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Return man

Cancer doesn’t stop Patriots’ Cannon

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / October 29, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - There were small things that Marcus Cannon could appreciate: putting on a uniform for the first time since the Rose Bowl, laughing with other offensive linemen when Donald Thomas put a rubber tarantula in veteran Brian Waters’s helmet, finally taking the field with the team that took a chance on him.

Last April, Cannon was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, right in the thick of the draft process, putting his future on and off the field in limbo. The Patriots used their fifth-round pick on him, knowing the circumstances and betting he’d overcome them.

This week, Cannon practiced with the Patriots for the first time, and even though there are still questions - by removing him from the non-football injury list, the team has three weeks to decide whether to add him to the 53-man roster or place him on injured reserve - simply being a part of the team was a milestone.

“It was awesome, finally getting to play with the team,’’ Cannon said. “I’ve been interacting with the guys, and it’s finally nice to get on, move around a little bit, and have fun a little bit.’’

After undergoing chemotherapy he is now in remission. He’s had the support of everyone in the organization as he’s worked his way back.

“Everybody in here is awesome,’’ Cannon said. “Everybody in here has been real supportive. The offensive line’s been helping me get into it. I love this team. Everybody’s great, everybody’s real supportive.’’

The toughest part of the recovery, he said, was getting on a plane every three weeks for treatment in Texas. But coach Bill Belichick admired the fact that Cannon did it with strength rather than despair.

“I think Marcus has handled it with great maturity,’’ Belichick said of the 23-year-old. “He’s a very focused individual that met the challenge head on and never looked for any sympathy or any ‘woe is me’ type of syndrome. He did what he had to do. He attacked it head on. And it looks like he’s done very well with it. So I think he’s earned a lot of respect and admiration from everyone in the organization, certainly myself.’’

The most difficult times for Cannon were when he was diagnosed and when he told his parents. But the treatment process, he said, went smoothly, allowing him to go about his work with some normalcy.

“I was really blessed not to have so many side effects of the chemo and I wasn’t really down,’’ Cannon said. “So I got to do a lot of stuff. Some stuff I couldn’t do, but it was pretty good.’’

He’s done as much training as has been allowed, conditioning, lifting weights, and running.

When he was at Texas Christian University, he played at 370 pounds. He weighed in at 358 pounds at the NFL Combine, the heaviest player the Patriots had ever drafted. He’s down to 348.

“He’s had some limitations, but he’s done what he can do, I’ll say that,’’ Belichick said. “Whatever he has been cleared to do, he’s done. Of course, this is the first week he could work out on the field and do anything. But as far as conditioning, running, lifting, and those kinds of things, the things he was able to do, he worked at and he did.’’

When Belichick was an assistant coach with the Giants, three players on the team battled cancer: Dan Lloyd, a special teams menace; John Tuggle, a running back who was taken with the last pick in the 1983 draft and worked to become the starting fullback; and Karl Nelson, an offensive tackle who was on the team that won Super Bowl XXI.

Tuggle played just one season and died in his sleep while undergoing treatment. Lloyd coped with the disease throughout his four-year career. Nelson missed the 1987 season battling Hodgkin’s disease.

“Some guys did well, some guys were able to come back, some guys unfortunately weren’t,’’ Belichick said.

Patriots players are conscious of Cannon’s fight, amazed by his resilience but also respectful of his privacy.

“There’s a lot of support from the guys here,’’ said Deion Branch. “It’s a very touchy subject, sensitive topic.

“It just speaks volumes on the individual he is and the things he’s been through in his lifetime. We’re all very blessed individuals, but you can see he’s a special case.’’

Waters added, “Marcus’s situation, honestly, it’s tough for guys like us to talk about because it’s such a private situation. It’s a personal situation, it’s something that he has to deal with on a daily basis. I would never understand everything that he has to deal with.

“All I know is that I’m very grateful and appreciative of his hard work since he’s been on the football field. And really, I’m just like everybody else, I can’t wait to see what type of football player he turns out to be.’’

Cannon has received well wishes in the form of tweets, letters, and texts, including one from former Boston College linebacker and current Giant Mark Herzlich, who in 2009 was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.

“God has a plan for everybody,’’ Cannon said. “I just let him work his plan.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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