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Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Updated: May 19, 1:35 PM ET
Hold for Coach Belichick

By Rick Reilly
ESPN.com

Marcus Cannon is a lucky guy. Fish practically jump in his boat. He weighs more than many pianos but dances like Michael Jackson. And, best of all, doctors discovered he had cancer less than two weeks before the NFL draft.

How is cancer lucky?

Here's how:

When the 6-foot-5, 358-pound Cannon was a 15-year-old in Odessa, Texas, he found a lump on one side of his lower abdomen. The doctors said it was just an infection and not to worry about it.

When he was a redshirt sophomore at TCU, the lump grew. Doctors performed a needle biopsy, said it was benign and told him not to worry about it.

This April, when Cannon went to the NFL combine as a potential first-round draft pick -- the Chicago Bears were said to want him with the 29th pick -- the Indianapolis Colts head trainer, according to Marcus, heard about the lump and requested another biopsy, just to be sure.

So, Cannon went to the doctors and said, "Do whatever you have to do to prove to them I'm fine. I want to crush all the fears they have."

Not much scares a guy who can squat 800 pounds, but this poleaxed Cannon. He climbed in his black Toyota truck and just drove. He cried. He panicked. He freaked.

This time, they did a full biopsy, and what they found crushed Cannon instead -- non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the kind that killed Roger Maris and Jackie Kennedy Onassis and kills 1,300 Americans a year.

Not much scares a guy who can squat 800 pounds, but this poleaxed Cannon. He climbed in his black Toyota truck and just drove. He cried. He panicked. He freaked.

The biggest prankster on the TCU team? The guy who disguises his phone voice to tell friends they've just won Lotto? The guy who never stops laughing … had stopped? Was this the end of his football career? What NFL team would possibly draft him now?

Forget all that, would he live?

"I really didn't think any team would take me now," Cannon recalls.

He drove to his parents' house in Odessa, where his truck-driver father said something Marcus had never heard him say before:

"You need to pray."

The first day of the draft, Cannon couldn't bear to watch. "It's like a firecracker you know is going to blow," he says. "Why hold it in your hand?" Besides, he had to go to his first chemotherapy treatment that day.

"We went fishing that next day," says Cannon's roommate and teammate, safety Colin Jones. "He had to leave. He just wasn't feeling good at all."

But the day after that, home alone, his phone showed him something that made him feel much better: an "unavailable" number. On the other end, a mystery voice said: "Marcus, the New England Patriots want to congratulate you and welcome you to the family. Now hold for Coach Belichick."

He'd been taken in the fifth round, the 138th pick overall. He had fallen probably 100 choices. The cancer had cost him millions. And he felt like dancing an Irish jig.

"Really, the combine maybe saved my life," Cannon says. "It was a pure blessing. They found the cancer in time. If it weren't for the combine thing, I wouldn't have gotten [the biopsy]. It might have been a year or more before we found it. Maybe two or three years. That might've been too late."

But what kind of whacked NFL coach would draft a player with cancer? A certified genius with a hidden heart, that's who.

"We all understand what the situation is," Bill Belichick said after taking a risk on Cannon, whose 27-inch thighs are nearly cannons themselves. "How will it all work out? … We'll all have to find out."

It might just turn out sweet for everybody but the teams who passed on Cannon. He was ranked by many as a top-10 lineman. Instead, he was taken as the 22nd.

"That's a steal," Jones says. "Marcus is great."

He's a mountain who can play any spot on the line but center. He has magic feet and a refrigerator chest. And even though the Patriots didn't take him with any hope that he would play in 2011, Cannon just might. He has had only that one day of chemo sickness, hasn't lost any weight and hasn't lost any hair. He says the lump that used to feel about the size of a baseball before the chemo now feels like a marble.

"I have faith I can do anything," Cannon will tell you. "If God wants me to play this season, I'll play this season."

And how does it feel to go through a paint shaker of emotions in one two-week period -- from having a killer combine to finding out you have a potentially deadly cancer to finding out one of the greatest NFL coaches in history is not only sure you're going to live a long time but wants you to live it with him?

"Awesome, dude. There's a reason this happened. I can almost see through the tunnel now. I can see the plan God had for me. Just from all the Facebook messages I'm getting, the Twitter messages, people talking about how they went through it. Their kids. Their babies. I hope I can be a role model for people, for how to get through it … I feel lucky."

And to think it all started with the Indianapolis Colts.

Hey, wait. Isn't their logo a horseshoe?


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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "SportsCenter" and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.


Feel like taking a detour from sane sports? Try Rick's new book, "Sports from Hell."