Losing a wrestling match suddenly seemed trivial to Missouri senior heavyweight Devin Mellon after July 30, 2012.
That’s the day his mom, Susan, was diagnosed with cancer and Devin considered giving up college altogether less than a month before his redshirt sophomore season.
“I was at home and she had a really bad allergy attack,” Devin said. “We went to the hospital, but my dad (Danny) and I thought it was nothing. Then, all of the sudden, they say, ‘Your mom has leukemia.’”
Susan was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive cancer of the bone marrow.
Driving home from the hospital with his dad, Devin called Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith.
“I just found out my mom has leukemia,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to come back.”
Both Smith, and later Susan, made it clear that quitting college and the Tigers’ wrestling team wasn’t a viable option.
“Don’t let this get in your way,” Susan remembers telling Devin. “You’re going back. Don’t even let that thought enter your mind.’”
Inspired by his mom and appreciative of Smith’s support, Devin, a 2010 Lawson graduate, stuck it out, but he was transformed that day.
“It used to be that I would lose a match and wouldn’t be able to wrestle for the rest of the day,” Devin said. “I was all about winning. Now, I’m all about doing my best. If a guy does beat me now, he’s going to have to go through hell to do it. … A loss isn’t the end of the world anymore.”
It’s been a long road for Susan, who received her first stem-cell treatment at Barnes-Jewish Hospital’s Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis in December 2012.
She was in remission for a year a half after that initial treatment, but doctors discovered two spots on her brain and a recurrence of the cancer in her spine last June.
Susan underwent another stem-cell transplant in October 2014.
“My whole life, she always had really long, thick (brunette) hair,” Devin said. “When she lost it the first time, it was pretty tough. Just seeing her all shrunk down and sick like that, hardly able to even walk to the bathroom, it was hard. But it was inspirational, because she was still smiling and still happy.”
It also put wrestling in perspective.
When Devin found out last spring that he would be academically ineligible for the fall semester his senior season, he didn’t freak out.
He didn’t even tell his parents right away, not with Susan again fighting for her life.
Instead, Devin — who is the No. 11 seed in the heavyweight bracket for the NCAA Division I national wrestling championships, which begin Thursday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis — tried to find a silver lining.
“I knew I was going to be able to make it back and everything,” he said. “It was frustrating, but then I had time where I wasn’t pushing so hard at the front end and tearing up my body. Now, I feel great and I’m not so beat up. In some ways, it was a positive. It (stunk) for my team, but my team pulled through.”
Missouri is ranked No. 1 in the country and is undefeated in dual meets entering the national tournament.
Devin’s performance has been perhaps the best medicine for Susan, who often is run down from radiation treatment.
“It’s given me so much joy to watch him wrestle,” Susan said. “I just look forward to seeing him progress. Whenever I’m there, I’m energetic with him.”
Susan said she was as exhilarated and excited as she can remember since her diagnosis watching Devin win a Mid-American Conference championship with a 4-2 upset against top-seeded Blaize Cabell of Northern Iowa.
Buoyed by that win, Devin rolls into the national tourney for the third and final time in his career, hoping to earn his first All-American honor, which goes to wrestlers who finish in the top eight in their division.
“I’ve seen his determination all this year and I knew he’s got nonstop power going right now,” Susan said. “He’s got a goal, and that goal is be All-America. … It would mean the world, because he’s been wrestling since he was 4. It would be the ultimate for him.”
Devin also knows what it would mean to his mom.
“She’s really an inspiration to me,” he said. “She’s so strong and positive. I hope I can be like her when life puts something like that in my way. … It would mean a lot for me and it would mean a lot for her. But even if I don’t get All-American, she’d still be happy. She’s just glad I took this opportunity and ran away with it. She’s enjoyed the ride, and I’ve enjoyed the ride with her.”