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Weight lifted

Patriots’ Cannon calls on higher power in cancer fight

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / May 9, 2011

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FORT WORTH — The false sense of strength he felt, the trying to convince himself it was all no big deal, it all disappeared when Marcus Cannon hung up with his mother.

That’s when reality hit him full force.

He has cancer.

“I broke down after that,’’ said Cannon, an offensive tackle from Texas Christian University picked by the Patriots in the fifth round of this season’s draft. “I don’t know if it was more me, or telling somebody else, like thinking about what everybody else was going to feel. I just broke down after that.

“I got in my truck, started driving. I was crying. Hysterically. It was just fear — I didn’t know what was going on.’’

On April 20, just days after being told that the mass he’d undergone a biopsy for was benign and a little more than a week before he was drafted by an NFL team, Cannon was told he has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a treatable form of cancer found in lymph tissue.

The reversal of field stunned Cannon and his family.

“I was thinking they made a mistake. I was like, ‘Marcus don’t even catch colds, you know?’ ’’ Ebbie Cannon recalled of getting the diagnosis on his youngest son, the third of his and wife Holly’s four children. “When Holly first told me, I thought, ‘No, this is a mistake.’ It was just unbelievable. We started talking to the doctor and seeing that it wasn’t a mistake and it just started going to the point of how do we deal with it and go from there.’’

Holly’s feelings were much the same.

“Shocking,’’ she said. “Almost unbelievable, because I had talked to him the week before and also the doctor that he is seeing in Fort Worth after he had the biopsy told me that it looked like it was benign. So when I got that news the next week that it was lymphoma, it was . . . my head was like, ‘But it can’t be because I was told it was benign all these years,’ so it was kind of hard to deal with at first, hearing that news.’’

In 2006, around the time he entered TCU, Cannon told his parents about a mass in his midsection, near his beltline. Doctors initially believed it was an infection, and a needle biopsy determined it was benign.

But as Cannon has learned, a needle biopsy isn’t always the best way to evaluate such a growth; he likens it to putting a balloon in a haystack and then trying to hit the balloon with a needle.

The mass never went away. As he went through the extensive medical tests NFL teams demand during the predraft process, a few asked him to undergo another biopsy. Rather than another needle biopsy, Cannon elected to go the surgical route, believing everything would turn up negative, and that it would bring teams a measure of comfort that he had a clean bill of health.

That is not how things have played out. On April 28, the day he might have become a first-round draft pick (he was projected as a late-first to second-round pick by many), he walked into a Fort Worth hospital for the first of four chemotherapy treatments.

By that day, Cannon said he had fully accepted his fate and placed his health in God’s hands.

‘Hardest thing’ Telling his mother about his diagnosis is what finally brought Cannon to tears, but telling his father brought him to his knees.

Cannon heard the pain in Ebbie’s voice when they spoke on the phone that day, Marcus from the campus at TCU, where he was a two-time all-conference offensive tackle, and Ebbie in their hometown of Odessa, more than 300 miles to the west.

“That was probably the hardest thing,’’ Cannon said of the conversation with his father. “I was trying to be strong and then I just started crying while I was talking to my dad. My mom said, ‘You need to start praying,’ and then my dad told me to start praying. And that’s one thing that I really didn’t hear out of him growing up, was talking about God. He told me to start praying, and that got me to start praying.’’

The Cannons were raised in the church — when they were children, Ebbie and Holly’s families attended the same church, and it has been the same with their children. But growing up, Holly was the more spiritual parent to Lamar, E.J., Marcus, and Jasmine. Ebbie suggesting that he look to the Lord resonated with Marcus.

“I started praying and everything just started to turn out right,’’ Marcus said.

He hadn’t started treatment yet, wasn’t sure what would happen with football or his health, but Cannon started to find the peace he so desperately wanted that day he was in his black Toyota pickup, driving to nowhere, feeling sorry for himself.

“God wants us to ask for him, lean on him. I’ve always been Christian, I just think this new chapter in my life really just opened something different and opened my eyes and started showing me a lot of different things in this next stage,’’ Cannon said.

He admits that on the day he was told that he has cancer, he wasn’t nearly as strong as he is now.

Which is ironic, given that Marcus Cannon’s strength almost always has been what set him apart.

Brothers an influence There’s a tape one of his cousins has, of the three Cannon boys talking about what they want to be when they grow up. Marcus, around 8 at the time, says he wants to be a football player.

The family lived in Roswell, N.M., then, and the boys played basketball, soccer, and football, ran track, and did some power lifting. Marcus looked up to both of his brothers, particularly E.J., who was a year ahead of him in school.

Whatever they did, he wanted to do it better.

“The first time I noticed he was competitive with his brothers was when we went to Roswell High and watched one of the football practices and they were pulling the sled, so they wanted me to build them a sled,’’ Ebbie said last week from their home on the outskirts of Odessa. “So I built them one and they get out in the alley and dragged it back and forth and Marcus was competing with his brothers, just had to beat them.’’

Growing up, Marcus wasn’t any taller than kids his age. He did notice that he was stronger than them. Shortly after the family moved to Odessa, when Marcus was in eighth grade, he began growing, and by the time he arrived at TCU, he was 6 feet 5 inches and well over 300 pounds.

He only got stronger in college. Coaches stopped him at 750 pounds in the squat as a freshman, and head coach Gary Patterson believes he could do one 900-pound rep if challenged.

Cannon can lift 500 pounds in the flat bench press and incline bench. Not surprisingly, he holds a few TCU weight room records.

But for all that brute strength, Cannon is nimble enough to execute twisting, flipping dives at the college’s pool (there’s a short clip of him diving off a party barge on YouTube), something he and E.J. taught themselves to do one summer when they worked as lifeguards.

As a redshirt freshman, Cannon played in all of the Horned Frogs’ games, and he became the starting right tackle as a sophomore, which is also where he played as a junior. Last fall, he switched to left tackle, charged with protecting star quarterback Andy Dalton’s blind side.

Once a running back and receiver at the Pop Warner level — pre-growth spurt — Cannon was moved to the line in eighth grade and has come to love the spot.

“You have a big responsibility; it’s fun,’’ said Cannon, who turned 23 Friday. “It’s fun going against people who think they’re better than you, I guess that’s what I like most about it. You go against some of the best and the fastest. It’s a position of pride and that’s probably why I like it the most.

“We never get the glory but I know, and the person I’m going against knows, the team knows, the coaches know, they understand. They give us the glory. I love playing it.’’

As the draft approached, scouts saw a massive man with good footwork who could put his size to good use at guard in the NFL. About the only knock on Cannon was that he might be too nice during games.

“I don’t know if it’s ‘too nice,’ ’’ Patterson said from his office overlooking Amon Carter Stadium. “You just have a guy that’s very powerful, does all the things he needs to do. Some people are mean, but they don’t have the ability to be an NFL guy. In his case, he has all the ability to be all that, and a very good one. I think that’s a lot easier to change [adding a bit of nastiness to talent] than the other.’’

Cannon believes that he plays his technique as he was taught, and his teaching did not include just throwing opponents to the turf.

Prognosis good Cannon’s prognosis is very good; he is scheduled for three more chemo treatments, with the last scheduled for June 29. A memo given to all 32 NFL teams after his diagnosis put his chances of recovery at 90 percent.

But he seems hopeful that he won’t need all four rounds, happily noting that in the days since his first, the mass has gotten significantly smaller and “mushy.’’ The bone aches that nurses told him he’d experience a few days after that first treatment never came; neither did the nausea or any of the other side effects common to chemotherapy.

Holly Cannon looks to the bright side: teams’ extensive poking and prodding of prospects led to early detection of the lymphoma; had Marcus not undergone the biopsy when he did, maybe the cancer wouldn’t have been detected until it was further along.

The gentle giant, a piano-playing, prank-pulling, family-centered man, has been thrust into the spotlight because of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the sudden attention wears on him a bit, though Cannon said he wouldn’t mind if he became a role model, particularly if it means he can help someone else become closer to God by telling his story.

He knows there’s a chance he could lose some strength and body weight as the treatments wear on, but Cannon is focused on being on the field for the first day of training camp with the Patriots, who chose him 138th overall April 30. The family had gathered in Fort Worth, and celebrated as though Cannon had been chosen first overall when the phone call came from coach Bill Belichick.

Two days after her brother was drafted, Jasmine bought a bright blue Patriots lanyard to attach her keys to, and Ebbie and Holly already have looked at the team’s schedule to see which games they would be able to drive to.

Cannon was drafted about 100 or so spots lower than where he once might have been, but he won’t think about what could have been. He started to, once, thinking about how much money he missed out on thanks to a twist of fate, but he quickly put it out of his mind.

“You know, he has a plan. I’m not supposed to be thinking about stuff like that. I got close, I started thinking about it, and I was going to say something about it and something caught my tongue,’’ he said. “I had to ask God for forgiveness for even thinking it. He has his plan for me; that’s not even something I need to worry about.

“I’m doing exactly what I want to do. I know where I was supposed to go in the draft, and for me to look back on that is dwelling on the past. And what’s in the past is already gone; it’s only the future. I’m keeping my eyes forward.

“You know, this happened for a reason. We’ll see in the days to come why it happened and then we’ll look back and say good thing I didn’t care about when I went, but I’m not going to look back.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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