Every Day Becomes Christmas for Noel
BY JAY GREENBERG
Only now does Tavaris Noel realize a 100 per cent effort probably was his body allowing him to do only 80, leaving the 20 that was regained probably the hardest thing he ever will go through in his life. If, over the years that doesn’t prove to be the case, then bring on whatever it might be. Cancer, faith and football teach what you can handle.
He thought he was fine until suddenly he wasn’t. The lump Dr. Margot Putukian found in Noel’s neck during his freshman training camp physical was not half the size of one forming in his throat when the biopsy results came back: Hodgkins Lymphoma.
Imagine one day being freshly among the chosen–for Princeton and its championship football program–and the next day a cancer patient, the only immediate solace being the certainty that no jet sweep ever would trample him this badly.
“Peak physical shape, or so I thought,” said Noel. “Eighteen years old. Why me?”
“Definitely I asked that. But it’s not for me to question.”
Tavaris Noel has good wheels and a powerful motor to run them, obvious in every situation Bob Surace and his staff ran the linebacking candidate through at a summer camp before his senior high school year. The coaches could hardly wait to offer him. Three time Virginia 4A all-conference honoree. Team captain at Grafton (Va.) High. National Honor Society. Second place at the Tidewater Regional Science Fair. Not only at football was this kid among the best and brightest.
“To be perfectly honest, he hadn’t really experienced a whole lot of setbacks,” said Helen Noel, his mother. “He was always ambitious, always has done well at anything he put his hands on.
“My son is a pretty strong-willed individual. Like us with the diagnosis, once he got some knowledge about exactly what he was dealing with, he was ready for it. It didn’t really take long. For the most part, he took on his illness internally, not letting much show.”
Hodgkins Lymphoma hits only two out of one thousand persons in the United States. The survival rate for patients under age 20 is 97 per cent, a number you would sign up for even before 10-0, not to trivialize the significance of football in relation to the sanctity of life. That’s because next to the 97 per cent, the best possible thing the doctors told Noel was that he likely could play again.
First things first, of course: Getting well. But when the game is a big part of who you are, it becomes more important than ever in your recovery and not just for the joy of being on the field.
Along with medical expertise, faith, family, and–for the luckiest like Tavaris- the extended family of football, a patient requires some sense of normalcy. A good head on Noel’s shoulders got him to Princeton, so here was an 18-year-old with the sense to know exactly what he needed. Rather than go home to Yorktown, Va. for a year to get treatment and report fresh and cured the following September, Noel wanted to remain in classes and around his teammates.
Generally, you don’t need chemotherapy in freshman year to knock you on your butt, including literally by seniors 20 pounds heavier than you during scrimmages. Regardless . . .
“I didn’t want to fall behind,” Noel said “Stay in school and show up for football whenever I could. Just get through it.”
Once Helen and her husband Irwin met with the oncologist, Dr. John Sierocki at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center and also did a consult with Dr. Carol Portlock at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, the Noels were fine with their son continuing to matriculate.
“We sat with academic advisors, counselors, teachers to make sure he wasn’t going to be penalized,” said Irwin. “Everybody was very supportive, made us feel 100 per cent better.”
Both retired Air Force Master Sergeants, they would do the five-plus hour drive from Yorktown once every three weeks for their son’s Friday four-hour chemotherapy sessions, staying at McCosh Health Center usually until Sunday.
They weren’t the only ones keeping Tavaris company. The day he was diagnosed senior quarterback Chad Kanoff stopped by Noel’s dorm room to tell him if he needed anything–meaning anything–to let him know. Outside linebackers coach Mike Mendenhall stayed with Tavaris for an entire chemo session as did classmates Tyler McDonald, John Santillo and David Harvey. Noel could save his breath for his workouts, whenever he felt up for doing them. For help or companionship, he never had to ask.
“While I had my family and friends with me, I would see people getting treatment alone,” said Noel. “I would go back to my room and think about having that support system around me.
“Even in a tough time, I was blessed. I couldn’t complain.”
Post-treatment nausea that once made chemo so hellacious is gone or diminished thanks to new and improved drugs. Fatigue, loss of appetite, and night itching are the worst of the effects, bad enough. Following a Friday treatment Noel wouldn’t start to feel his energy coming back until Tuesday. He would be working out by the next day.
“I would do everything but the bench press because of the port in my chest,” he said.
Forcing himself to eat many days, he went down only five pounds through the ordeal, the measurable loss miniscule compared to the weight lifted off his shoulders by faith in God and his doctors. Dr. Putukian, the Director of Athletic Medicine at Princeton, put him in touch with Jordan Culbreath ’11 an all-time Tiger running back with an all-time story to tell after a comeback to the field from Aplastic Anemia, a cancer generally trickier to tame than Hodgkins.
A friend of Noel’s back home had a brother also fighting Hodgkins. They would talk, too, not so much misery loving company, but shared experiences boosting emotional strength. After six of the eight treatments-spaced in the three-week cycles—were complete, Noel felt the corner being turned.
Helen and Irwin say their son didn’t do a lot of crying on their shoulders, admitting how tough it had been only in looking back. Throughout, they saw more in his face than in his relentlessly brave voice on the phone, but Tavaris wasn’t lying. Indeed, he coped.
“Really, one of the harder things for me was watching the defense struggle (a 5-1 start to 2017 faded to 5-5 with massive injuries in the front seven),” he said. “I felt maybe I could have been out there helping.
“But I knew in time I would be back with them. I tried not to think of that aspect of it, just kept doing what I could. First time I tried to run, I had to stop and catch my breath on the sideline, but it got better. The instructions for working out were that it was up to me, how I felt. If I pushed myself too hard I should stop.
“I knew that I would get through it. I just tried to picture it as a mild setback and that in the future I wouldn’t ever have to worry about it anymore.”
With the one class the mechanical engineering student had to drop made up in summer school, Noel was good to go by August before suffering an MCL tear making a tackle in a pre-season scrimmage. Imagine coming around the last bend of a marathon only to see them move the finish line back five miles. But he already had been through worse. “Whatever is God’s plan, I had to go with it,” Noel said.
What doesn’t kill you—disease or the treatment for it both–makes you stronger, in this case 20 pounds of muscle, up from a freshman reporting weight of 205. He has been moved from the SAM to the Rush position, which needs an heir to the graduating All-Ivy Mike Wagner.
Ike Hall, Matthew Jester, and who knows, maybe a precocious freshman or two come camp, are in competition with Noel for time on the field this fall, his junior season. In the meantime, there’s no real depth chart during spring drills that end with a modified scrimmage on Saturday morning. This time of year is all about who is making a big jump that will get you–or keep you–on the field. And asked about Noel’s spring, Surace lights up.
“Start with his winter (in the weight room),” said the coach. “He’s gotten so much stronger. His confidence is up. He’s maturing.
“After missing two seasons, Tavaris is really a freshman so technically he’s not quite there. But he is coming around every day. He should have a chance to help us this year, no doubt.
“Right now he is good all around without that one dimension at which he is elite. Well see if he can develop one. Nothing wrong with being good at everything; Anthony Siragusa (’19) had a good, solid backup role. But Wags was elite at something– pass rush–and then got good at the run game too.
“In whatever combination, that’s where we want to get Tavaris–into a place where he stands out.”
The coach knows Noel has come too far not to continue to work at it. Not that he didn’t appreciate his gifts before the diagnosis but naturally he understands a blessing better than ever now. His parents, non-denominational, “spirit filled” Christians, see an increase in his spirituality.
The majority the recurrences of Hodgkins occur within a year. Not that he was counting the days or anything–who wouldn’t? –but No. 365 passed on March 12. “I’d been checking under my arms for lumps pretty regularly,” Noel smiled. “I’ve been able to relax a little bit since.”
He could make the last tackle of the last game at the one-yard line in his senior year to win another championship and that still wouldn’t be the end of the story. When bad things happen to good people, even the already best of them change for the better in outlook. Every day, every relationship, is a gift.
“I feel it was God’s plan for me to come here,” he said. “The support was so tremendous I don’t know if I would have gotten through this at a different school.”
“Anything I went through is a testimony for other people. I want to share it so others feel encouraged. Even through tough times there is always light at the end of the tunnel. You can get through it.
“I don’t want to make this sound like I’m some big tough guy who was an exception. You can do the same thing.”
The final spring modified scrimmage will be from 11 am to 12:45 pm Saturday on Finney/Campbell Fields adjacent Princeton Stadium, followed by the presentation of rings to the 2018 undefeated Ivy League champion Tigers. A barbecue lunch (free to PFA members) will be be served in Jadwin Gymnasium.
We will post the spring analysis/summary by Surace on Monday.