Fields caps return from Hodgkin's at Pro Bowl

KAPOLEI, Hawaii -- In Julius Peppers' mind, the Pro Bowl invitation capped what already had been an unbelievable season for one of his teammates.

"It was a good ending to the story. A good ending to the Mark Fields Story," said Peppers, grinning as he reflected on the linebacker's comeback.

Many words could be used to characterize Fields and his return to the Carolina Panthers following a one-year absence after being diagnosed with Hodgkins' disease in the summer of 2003. Wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad offered a few.

"It speaks a lot to his resiliency and work habits," said Muhammad, Fields' teammate and fellow Pro Bowler.

And Fields' season, which not only culminated in a Pro Bowl invite but also a second-place finish to Chargers quarterback Drew Brees for comeback player of the year, spoke to his perseverance and desire to continue his career.

"It's one of those things in life where you can fall by the wayside or you can keep at it and try to come back," said Fields, a 10-year veteran.

When both Fields and Panthers linebacker coach Sam Mills were diagnosed with cancer two years ago, Fields made it known he intended to play again. He missed the mini-camp sessions last offseason, but was ready to resume his career in late July.

"It was training camp where I knew it was going to happen, but I kind of knew all along once they told me what I had and once I went through chemotherapy," said Fields, who led the team with 103 tackles in 2002. "You just have to stay positive because that stuff is real depressing."

Yet, depressing, down or discouraged were far from the signs that Fields' teammates saw once he rejoined the team.

"Mark's a good guy to be around," Muhammad said. "He's funny, he's witty and he does a lot for the spirit of this team."

But it wasn't just a positive outlook and a high energy level that got Fields back on the playing field. He still possessed the ability to make plays.

In the opener against Green Bay, Fields was in on six tackles. He had three the following week against Kansas City, but then missed most of the next three games with a back injury. Unfortunately for Fields and the Panthers, injuries were the story of their season.

Carolina lost wide receiver Steve Smith in the opener. Then, the team eventually found itself without running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and several other prominent performers.

"We didn't just have injuries, but significant injuries to a lot of key players," said Fields, who finished the campaign with 62 tackles and four sacks. "We were proud that we overcame that and made a very strong push at the end."

By December, the Panthers had knocked on the door of earning a second straight postseason berth. After a 1-7 start, the Panthers won six of their next seven and could have clinched a playoff berth with a win over New Orleans in the season finale. But the Panthers lost 21-18, making them the fourth straight Super Bowl runner-up to miss the playoffs the next season.

Said Fields: "We were rolling. We truly believed if we would have made the playoffs, we would have made a difference."

But he was quick to put things in perspective.

"It was a Catch-22 for me. I was happy to come back and play. And not only play, but to start in the NFL," he said. "But on the other side, I was really disappointed with the way that we finished because we had it all in our hands."

But for Fields, it didn't come down to his hands. The resurrection of his career was borne in his head and his heart.

James C. Black is an NFL Editor for ESPN.com and may be reached at james.black@espn3.com.