Parked between teammates past the south end zone of the Nicholson Field House, Darius Nall is right where he wants to be.
Surrounded by some of his fellow defensive colleagues, the redshirt sophomore linebacker is cracking jokes and sharing a few laughs, something he likes to do regularly when on the football field.
He cracks a smile. It’s one of those jovial, ear-to-ear grins that only Nall himself is known for. It’s a smile that, for almost the past year, was non-existent in his life.
After a successful freshman season in 2007, Nall began to feel pain in his chest in June. He then went to see head trainer Mary Vander Heiden, and they began running numerous tests to see what was wrong with him, including an electrocardiogram and different stress tests, because the area was close to his heart.
It was worse than that. They then took Nall for an MRI, and it was found that he had a tumor the size of a baseball in his lung.
It was cancerous.
“I never did like the training room, but that morning I just kept feeling chest pains and I was like, ‘I’m just going to sleep it out, it’s probably a heart burn or whatever,’” Nall said. “Then when I took deep breaths, it started hurting—like a sharp pain in my chest—so I decided I had to go to the training room.
“The pain went away in three days. But we kept going through tests to make sure what it was, and they found out what it was…but when that test came in saying that I had a mass in my chest…it was a shock.
“There were a lot of shocks. It was like [one shock after the other], until that big word came out—cancer.”
The 20-year-old didn’t really know what to expect. He wasn’t really sure what to make of being diagnosed.
“When I first heard that word, I wasn’t really like sure [how to feel],” Nall said. “I was kind of like, ‘Are they serious?’ Because you are [young] and you’re not expecting that. I was like, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’
“I cried a little bit, but then I called my mom and told her, and she [told me] to let God take over.”
Nall’s mother, Wanda Willis, works in a hospital. She’s been around and seen how cancer can affect the lives of people. When Vander Heiden phoned her about the size of her son’s tumor, she couldn’t believe it, but she swore to stay strong and positive in front of her son.
“I was at work when they told me [about the tumor],” Willis said. “I really was speechless…so the first thing I did was get on the phone with my husband, and he was startled.
Everybody was shocked, and I tried to stay together with it, but I couldn’t really believe it at first.”
After he began taking more tests and eventually flying out to his hometown near Atlanta, Nall began realizing how serious it was. He saw what he loved so much—the game of football—slipping out of his grasp. Death eventually surfaced in his thoughts.
“The first thing [that ran through my mind] was, ‘Am I going to be able to play this year?’ ” Nall said. “Then it was the point of maybe dying came into my head. I just stuck with it.
“I was so scared though. I am not going to lie.”
His mother, on the other hand, always knew her son would be OK. She knew it wasn’t Nall’s time to pass away.
“I will tell you the truth: No, I really didn’t think like that,” Willis said. “I stayed positive, and I kept my son positive.
“I did not think like that, period…I just said, ‘Well it’s God’s will, and if it’s meant for Darius to be here and do God’s work, he will be here.’ ”
Now back at home, it was the time for Nall to go through surgery. That included numerous doctors’ visits to examine the tumor and eventually remove it. About four surgeries later, the cancer was finally removed, but so was Nall’s infectious smile. The stress and pain from the process was finally starting to get to him.
“I think I had like four surgeries, and each of them was the same process,” he said. “The last one I had, which was the one to really take [the cancer out], after I woke up I was in so much pain. I didn’t want to be around anyone.”
Nall got continuous support from his loved ones. From family members all the way to head football coach George O’Leary, the support and encouragement was endless.
“All I kept saying is, ‘Hey, just right now keep your head up, we are getting the best treatment that we can get you,’ ” O’Leary said. “At times he got down in the dumps in what he had to go through, and we just kept his spirits up.”
The surgeries were over. Now came the healing. Nall spent weeks in rehabilitation, including being put on an oxygen tank to help his breathing.
He began walking on a treadmill, trying to regain his strength and endurance. After three weeks of being provided oxygen everywhere he went, Nall decided he didn’t need the help any longer.
“He was breathing on the oxygen tank for a couple of weeks,” Willis said. “They told us that wherever we go to take it with us, so I made sure he always had it. Then one day he came downstairs, and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ because it scared me [when I didn’t see it].
“I asked him where the oxygen tank was, and he told me he didn’t need it.”
Now off the oxygen, it was time for Nall to get back to his other family—his teammates.
His mother thought the kind of healing he needed was being back with his team and stepping back onto the football field. He took a plane back to his second home in Orlando.
“I figured that was the best kind of healing medicine that he could get by being around his peers,” Willis said. “I thought that would help him heal quicker as opposed to being home and constantly thinking about it.”
His teammates and O’Leary were so happy to welcome him back to his Orlando family, but they had to be slow with him. Nall was so excited to be back. He couldn’t wait to put on a set of pads.
“He was one, when he came back, that he was so anxious to play and he wasn’t ready to play yet, and we knew that,” O’Leary said. “I was just so happy that he came back clean, and basically everything has worked out well for him, because he is a guy that couldn’t wait to get back on the field this year.”
Now, with the season less than a week away, Nall is back on the field.
Most importantly, his fun-loving personality and cheerful smile is wearing a black and gold uniform again.
After a long and tedious road to beating cancer, Nall’s mother is just happy to see a smile back on her son’s face.
“Let me tell you, it makes me happy [to see him smile],” Willis said. “Darius is a very playful, outgoing kind of kid. During the [surgery] times, he was trying to be okay but he was quiet, but once he was able to get back on that football field and play he talked more."