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Shon Coleman beating cancer to return to play is the real Auburn miracle this season

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

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Shon Coleman celebrates Auburn's SEC championship with his family. (Credit: De Keishia Turnstall)

Signing Day 2010 was coming, and it seemed the worst of Shon Coleman's problems was a nagging case of the flu. He was the best prep player in Mississippi, a hulking offensive lineman from Olive Branch who could have gone anywhere. A kid that strong could fight off a virus like it was just another weak pass rusher.

Then the illness lingered. Coleman grew lumps on his neck and head. "We thought it was an injury from a football game or maybe practice," says his mother, De Keishia Tunstall. "That's where it started. The first doctor thought it was the flu. He thought it was bruises. But the symptoms never got better."

Coleman chose Auburn and the lumps remained. He went to a plastic surgeon, who couldn't figure it out either. He performed a procedure to remove them, and told Tunstall the lumps were especially deep and thick. That's when she started to really worry about her boy.

Two weeks later, Tunstall got a call at work. The plastic surgeon told her to sit down. Shon did not have the flu. He did not have football injuries. He had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

"I was kind of shocked," Coleman told Yahoo Sports on Saturday, "wondering what would happen in the future. Worried about football."

He went to St. Jude's in nearby Memphis, where doctors were not worried about football as much as they were worried about saving a life. Coleman would need regular chemo treatments for two-and-a-half years. There would be no more football for a while, maybe for good.

Tunstall "cried many, many, many nights," but Coleman didn't shed a tear.

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Shon Coleman was one of the most sought-after recruits in the country in 2010.

"'Mom, why are you looking sad?' he told her. 'We're going to get over it.'"

Coleman delayed enrolling at Auburn until January of 2011. He had a port inserted into his chest. He planned to beat the cancer eventually, and be as good as ever on the football field.

Soon, though, he lost his hair and got woozy. There were days he couldn't keep his food down. He still worked out. Through everything, 30 months of treatment, he didn't even drop 10 pounds below his 300-pound playing weight.

On Oct. 25, 2012, his mom's birthday, Coleman had his final treatment. He made it.

"It was overwhelming," he said, "getting done with everything, getting done with the whole process."

But by then he had almost graduated. He hadn't played a down in nearly three years. He would have to spend the next year getting ready for what would be his first football season (thanks to an NCAA waiver) and getting ready to finish classes in 2014 and move on to graduate school.

Last September, near the end of a rout of Arkansas State, Shon Coleman entered the game and played his first snaps as an Auburn Tiger.

"I cried like a baby," Tunstall said. "It had been so long, such a long road for him to get there. I knew what he had to go through to get to that moment."

She actually didn't know for the longest time. Coleman didn't tell his mom or father Travis how bad it really was for him. He suffered in silence, hoping to provide strength to his entire family.

"Sometimes there were bad days," is all he'll say now.

In one way, the timing worked out. Coleman got back to the field for Auburn's dream season. He played in five of his team's games as a backup, including the SEC title game, and he's in Pasadena for the BCS Championship Game. It takes incredible effort to make it to college football's premier night, but here's a 22-year-old who beat cancer along the way.

Coleman has just one more check-up. If he clears that hurdle, he can focus on a full college career and maybe more football after that. He will also make himself available to other young people battling leukemia. He wants to be a rock for them too.

"He's amazing," Tunstall said. "Seriously. I'm not just saying that because I'm his mom."

She doesn't have to say it. Everyone knows now.

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Shon Coleman celebrates with his family after an Auburn game. (Credit: De Keishia Turnstall)

 

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