The hardest moments, Kansas University defensive end and cancer survivor D.J. Marshall said, came during the four-hour drives each way between Lawrence and Tulsa for 12 eight-hour chemotherapy treatments.
“That was a lot of time to think to yourself, being in so much pain, having to drive myself and having to do it just to live,” Marshall said after performing well in the blue-white spring football game Saturday in Memorial Stadium. “That was a hard time.”
Once he arrived at his destination he said he was fine because his “Jayhawk family” was there to support him in Lawrence, and his father usually met him in Tulsa after making a similar-length drive from Dallas.
“Your mind’s telling you one thing, your body’s telling you another thing,” Marshall said.
His mind told him the chemotherapy was making him better. His body told him the treatments were making him sick, stabbing him with nausea and aching bones.
“Afterward, they shoot you with a couple of shots to boost your immune system because the chemo knocks out everything, good cells, bad cells, everything,” Marshall said. “The medicine is to help you rebuild from that, so you can actually feel the pain in your bones for a couple of days after. There were some times I had to miss school because I could barely move myself. I had to stay home.”
The treatments lasted five months. Marshall took 21 credit hours to keep his mind busy. Marshall said he often thought of Connor Olson, a former Tonganoxie High football player who died of cancer April 21, 2010, whom he had met when he had come to watch a KU game after having his leg amputated. Marshall added he took inspiration from Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich, who returned to the football field after undergoing cancer treatments.
Marshall can serve as an inspiration to anyone afflicted with the disease, but he wants more than that. His status as a cancer survivor playing college football is what makes him rare, but he doesn’t want that to define him. He would prefer his play do that.
“I hope to see my name on the short list of names when people look at Kansas football,” he said. “I want to be one of the names teams think about when they play us. I want to try to introduce my legacy as a football player, not just my situation.”
That’s why back-to-back plays he made in the first half Saturday were so huge. He tackled running back James Sims for a loss and then got to quarterback Quinn Mecham for a sack on the next play. Those plays gave more meaning to the halftime ovation he received upon being introduced to the crowd of 6,000.
“I was really getting tired of the offense driving on us, and my adrenaline was pumping,” he said. “I really wanted to make a play to turn it around.”
So he made two plays.
Marshall was a highly regarded prospect out of Mesquite High in the Dallas Metroplex. He red-shirted in 2008, played in the 2009 season-opener and was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma midway through the season.
He said he first thought the bump on his neck near his collarbone was a football-related injury and said team doctors initially thought the same. He was losing weight, having night sweats and still bothered by the fear the lump was something else. He said when he told team doctors, “I know my body, and I feel like it’s getting bigger,” they sent him to Lawrence Memorial Hospital, where he underwent a biopsy and received the diagnosis.
Marshall knew he was a better football player than he was showing in practice then, and a better student, too.
“They figured I was just another flop player who couldn’t adjust to the college life, was partying too much, going around with girls too much, not going to class, but I knew I was doing the best I could at every workout and in the classroom, and I didn’t know what the problem was,” he said. “I just knew it wasn’t what everyone else was telling me it was.”
Marshall said if he had gone much longer without having a biopsy, “you probably wouldn’t be here talking to me right now. It would have turned into non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It would have been terminal.”
His treatments ended last May, and he participated in all 15 practices this spring. His weight, which had dropped to 205, is back to 235, his body fat back to 6 percent.
Marshall said his ligaments “became real loose,” because of the chemotherapy.
“I still have to get my legs back under me,” he said. “I think my strength is getting up there, and I can only look to get stronger. I’ve lost some speed because of everything that was going on, but I still feel like I’m one of the fastest linemen that we have here. I want to be our fastest and strongest lineman. I can get there one day.”
Marshall, who has three seasons of eligibility remaining, said teammates, especially fellow defensive linemen, always made supportive phone calls to him when he wasn’t feeling up to attending team meetings or practices. The inspiration has been mutual.
“He’s a person who defines perseverance, determination, never giving up,” KU coach Turner Gill said. “I think that’s what our players have seen in him. They have seen it, and I have seen a little bit. There were times when he was distraught, wanting to give up, crying. And then to see where he’s at today — he still has a ways to go as far as from a football standpoint of being ready to be a starter and all that — but it’s great to see where he’s at.”
Knowing he could count on constant support from teammates, Gill said, was “what he needed in his life. I know we’ve given him that.”
And Marshall has given fellow players a reason to play through pain.
“My teammates keep me in the back of their minds, the back of their hearts,” Marshall said. “When they’re in their pain, the pain that I was going through makes their bumps and bruises not really as bad as they could be.”