The Way Back to Syracuse


I woke up one Sunday last March with a swollen testicle. That’s it. There were no clues leading up to it. Nothing out of the ordinary. I know the first thing that everyone thinks is that I should’ve done a better job with the self-inspection, but that’s not what this is. Let’s get that out of the way.

Everything felt fine when I went to sleep, and did not feel fine when I woke up.

I figured maybe I did something while I was working out, but I honestly didn’t think much of it at first. I just knew something was a little off. I figured better safe than sorry, but since I had school and practice the next day, instead of seeing my doctor I decided to go to the walk-in express clinic. Doctors there immediately told me that I needed to go to the hospital for an ultrasound.

Since I still wasn’t sure what was happening, I decided not to call anybody yet. The doctor at the clinic said it could be any number of things — an abscess, an infection, cancer. It seemed better to wait it out than prematurely scare my parents.

It’s definitely not cancer is what I kept telling myself. If there was one thing I was sure of, it was that I didn’t have cancer. Not a chance. I didn’t feel sick. I was a healthy young quarterback, heading into the Spring of my freshman year and ready for my opportunity to break out and contribute. I waited in the doctor’s office after the ultrasound, and every minute that went by made me a little less sure of myself. If it wasn’t serious, why didn’t they just give me an ultrasound at the clinic?

Why was he so insistent that I go immediately?

Why is this doctor taking so long?

It’s definitely not cancer is what I kept telling myself.

When he finally walked into the room I felt like I’d played out every possible scenario in my head. I had already psyched myself up to the point of thinking that even if it was cancer, it didn’t matter. Cancer wouldn’t be a problem. I was going to come out on top.

It didn’t really help when he actually gave me the news. I was devastated.

I cried when I told my family.

I was by far the youngest person in the infusion cancer center. The treatments started on a Monday morning, a quick 30-minute surgery during which a nurse installed a PICC line into my heart for easy delivery of the chemotherapy drugs. Then my mom and I went go upstairs, and I sat in a big reclining chair while a different nurse — my assigned personal care nurse for the day — hooked me up to an IV and pumped me full of fluids. It took around six hours total, alternating between fluids, medicine and recovery. All the while there were nurses walking around offering me food, making sure I was hydrated or giving out buckets to throw up into.

Six hours, every day, Monday through Friday. Then after they take the PICC line out of your arm on Friday afternoon, there’s a two-week recovery process. Then you repeat the exact procedure again, only the PICC line is in the other arm.

By the time that first course of treatment ended on Friday, I was so cranky and feeble that’s it’s hard to really describe. I was beaten in a way that I’d never felt in football or anything else. Tuned out mentally. Physically depleted. Pale and tired. I told my friends to visit me at home and limited my cancer center support team to immediate family. I didn’t want everyone to see me like that.

As an athlete, I wanted to have this mentality that I was prepared the way I’d prepare for a game — ready to take on the challenge, come out victorious against my opponent, be ready for anything. My dad played in the NFL. I started lifting weights with him in eighth grade, and I’d been competing in sports for as long as I can remember.

Culpepper Family

But there’s nothing you can really do to prepare for chemo, because chemo is not really like football or sports at all. It’s just a fact that chemo is going to beat you down and make you feel like garbage. Nobody wins or loses, everybody who gets chemo goes home feeling horrible. It takes a lot of different things to get through it.

I 100% would not have made it without the support from my family. My mom didn’t miss a single one of my treatments. My dad, brother and sister made me so grateful to have a family that really cared about me. All of my friends and extended family, too. I thought about all of them when I was home trying to get my strength back.

And of course there was Syracuse.

Coach Babers said I wasn’t going to play in the spring game. That’s what he said to me, to the media and everybody else when they asked him. I didn’t come in with any expectation to play, either. It was only the second weekend after my first round of chemo. At times I felt completely drained.

But also I felt great. About as good as I could possibly feel, all things considered. I was genuinely happy about seeing my teammates. As soon as I’d been diagnosed, I’d flown home to Tampa without saying any real goodbye to the team. Then all of a sudden — in the thick of treatment — I was back. I was bald and sore and at different times I certainly felt fatigued, but I was somehow with the team again as if I’d never left. I had my pads on, the sun was shining — it was almost perfect.

Cancer really does change your perception of everything instantly. One day you’re upset that you’re not getting quite enough reps with the first team in practice or that your helmet is a little too tight. Then you get cancer and it’s like, Man, it’s amazing to be able to walk on grass again. I forgot what that felt like. Soft.

It was so nice seeing my family in the stands, getting to throw during warm-ups, being embraced by everybody on the team. Coach saying I wasn’t going to play didn’t put a damper on my excitement at all.

Culpepper Family

I still had three more rounds — nine more weeks — of chemo left. But for those few hours after kickoff I wasn’t going to be thinking about that. I was back where I belonged, and I was going to enjoy every second of it while I was out there. I was going to try and remember every little detail of the game, whether I got on the field or not, because for the next few months I knew I’d probably need all the positive thoughts I could get.

So you can imagine how I felt when I got in.

I know I said I felt run down, but when I ran into the huddle on the last drive and heard everybody cheering for me, I knew it was a moment that I’d hold onto forever. Whatever was about to come my way the next few months — that moment, even more than the touchdown I threw at the end of the game, was going to help me power through it. I have never felt more loved in my life.

Afterwards I felt rejuvenated. Cancer wasn’t going to stop me. And the best part about that game is that it was really only the beginning. I was already preparing for when I’d be back.

There’s a bell by the front door of every infusion center. Patients ring it when they finish their final round of chemo. I didn’t think about it much it the first day, or even the first week. But by the start of the second round, I started to notice it a little more, even when it wasn’t ringing.

After the second round ended, I thought about that bell during my recovery weeks. The exact pitch of the ring was imprinted in my brain. By the third round the bell was everything — it consumed most of my thoughts. It started consuming my family’s thoughts, too. It was something we frequently talked about. They wanted me to ring the bell, and I wanted to ring that bell harder than it had ever been rung before. It was going to feel so good to get my hands on that rope and let it rip.

I didn’t end up doing that. I just rung it regular. My family was there with me, and it was an incredibly emotional experience.

I really do wish there was something I could say — some universal tip I could give to anybody who has just started or just been told that they’ll need to go through chemotherapy, or radiation or some similarly grueling process. It’s very hard, and everybody deserves credit for the different ways they deal with something so difficult. I was lucky enough to have a ton of support from my family, my friends, my school …

And that damn bell. By the final week of treatment I didn’t even want to ring it anymore — I wanted to rip it off the wall and smash it with a hammer.

I am so grateful to be able to tell the world that I am better. I’m still pretty bald and have a big scar on my stomach, but I’m cured. Not in remission, no monthly check up — I’m still using a lot of hand sanitizer and eating all my meat well done at the moment — but I’m cancer-free.

It seems like time has moved so slowly the past four months. At times it was harder than anything else I’ve faced in my life, but even when things were at their worst, there was never a doubt in my mind that I’d eventually get back here one day, and I will take nothing for granted going forward.

Syracuse University

I don’t want to make it seem like I won the “fight”. This was hard, but it wasn’t a fight or a competition. It’s a sickness. It took a huge toll on me, my family, my friends — the people who don’t survive cancer are no less brave than the people who make it. They’re not worse fighters. They simply might not be as lucky. I made it with a lot of help.

And for me, the cancer may be gone, and the chemo may be over, but the real fight is just beginning.

Now it’s football season.

And I’m just getting started.