Merril Hoge reflects on his battle

ESPN analyst Merril Hoge can still picture Jim Valvano on stage at the 1993 ESPYS. The coaching icon's legendary speech, both haunting and beautiful, gave struggle a voice -- one that urged people never to surrender their hope. His courage in the face of cancer was and still is unforgettable. But Hoge also remembers feeling fortunate, grateful he would never have to deal with such an unstoppable killer.

Hoge was healthy. It didn't run in his family. It would never get to him.

Until it did.

The pain started back in 2002. When Hoge ducked his head under the stream of water in his shower, he felt a sharp sting near the middle of his back. One X-ray and an MRI later, Hoge's doctor was scheduling an appointment with a specialist. They used the word "lymphoma," but it never quite registered that it was anything more than a pinched nerve until he pulled up to the Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh.

Hoge had a 3-pound tumor in his lower back. Although it would take days to run tests on his cell type, the doctors warned him that it looked like cancer.

"It's very hard to describe how empty and dark those words are," Hoge said. "Chemotherapy and dying consumed me. Not attacking it and beating it and living my life."

When the oncologist confirmed that it was non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, he told Hoge that he would be sick, tired and hairless. His cancer was fast-growing, and they wanted to hit it hard. With details of his treatment swirling around in his head, he stopped and thought about his kids -- Beau was 7 at the time, Kori 9. How would he tell them?

Dad might be on the couch more. Dad might lose his hair.

"I lost my mom when I was young, and I know the sting of death. When I had kids, I could see that other side. … That fear of leaving them is almost indescribable," Hoge said.

As he finished the hardest speech of his life, his little girl walked across the room and jumped into his lap.

"Daddy," she said. "You're just gonna have to find a way."

"Find a way" had been Hoge's life mantra since he was a boy -- a three-letter phrase he'd kept pinned to a corkboard above his childhood bed.

"The second she said that, I could feel my body change. Dying wasn't even close to being an option," Hoge said. "I wasn't going to lie around and be sick. I was going to prepare [to report from] the draft, I was going to play in my pickup basketball league, I was going to live life."

Living life in spite of adversity wasn't new to Hoge.

As a young boy growing up in Idaho, he pulverized his hand in a farm accident. Ten hours of surgery and 120 stitches later, he vowed to devote himself to the game he nearly lost the ability to play -- football.

But big-time football wasn't meant for a small player with mediocre speed. Or so he was told.

Hoge played eight seasons as an NFL running back, seven of them with the Steelers, before his lifelong dream was severed by a cruel consequence of the game. A hard blow to the head, the second one of his 1994 season with the Chicago Bears, left Hoge in intensive care for two days. The concussions forced him into early retirement, but they also threatened his mental health. Things that once came easily to him -- reading and navigating streets -- were now daily struggles.

Determined to find a sense of purpose after losing his identity as a player, Hoge pursued opportunities in broadcasting. The early days of his new career were littered with hardships, but no teleprompter could prepare him for a seven-month, one-on-one interview with cancer.

When you're an on-air personality getting intensive chemotherapy, exhaustive coverage only begins to explain ESPN's approach to the NFL draft. Not wanting to show his bald head on national television back in 2003, Hoge made a plan to wear the team hat of whichever organization was on the clock. But the night before, a producer pulled him aside.

"'What are you scared of, Merril? What are you hiding?' he said to me. 'You're not the only one going through this.'"

Hoge knew he was right. He covered the live, two-day event without covering his head. Years later, he still hears from people who tell him his presence during that draft was instrumental in their own battle with the disease.

"It means so much to me," Hoge said. "Even if just that one thing impacts one person like that, it's worth it. And that goes back to Jimmy V. That's why his speech holds the test of time."

Hoge is now cancer-free, but he still dips into a reservoir of emotions and perspective when looking back on his fight. When Valvano lost his battle with bone cancer in 1993, there were few effective treatments for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Ten years later, Hoge was able to receive a targeted therapy drug and aggressive treatment options -- avenues of hope made possible by organizations like the V Foundation.

"Hope isn't always an easy thing. It wasn't until my daughter challenged me that I flipped a switch in my mind," Hoge said. "You can either let yourself go with fears, with the things that might happen. Or you can go down the road of things you want to have happen and are going to make happen."

Jimmy V still reminds all of us to never give up the fight. The next step? Find a way.

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