwork helped take his mind off the pain and the worry about what might happen if treatment didn’t work.

“When he told me he had 21 hours, it just kind of put my mouth to the ground,” said Joe Semple, Marshall’s roommate and teammate. “I couldn’t believe that he was putting this workload on himself.”

As the hospital visits progressed, the drives to Tulsa became harder and harder. Only constant support from friends, family and caregivers carried him through, Marshall said.

But in May, he reached the finish line. Doctors told his father D.J. was done with treatment.

“We went to the chapel on the second floor and just sat there for about 10 minutes thanking God for getting us to this point,” David Marshall said. “You can’t put into words how it feels.”

Marshall does not dwell on the triumph of his recovery. He has new dreams, different goals. Before, it was all about making the NFL. Graduating was hardly on his mind.

Now he talks about teaching after graduation. Maybe getting a master’s degree. Maybe owning his own business. He also wants to meet Mark Herzlich, the Boston College linebacker who was treated for bone cancer last year. It would be nice to talk to someone who can relate.

Cancer survivors among college football players are rare.

“I just feel like my mind is so much different than everyone else’s,” Marshall said.

Of course, football is also in the near future. The months he took off from training were the longest he’d been away from the sport since he first started playing at 8 years old.

If everything works out, he could be on the field next April for the Jayhawks’ spring game.

“I’ve seen him play in spring games and stuff like that,” his father said. “But when he makes his first college football game, it’s going to be something for me.”

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