Nation Ford senior football player Jalen Willers knows about hard days.
Not necessarily the hard days that come on a football field in August with the sweltering heat beating down or the hard days the morning after getting his head rattled by a devastating hit.
When Willers, 17, thinks of hard days, he thinks of 10 hour days with an IV strapped to him receiving chemotherapy. Hard days for him are times he was so weak that the thought of football was just that, an afterthought of what might have been and dreams of what could be. Hard days for him were being so weak that he couldn’t get out of bed, much less think of strapping on a pads and cleats.
However, those days are in the past for Willers and when Nation Ford takes the field for the start of the 2017 season Aug. 18 at Irmo, it will be the end of Willers’ comeback having missed his entire junior year on the field due to his fight with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Diagnosed in May 2016 with stage four lymphoma, Willers had been fighting the disease since January of that year when he started getting fevers on and off again, along with body chills and aches. Willers had no idea he was in the early rounds of the battle of his life.
“I was playing (JV) basketball at that time and I was feeling weaker and weaker,” he said. “My stamina and body felt like it was slowing down. I had been playing basketball the whole season with cancer and didn’t know it.”
Willers was tested for mononucleosis and other maladies in April 2016 and doctors found three enlarged lymph nodes in his stomach. He had a biopsy and it confirmed Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“It gets a little scary not knowing what it is, but when they bring you into the oncology room, you know it gets serious,” he said.
Due to when he was diagnosed, Willers was able to get through the end of the school year without much trouble, but doctor appointments consumed his 2016 summer.
“The summer was filled with chemo treatments, but I would rather it be in the summer than during school where you have to keep up with everything,” he said.
Willers’ chemo treatment consisted of five cycles, with each lasting 21 days. He said the best way for the doctors to combat the cancer was it hit it head on and hard, so hard that the much of his days were spent in clinics getting treatment.
“The first three days of the cycle is really hard and intensive,” he said. “You are in the clinic for 10 hours a day. You are just sitting there in the chemo room taking it all in for those three days.”
From that point, Willers would be given time off from treatment and then would go back in a while later for three more treatments each lasting seven hours.
“After that you are just waiting for your body to recover,” he said. “The three days are the worst ever and the following days are pretty crappy. You feel weak and you can’t really move.”
Willers took so much chemo during his treatments that it even changed his taste buds.
“You can almost taste the chemo,” he said. “It’s rough.”
With a lot of time to think during treatments, Willers said he had time to ponder the future and looked at the treatments as a battle in which he had to overcome.
Seeing the light ahead
“Knowing the treatments were only going to be four or five months of treatments, that really helped me to know there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “I had to keep working through them and knowing it was going to get better. That kept me motivated to keep fighting through it.”
Willers knew he would miss the 2016 football season. Prior to the diagnosis, head coach Michael Allen said he envisioned Willers as a starting corner for the Falcons.
“He went through a lot,” Allen said. “He put his nose to the grindstone and pushed through.”
Willers said playing sports helped him tackle his cancer treatment because he knew perseverance was key and he would be stronger for it in the end.
“I did miss my junior year (at football), but knowing I had my senior year to make it up helped me,” he said. “I had to keep pushing because I had another chance.”
The one thing Willers said he learned is what’s important in life and not taking things for granted.
“It was super eye-opening for me,” he said.
“Just thinking about how special something like Friday practice is. I mean it may seem like a regular Friday practice, but it is so much more. It is special just to put on the cleats and be able to run around.”
Willers made his mark earlier this summer as part of his comeback when he was named defensive MVP of the Cam Newton 7-on-7 tournament.
“He earned that,” Allen said. “Just to watch him workout in the weight room to come back was something. It was a struggle. He had to hit rock bottom. He is an A plus player. He is a great leader.”
For Willers’ every day is a new experience.
“It’s remarkable,” he said.
“I don’t take anything for granted. I am just out here working hard every day. I’m just grateful for the opportunity I get. Cancer is no joke. When you are put into that category, not everything happens the way you want it too and to be back out here on the field is a blessing.”
Willers said he is looking at majoring in business marketing in college and would like to possibly go to Coastal Carolina University after graduation. He said he doesn’t plan on playing football in college, so his senior year with the Falcons is like so many others football players, whose careers come to an end after they graduate.
“This is it right here,” he said. “I am going all out for it.”
Mac Banks: firstname.lastname@example.org, @MacBanksFM