When Decolia Monroe first broke the news to her son Derrick Nash of his acute lymphoblastic leukemia diagnosis on May 3, the Saginaw native shut down.
Nash’s mind began to race with fears of missing his senior prom and high school graduation, in addition to losing his Division I football scholarship to Central Michigan University.
What was even more terrifying was hearing his illness might be fatal, five days after celebrating his 18th birthday.
Three weeks later, Nash is out of the hospital, was able to celebrate his graduation and has begun his journey back to the turf.
“It’s crazy how fast the recovery has been,” Nash said Saturday. “First they said I’d need two years of chemotherapy, then six months, and, now, Tuesday is my last chemo for first treatment. I was supposed to be in the hospital for a month or two, and I’m home with one more day of chemo before another bone marrow biopsy.”
Monroe said doctors told her that her son’s recovery was ahead of schedule after two and a half weeks of chemotherapy treatment.
“They told him that he was recovering faster than any patient they’d seen, and they were stunned,” Monroe said. “After the first week of treatment, none of the cells kept growing and they disappeared completely.”
Nash was originally tested for mono and the flu on May 3 when he visited the emergency room at St. Mary’s of Michigan in Saginaw. What his blood work showed was an increase in white blood cells and a platelet deficiency.
A patient with ALL has an overproduction of white blood cells in the bone marrow, which can spread to other organs if gone untreated.
Doctors quickly sent Nash to the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center in Ann Arbor, where he learned he would recover and be able to play football again, though it would take time.
The future CMU running back plans to use a medical redshirt to sit out this season and prepare to play in 2014.
After the initial fear and negativity passed, Nash’s close friend and CMU sprinter Shawntoreah Turk said he took an optimistic approach to his cancer.
“After everything he’s been through, he always finds one blessing to get him through the day,” she said. “When he started losing his hair, he made a joke about not having to brush his hair anymore. He’s always looking on the bright side.”
Nash credits the support and positive responses he has received from friends, family and his future CMU teammates for helping speed up his recovery.
“Since I had cancer, I thought CMU would give up on me … I lost a lot of confidence,” he said. “But, everybody called me and said, ‘We can’t wait until you get here,’ and, ‘We can’t wait to see you play.’”
CMU head football coach Dan Enos said maintaining Nash’s scholarship was a no-brainer and said he looks forward to the day Nash runs out of the tunnel at Kelly/Shorts Stadium in his maroon and gold jersey.
“When you’re in a family and people hit adversity, you don’t run away from them,” Enos said. “You do what you can to support them, and that’s what we’re going to do. Every once in a while God throws you a curveball, and you’ve got to work through the adversity.”
Enos and other members of the football team have been in constant contact with Nash, providing him with words of encouragement throughout his recovery.
Although peer optimism can be contagious, Monroe said her son wouldn’t allow anyone to have negative energy around him.
“He wanted everyone happy and upbeat,” Monroe said. “I couldn’t talk negative. He told me to stop if I said it might take a while. If you were tearful, he’d ask you to not come (visit). He kept saying, ‘I’ll be fine. I’m going to beat this.’”
Nash surprised his senior class Thursday when he walked across the stage and received his diploma at Carrollton High School, despite doctors saying he would probably be too weak.
He didn’t even tell Turk.
“Nobody in the gym knew, and everybody was taken by surprise,” Turk said. “He had two ladies walking down the aisle with him; walking like the man – typical Derrick. I’ve never heard the gym any louder than it was, everybody was cheering.”
Nash attended the Central Michigan football game against Michigan State on Sept. 8. During his visit, he met players and coaches and got a feel for the campus.
Turk and fellow Carrollton graduate and CMU athlete Calvin Jackson had often talked up CMU, and Nash said he found all the positive aspects of campus he had heard to be true.
As the only running back in his recruiting class, Nash said he felt great about his opportunity to play for the Chippewas in the future.
“I talked to a lot of players, making me feel like a part of the ‘Chip family,’ and I talked to the coaches,” he said. “(Being the only running back recruit) made me feel like I didn’t have much to worry about coming in. I’ll just have to learn from the ones that are already there, to help the team.”
Senior running back Zurlon Tipton was quick to form a friendship with Nash, who he said would fit in well with the CMU running back group.
“I met Derrick during the school year. He was always the kid on the sideline saying ‘hey’,” Tipton said. “We got real cool, and he came up and spent some time and we became best friends. Now we talk about every other day.”
Though Tipton is relieved and happy for his friend’s recovery process, he said he has told Nash not to rush getting back due to the severity of the disease.
Nash expects competition between the running back group, but considers it a healthy relationship and said he looks forward to learning from the veterans.
“I’m excited, and I know Zurlon knows a lot and can teach me some ins and outs,” he said. “Anything they’re willing to teach me, I’m willing to learn.”
Nash signed his letter of intent on Feb. 6 and will attend CMU in the fall 2013.
While he plans to study sports medicine and kinesiology, following his mother and sister into the medical field, he said he wants to stay close to sports when he’s done playing.
Love of the game
Football was not Nash’s sport of choice growing up.
Although he began playing flag football in fifth grade, Nash said he was a basketball player.
“When I came to Carrollton in ninth grade, I played basketball, but (assistant) coach (Nate Wotta) wanted to turn me into a football player, and it’s been my favorite sport since.”
As a freshman, Nash stood on the sideline and watched his team play, chomping at the bit to get his chance. He earned a varsity spot his sophomore year as a cornerback and fullback.
“Basically, I was the random guy they used to beat up on the field,” he said.
Perseverance paid off for Nash during his junior year when he was moved to halfback. By his senior year, he led the state in rushing (1,967 yards) and touchdowns (28) – both school records.
“Derrick has great vision and great speed,” Enos said. “He’s the guy who came in and showed great explosiveness and great ball skills. We saw a lot of great qualities in Derrick, as a back and a person; he’s the entire package.”
The three-year letter winner was ranked No. 43 on the Detroit Free Press Fab 50 and No. 57 on the Detroit News Blue Chip List. He was also named Saginaw News Offensive Player of the Year.
In addition to his football honors, Nash earned first team all-conference honors for track and field in the 100 meter his senior year. Academically, he graduated with a 3.56 GPA and as a member of the National Honor Society.