March 11, 2014
Shon Coleman wants to be known as a football player more than as a cancer survivor
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - In February of 2010, Shon Coleman's life couldn't have been much better. A 5-star offensive tackle out of Olive Branch, Miss., he signed with Auburn. He said that day he was determined to do all he could to start as a freshman. And surely an NFL career beckoned.
There had been some concern during his senior season about lumps that appeared on his head, neck, chest and torso, but his doctor believed they were benign and referred him to a dermatologist. But in March, he and his family got the stunning news. The lumps were benign at all. Coleman was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer.
And thus began a journey that neither he nor his family would ever have imagined. Football, his passion since he was a little boy, had to be put on hold. Maybe he would play again and maybe he wouldn't.
His mother, Dakeisha Tunstall remembered that day in an interview with "Promise," a magazine published by St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
"Shon's reaction was far better than my reaction," Tunstall said. "He wasn't sad. He didn't cry or anything like that. It was like he immediately knew he'd have to fight. He knew he would get through it, and that's the way he comforted me."
But Coleman didn't feel as calm as he appeared. He wondered if he would play football again or if the cancer would even take his life.
"I was shocked," Coleman said. "At the same time, I was worried about everything - about my football career and everything else."
Auburn was quick to offer its support. His scholarship would be honored whether he ever played a down. As his story became known, support came not only from Auburn people but from around the country.
"We have gotten thousands upon thousands of letters and e-mails," Tunstall said. "People from all across the country reached out just to say they were thinking about him."
Almost four years after Coleman got the stunning news, much has changed. The leukemia is long gone. He is a 22-year-old sophomore at Auburn. He stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 300-plus pounds. When spring practice begins next Tuesday, he will compete to replace Greg Robinson as the starting left tackle.
Coleman played in his first college football game last season against Arkansas State. He was Robinson's backup and also played as a blocking tight end in run situations as Auburn won the Southeastern Conference championship and played in the BCS Championship Game.
"Sometimes, I'm like, `dang, I've come so far,'" Coleman said. "I'm back on the field. I was blessed enough to play in the national championship game. You look back at the three years I wasn't doing anything. Obstacles get thrown in everybody's way. You just have to overcome them."
That so many people supported him in his fight, Coleman says, will be with him always.
"It meant a lot," Coleman said. "It helped motivate me. All the prayers that lifted me up helped me be more determined than ever."
What Coleman wants now is to get back to the national championship game with his teammates. And he wants to be known as Shon Coleman the football player more than Shon Coleman cancer survivor.
"That's all behind me," Coleman said. "I want to be known for what I do on the field."
Auburn offensive line coach J.B. Grimes says Coleman has the talent and the mindset to be do big things. He also work to do.
"I'm really high on Shon," Grimes said. "He's got a chance to be a great player. He's not there yet. He's a long way from being there. He's still rough around the edges, but he's got a ton of ability. He's a good kid who'll take coaching."
Coleman and Pat Miller will compete for the starting left tackle job, though Grimes says shuffling players to get the five best on the field is always a possibility. What Coleman says he wants, more than anything, is whatever will help Auburn win games.
"From my perspective, I want anything that is better from the team," Coleman said. "If Pat is messing up on something, I'll give him advice to get better and vice versa. I want whoever is better to be at that spot, whoever will help the team out more."
Coleman says he senses even more focus and determination among his teammates than he did a year ago.
"We came so close," Coleman said. "Once you come that close to winning the whole thing, people are going to pay more attention to what they need to do to get better and win it all. That's what I see."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: