Out of nowhere, it seemed, a disturbing mass sprouted in the upper body of an otherwise healthy young football player.
Next thing you know, it’s diagnosed as Hodgkin lymphoma, Stage IV. Starting with a newfound sense of mortality, everything instantly changed for the Chiefs player.
If this sounds familiar, it should: It’s what star safety Eric Berry quite privately has been working through since a growth was discovered in his chest in early December. Apparently, all is going as well as possible according to the scant, one-step-removed information that’s been released.
But an evident trajectory toward recovery from lymphoma isn’t just Berry’s story.
There are plenty of examples of this in the sports world alone, from NHL Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux to Cubs pitcher Jon Lester (anaplastic large-cell lymphoma and chemotherapy in 2006) and, most recently, Houston Texans offensive lineman David Quessenberry.
Quessenberry was diagnosed in June with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and missed the entire 2014 season, but he declared himself in remission in February and hopes to play this season.
And at least for now, there’s a more precise and closer-to-home example for Berry … and those transmitting to him their prayers or thoughts.
When the Chiefs earlier this month signed Kenny Cook as a free agent from Gardner-Webb, they didn’t just sign a 6-foot-4, 210-pound receiver who has what coach Andy Reid calls a wide “catch radius.”
They also signed someone with a broad radius of inspiring testimony to the viability of fending off cancer and playing again.
“He’s a miracle, that’s all I’ll say,” Andy Young, Cook’s coach at Clinton (S.C.) High, said in a phone interview. “I coached for 37 years and had some (players) that died and things like that, but I never saw any overcome what he (overcame).”
It might make for an awkward dynamic to speak to somebody about such a sensitive topic when you’re meeting for the first time, but Cook didn’t fuss or blink and, in fact, offered reassurance that “it’s cool” when it was broached last week during the Chiefs’ organized team activities.
“Because,” he adds, “I never know who the story is going to touch.”
The disease gripped him in 2007, the summer before his sophomore year of high school, when he woke up one morning with a sore neck.
As much as he initially wanted to hope it was from weightlifting, there was no getting around that his throat was gruesomely swollen.
His parents took him to the hospital, and a day later, he said, he was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin lymphoma .
Chemotherapy started immediately.
“I went in blind, not knowing anything. And I came out, and I had cancer,” he said. “The only thing I knew from cancer is people pass away a lot.
“So that was life-changing for me right there.”
Not to be confused with life-ending. Even if he called cancer a “cousin” of death, it turns out it could be a distant one many times removed.
The quiet grace he showed in handling his illness explains why his teachers and coaches came to believe he was teaching them as much or more than they were teaching him, current Clinton High coach Andrew Webb said.
Not that there weren’t dark times, when he’d wonder about what was to come because of the sheer specter of cancer … and the depleting treatments … and the nausea … and the weight loss … and losing his hair.
But Cook was sustained by faith, including the sort that comes from leaning on his Christian beliefs and a reservoir of family love.
It also came from the encouragement he derived from learning how treatable his cancer was and meeting others who’d emerged healthy.
Those get-togethers with thriving survivors were crucial to his morale, because they weren’t about studies or numbers or theories but the vivid and true outcomes of a shared burden.
“That helped me out a lot,” said Cook, who noted that he’s been “cleared” the last few years and requires only periodic testing.
Football, too, was fundamental to his recovery.
Not just because he wanted so badly to play again someday, and the incentive that gave him to work his way back, but also because it provided an emotional haven.
Even as he was forced to sit out from playing football and basketball his sophomore year, often missing days of school at a time with chemo and, later, radiation treatments, football provided succor from the sucker punch of his illness.
“I leaned on football because it’s a brotherhood; I like that brotherhood and that camaraderie,” he said. “Those guys made me feel like I was still on the team. I went to the games every Friday; I did my chemo early in the week just so I could go to the games just to watch.”
By his junior year, he wasn’t just watching any more.
“You could tell he was ticking a little different than everyone else because he’d had something taken away from him,” said Webb, who was Clinton’s defensive backs coach when Cook was playing.
Cook returned with ferocity on both sides of the ball, helping set the scene for a Class 3A state title as a senior when he became an all-state defensive back. That season, he also was considered a playmaker for a wishbone offense with 29 catches for 597 yards and two touchdowns.
Cook became the “backbone” of the team, Young said, because he “just absolutely kept working, kept working. Wouldn’t give up. Nobody could tell him no.”
Football meant that much in the equation.
“I worked 10 times harder — 10 times harder,” he said. “I know the feeling of it being gone.
“People say never take it for granted? I lived that; I know that.”
That mentality is what fueled Cook from Clinton to Garden City (Kan.) Community College to Gardner-Webb, where he had 64 receptions for 758 yards and five touchdowns as a senior.
Now it’s led to an opportunity with the Chiefs, who saw him at his pro day in Boiling Springs, N.C.
“Just trying to seize the moment,” he said.
Cancer still informs his attitude, of course, and accounts for his appreciation of every day and opportunity.
But he has it compartmentalized.
“I go about my everyday life,” he said, “and don’t even think about it.”
Unless he’s asked, that is.
As for Berry, Cook hopes there soon will be two cancer survivors on this Chiefs team.
Who’s to tell him he’s wrong?
“I’m hearing he’s a pretty strong guy,” he said of Berry. “And I know he’ll get through it.”
Terez Paylor of The Star contributed to this column.