KU lineman fights past cancer

D. J. Marshall's successful spring inspires optimism as he recovers from chemotherapy.

05/15/2011 3:11 AM

05/15/2011 3:11 AM

LAWRENCE — D.J. Marshall will never forget April 30, 2011.

That Saturday afternoon, during the first half of the Kansas football team's spring game, Marshall made back-to-back big plays from the defensive end spot. First, he tackled running back James Sims for a loss. Then, he sacked quarterback Quinn Mecham.

Minutes later, at halftime, Marshall was recognized in front of the 6,000 fans at Memorial Stadium for his recent nomination as a candidate for the Kansas City Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Man of the Year award.

To Marshall, the sequence of events had worked out perfectly.

"What made it better," Marshall said, "was me making those plays so that people already could hear my name as a football player, before they knew my situation."

Marshall was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in the fall of 2009 and completed his last chemotherapy treatments about a year ago. But he no longer wants to be known as the KU football player who battled cancer. This spring was about transitioning back to a time when the name D.J. Marshall was associated with a talented player from Mesquite, Texas, who had lofty dreams for his career at Kansas.

"I came here to build a legacy as a football player and help us win championships," Marshall said. "I had extenuating circumstances, and I wanted to be that guy that could prove that it's possible to come back from that.

"I want people to know that I can play with anybody."

This spring marked the first time since his diagnosis that Marshall could practice full-contact. He sensed doubt from his coaches that he could handle it, a feeling that was affirmed by seeing his name at the end of the depth chart. Marshall had played tentatively during the first 14 practices, trying to ease the fragile joints in his legs back into game shape and his mind back into the details of defensive strategy.

KU defensive line coach Buddy Wyatt had been waiting all spring for the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Marshall to show something, and Marshall's spring game felt like a breakthrough for the kid physically and emotionally.

"I saw genuine excitement from him when he made those plays," Wyatt said. "He jumped up and down and got a little excited. It was good to see."

Marshall left the spring game feeling as if he was now competing for a starting job with Toben Opurum on the weak side and Keba Agostinho on the strong side. Wyatt and KU coach Turner Gill were complimentary of Marshall's improvement during the spring but said that he is mostly competing for playing time behind Opurum and Agostinho.

"Eventually he has a chance to end up a starter," Gill said. "He is definitely in the hunt to have an opportunity to contribute in a good way for us next season."

It may not be the endorsement Marshall wanted, but for him to be in the mix at all is a serious accomplishment given what he has pushed through during the last 18 months. Marshall, for all practical purposes, has had to start over. He is a sophomore in eligibility, but he has been on campus three years and played in just one game, the 2009 opener against Northern Colorado. Recruited by Mark Mangino's staff, Marshall has had minimal opportunity to perform in front of Gill's group.

It was Mangino's staff that had to watch as one of their top recruits in the 2008 class _ the No. 36 strong-side defensive end in the country _ was suddenly not performing up to their expectations. Marshall was dropping weight when he should have been adding, and his coaches just assumed that he wasn't putting in the work.

"Nobody had any idea what was wrong with him," KU right tackle Tanner Hawkinson said. "When Coach Mangino announced that he had the cancer, it shocked everyone."

For Marshall, it meant having to drive to Tulsa every other week to complete 12 eight-hour chemotherapy sessions. It meant being apart from his teammates and the rhythms of the football life he'd become so accustomed to. Even after he had gotten the news that he was cancer-free, after he'd had the chemo port removed from his chest in May 2010, there would be months of recovery time before he could rejoin football activities.

Marshall weighed around 200 pounds when his treatment was completed. Six months later, in November, his bones had recovered enough that he could be present for the last three weeks of the season. The first week, he could only wear a helmet. The next week he wore a helmet and shoulder pads. Eventually he wore all of the equipment but with minimal contact.

"I could feel the pain in my knees just from bending down every play," Marshall said.

A long winter was ahead. Marshall's goal was to be ready to go by April 1, the first day of spring practice, but to get there, he would have to revitalize himself in the weight room. Even as he became stronger each day, there were constant reminders that he was still different.

"I was a little colder than everyone else," Marshall said. "The winter, it goes through your jacket, gets to your bones. My bones were so brittle, I could feel basically anything."

Eventually, April arrived, which meant it was time for post-winter workout lifts. Marshall had always been one of the strongest Jayhawks, but this was staggering: He bench-pressed 405 pounds, which was second on the team behind defensive tackle Pat Dorsey's 415. Marshall's 405 was the most he'd ever lifted, less than a year after his cells had been ravaged by chemo.

Hawkinson, who stands in at 6-6 and 293 pounds, says he lifts around 290 to 300.

"That shows you what kind of person D.J. is," Hawkinson said. "He's a hard worker, and he just loves the game of football."

Marshall hopes to be one of the strongest players in the country by the time he's done at KU, and he still thinks about the NFL. He still has three years to make it happen.

"People don't really know what you can go through if you just have the willpower to do it," Marshall said. "That's what has gotten me through everything, just the want-to. That will get you through pretty much anything in life."

Marshall has a checkup in Tulsa on May 20. If he has another positive report, he says he might not have to go back for a year. His transition is almost complete, and Gill is looking forward to getting to know more about D.J. Marshall the football player.

"We're gonna see a little bit more of who he really is now," Gill said, "and I think we're gonna see him do great things. I think the cancer part is not the primary thing that you think about with D.J. Now, it's the secondary thing. It's kind of out of the way, and he can move on with his life."

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