Darius Nall's Comeback From Cancer Fight Has Inspired UCF
It almost looks like a high-riding belt, but rest assured -- this is no tattoo, no body art gone bad. It's where surgeons gutted him like a fish with a filet knife just over two years ago, leaving behind a reminder that drives him today.
No one outside the locker room sees it under the shoulder and chest pads or the football jersey, but he wears it like a badge of both honor -- and armor -- every time he takes the field.
Nall is the left defensive end at the University of Central Florida, a cancer survivor and an inspirational comeback story who has lifted an entire roster of college football players.
"Every time I look in the mirror, this (scar) reminds me of where I've been, and just how lucky I am,'' he said after a morning practice earlier this week. "It actually gives me confidence because I know I've already been through -- and come back from -- something like this.''
It was only three summers ago that surgeons removed a cancerous, baseball-sized tumor that was growing on his right lung, a process that required three different surgeries in a seven-week span.
"Every surgery I went in for, I just hoped that I woke up,'' he said. "Yes, it was scary. I was scared. You don't expect to get hit with cancer when you're 19 years old. But it changed my outlook on life. It made me stronger.''
Nall was hit with malignant thymoma, a cancer of the thymus gland, which is rare among young adults. It was discovered only after he had complained of a burning sensation in his upper chest and a CAT Scan that later revealed an unidentified mass attached to his lung.
"When they first told me, I couldn't even get on the phone with my mom. I was afraid we'd both break down, so I had Mary (Vander Heiden, athletic trainer) tell her, then she handed me the phone,'' Nall said. "I tried to stay strong for my mom so she wouldn't worry.''
Although he originally was told that 80 percent of those growths are benign, his biopsy was part of the unfortunate 20 percent, sending his family at home and his football team at UCF into a strong, circle-the-wagons, protective stance.
His news came in the wake of the tragic death of teammate Ereck Plancher, the UCF wide receiver who collapsed during a spring conditioning drill a couple months before. That only accentuated the fear.
"When the biopsy results finally came back, it was heartbreaking,'' said Nall's mother, Wanda Willis, from her home in Atlanta. "But I remember that day in the office thinking, 'Don't break down in front of him. Be strong.' And he stayed strong. At that age, you think you're invincible. I know it humbled him, and we thank God every day that he came out of it OK.''
Six weeks of radiation therapy followed the last surgery. He lost more than 40 pounds, yet he never lost his teammates or his desire to play football again. Although his surgery was done in Atlanta near his home, he insisted on moving his follow-up care back to Orlando, staying close to his teammates who provided so much support through the ordeal.
"It was scary to see one of your teammates, one of your friends. go through something like that,'' said Bruce Miller, who plays opposite Nall at right defensive end. "But the way he handled the whole thing is just a testament to his character. And the fact that he's now playing so well again, it's almost unbelievable. He doesn't like when I say it, but he's an inspiration to every guy on this team. Everyone feeds off his attitude.''
Nall still must be rechecked for cancer three times a year, but he was given the medical clearance to play last season, which he did at less than 100 percent. It was the greatest therapy he could get. He played in all 13 games, making seven tackles with five assists and four sacks, yet he didn't have the same quickness and strength that he showed during a stellar freshman year in 2007.
"Last year felt like I had come back, but that's all it was, back on the field. This year, I'm really back, feeling much better about the way I'm playing,'' he said. "I'm out there now feeling a lot more confident in what I'm doing.''
In two games this season, Nall has six tackles. In a close loss to North Carolina State last week, he had three tackles, broke up a pass and sacked the quarterback once. It was probably the best game of his career. Saturday at Buffalo, he expects to be better.
Although he was known as a bubbly, gregarious sort as a freshman before his diagnosis -- he made the Conference USA All-Freshman team -- his enthusiasm for the game has reached another level now. A tough, physically-demanding practice Wednesday in the sweltering midday heat still brought a smile to his face.
"This whole thing just changed how I look at life, whether it's at practice or just walking down the street. I don't want to miss anything now,'' he said. "It was tough on my family, but everyone was just so positive, so I couldn't be any other way. At this point, it's not about any comeback. It's about how I can make our team better just the same as anyone else. They were there for me. I've got to be there now for them.''
Now back to his playing weight of 250 pounds (he is 6-foot-3), Nall plays and practices with an enthusiasm that is contagious. He has no trouble pushing through the feeling of being tired, asking his body for a little bit more.
"When I was going through my thing, I felt a little unlucky, like why me?'' he said. "But I never felt like my football career was over. Today I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.''