Why you should care

Because this career is worth keeping an eye on. 

Thirteen seconds remained on the clock in the 2014 BCS National Championship when Heisman winner Jameis Winston threw the game-winning touchdown, crushing Auburn’s dreams for a surprise title run. Many of Auburn’s Tigers would have called this the worst moment of their lives — a last-minute defeat and a blown 21–3 lead on the nation’s biggest stage.

For offensive lineman Shon Coleman, though, well, it was all part of the roller coaster he can ride with Zen-like nonreactivity. Now a sixth-year junior for the Tigers, Coleman has caught the attention of NFL scouts and has drawn praise from his offensive line coach, J.B. Grimes, who describes Coleman as the best tackle in the SEC. He’s also been called an exceptional run blocker — no surprise, since in 2010 Coleman was the top recruit from Mississippi. “He’s too powerful for college defensive linemen. When he locks on, it’s over,” NFL draft blogger Rob Staton tells OZY, comparing him to only one other player in the draft, Laremy Tunsil — a likely top-five overall pick. ESPN’s NFL draft expert Mel Kiper predicted back in January that Coleman could be a second- or third-round talent.

Which is not bad at all for a player who took three years off from football to deal with the cancer destroying his body.

Coleman is confident that he can leave behind his medical past. When it comes to opening up running lanes for the running back, he says, “I believe I’m the most dominant tackle in college.” And yet there’s no map to chart Coleman’s future as he plows ahead. As Grimes puts it, in 40 years of coaching, he’s never once had to coach a player who was coming back from something like this. Specifically, it’s acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which Coleman should be able to leave in the past without too much concern of relapse, says Greg Armstrong, oncologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. Coleman received treatment there for two years.

But it’s confusing for the teams looking to draft an otherwise promising player. Hardly anyone has a sense of how to weigh a previous illness of this gravity. (Coleman says it hasn’t come up in any conversations.) The closest recent case may be that of Jesse Williams, a former Seattle Seahawk who was diagnosed with cancer last May, had a kidney removed and was back fighting for a roster spot on the team later in the year. Or there’s Eric Berry, one of the best young players in the whole NFL, who in 2014 was diagnosed with cancer midseason. His chemotherapy went by a lot quicker than Coleman’s, and nine months after his diagnosis, he was declared cancer-free and was able to slowly resume football activities. Berry played a full season in 2015 and, little more than a year after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he was named to his fourth pro bowl in six seasons.

Six years ago, as a high school senior, just months after signing with Auburn, Coleman found himself suffering from a lingering flu. Suddenly, lumps appeared on his neck and head. A plastic surgeon removed them but reported to Coleman and his mother that the illness was acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Football would have to be put on hold in favor of chemotherapy. But a year later, Coleman enrolled anyway — all while clipping in for chemo. Coleman’s mother tells OZY it made sense to keep the long term in view because doctors estimated Coleman might be “cured” of the disease five years after remission.

Playing football at Olive Branch High School in Mississippi (home to other recent NFL talents, like the Seahawks’ K.J. Wright and the Falcons’ Jalen Collins), Coleman found himself on autopilot. “I grew up not even loving the game of football. I was just playing it,” he says. But as he became the top recruit in the state of Mississippi in 2010 and committed to play at Auburn, one of the best programs in the country, football became a priority. After two and a half years of chemotherapy, Coleman returned ready to commit himself to becoming Auburn’s top offensive lineman. Grimes describes him as a person who “never took a lazy step when I worked with him.” He also used one word over and over again to describe his relationship with Coleman and his affection for what he brought to the Auburn football team: “love.”

Coleman’s story is like those of many other people who deal with cancer while continuing their lives. Exercising during chemo helped hugely. “There’s a lot of good evidence that exercise during and after cancer therapy is beneficial — not only for your current state of health, but in some cases studies have shown that exercise improves outcomes for certain types of cancer,” Armstrong says.

Ironically, Coleman’s biggest red flags at this point aren’t his fight against cancer. Instead, teams will be concerned about his injured MCL, which prevented him from doing most of the pre-draft workouts. He also struggles from inconsistency in pass blocking. Plus, most college kids up for the draft aren’t about to turn 25. Will teams be able to overlook these issues and spend a first-round pick on him? “The only thing preventing him from being an established top-15 prospect is his age and the need for teams to do a thorough medical check,” says Staton.

This week, as the draft rolls in, Coleman will of course be watching. And he’ll be watching from the place that helped him beat cancer — St. Jude’s.

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