The home-cooked meals are a must-have for the family when they visit Nall, a junior defensive end for the Knights and arguably the best comeback story in all of college football. And there’s another item the family always has to bring from home when on campus at UCF: a box of tissues.
“Every time we see him run out on the field, there are tears of joy for us,” Alexander said as his voice started cracking with emotion.
Nall’s story has been told several times over the past two years, but it certainly bears repeating now considering his resurgence back to the levels he was at before cancer attacked his body and briefly derailed his promising football career.
Two years after having a malignant, baseball-sized tumor and part of his right lung removed, Nall leads UCF with 7.5 sacks and he’s become almost an unblockable force along the defensive line. In consecutive weeks the 6-foot-3, 246-pounder from Douglasville, Ga. has earned a Conference USA Defensive Player of the Week award and last Saturday he dropped East Carolina quarterback Dominique Davis with a phenomenal effort. When paired with standout Bruce Miller, the two ends give the Knights a dominant defensive line.
For Nall, it’s a dramatic improvement from last season when he was back on the football field, but wasn’t all the way back to his normal strength, quickness and explosion. He spent time over the summer watching films of the 2007 season, one where he was named to the C-USA All-Freshman team, and he feels that he’s finally back to those levels now.
“It was tough coming back last year and not feeling the same as before. I just kept wondering, `Man, when am I going to get back to where I used to be?”’ Nall said. “That was the hardest thing, wondering that. But deep down, I knew it would come back and I feel like now that it’s coming back. I’m still not all the way to 100 percent, but I’m way better than I was last year.”
Nall regularly had conversations with Alexander and Wanda Willis — some of them even tearful — over his frustration because of his lagging stamina and missing power. He registered four sacks and 12 tackles last season, but Nall wanted more and wanted it right away. Teenagers have that way of sometimes feeling invincible, and his mother and father had to remind him that the recovery from cancer, major surgery and radiation would be a lifelong ordeal and not one confined to just one offseason.
“He used to tell us all the time that he wasn’t back and I’d have to tell him when you have surgery you don’t always feel 100 percent right away and it takes time for your body to heal from the trauma,” Wanda said. “I just told him to keep working because he’s young and he’d make it back.
“Seeing him so healthy and playing well now, it’s like a burden off of us. I can’t believe what happened happened because when you look at him now it’s like it never happened,” Wanda continued. “I feel so blessed and overjoyed because my son is out there running around and playing and having a good time.”
UCF head coach George O’Leary and defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable were two of the first ones to see that things would be different this season for Nall. As far back as last spring following an offseason of weight-training, O’Leary witnessed Nall’s explosive first step returning. And Huxtable predicted in the days before the season-opening win against South Dakota that Nall was about to have a monster season for the Knights.
“I see him back to where I saw him his freshman year,” O’Leary said. “I see him running a lot better and sustaining plays a lot better. I’m sure that’s what he’s talking about when he says that he’s all the way back now. He’s playing much better.”
But there was a time when the forecast wasn’t quite so encouraging for Nall. In the summer of 2008, Nall began experiencing sharp pains in his chest and shortness of breath. Nall was initially resistant to report his health concerns, but Wanda ultimately talked him into going to seeing Football Athletic Trainer Mary Vander Heiden.
Two MRI scans later, it was determined that Nall had a mass located near his lung. The family was initially told there was a 20 percent chance that the tumor was cancerous. But ultimately the family’s fears were confirmed.
“Of course, it was (cancerous), so that was a blow for us. But we had to be strong for our son. He didn’t see us break down, which I think helped keep him strong,” Wanda Willis said. “It came as such a surprise. We thought he was a healthy 19-year-old because I always took him for physicals and to the doctor and nothing was ever wrong. When Mary called me, I was wondering if they had the right kid. There was never any inkling that anything was wrong.”
Darius noted that “teenagers aren’t supposed to hear words like `cancer’ and `tumors,”’ but he ultimately recovered from a surgery where doctors cut him from his sternum to his spine under his arm. He underwent six weeks of radiation treatment, missed all of the 2008 season. And after mixed reviews in 2009 and fighting to rebuild his strength and stamina, he is back to being a dominant defensive lineman for the Knights.
And tears of sadness that once flowed upon hearing of the cancer diagnosis have turned to unadulterated tears of joy now each time Nall drops a quarterback for Alexander and Wanda Willis. Darius usually makes it a point to try and find them in the crowd at games to gauge their reaction to one of his big plays. And whether they are in the stands at Bright House Networks Stadium or at home watching on TV, the box of tissues is never too far away.
“It gives us so much joy seeing him back out there. What happened was so unexpected, but we feel so blessed that he’s back now,” Alexander said. “I’m in awe about the whole thing, but I think he’s just beginning, really. He’s still got a ways to go and I think he’ll get there with the way that he works.”
Source: John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.