Sept. 15, 2010
Read John Denton's Knights Insider |
Follow us on Twitter |
Get social with the Knights on Facebook
Order Knights Insider 2010 UCF College Football Preview Magazine
By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - UCF's football fanbase is still abuzz about freshman quarterback Jeff Godfrey, a dazzling playmaker who was seemingly all over the field last Saturday night against NC State.
But there was another UCF player who was seemingly everywhere - junior defensive end Darius Nall - who might be more of a heart-warming story than even Godfrey.
Nall, who is finally all the way back from having a malignant baseball-sized tumor and part of his lung removed two years ago, helped make UCF's furious fourth quarter rally possible with his play on the defensive side of the ball.
UCF lost 28-21 to NC State last Saturday night, but one of the bright spots in the defeat - in addition to the dazzling play of Godfrey - was Nall, a 6-foot-3, 246-pound defensive end from Douglasville, Ga. Nall had four quarterback hurries, a sack, a tackle for a loss and three stops as UCF limited the Wolfpack to just 65 second-half yards and helped make the near comeback from 28-7 possible.
Now, as UCF (1-1) tries to bounce back from the loss and prepares for Saturday's game in Buffalo (1-1), Nall is looking more and more like the player he once was before cancer gave him the scare of his life.
``I feel like I'm coming back because I'm so much stronger now and there's no pressure on me. I made it through last year and now I'm ready to play better this year,'' Nall said. ``Last year was tough and I never knew how my body was going to react and if I'd ever have the same step again. After last year, I realized I could work hard again and I feel like I finally have that explosive step again.''
That's a big step, indeed, considering the shape that Nall was in just two years ago. Nall started experiencing chest pain following a 2008 summer workout and despite his disdain for seeing doctors, he eventually went to head athletic trainer Mary Vander Heiden with his condition.
A series of tests ultimately revealed a malignant thymoma, a type of cancerous mass attached to Nall's right lung. During a six-hour surgery, doctors cut Nall from his sternum all the way around to his spine under his armpit.
The cancer scare cost Nall, an All-Conference USA Freshman Team performer, all of the 2008 season, and 2009 was a major transition season for him because of the toll the condition took on his body.
Even though he struggled at times last season with his stamina, strength and breathing, Nall impressed teammates with his willingness to fight back to get onto the football field. His battle brought the defensive line closer together and they were inspired by his fight to get back on the field.
``I'm a very emotional person and I like to be considered a good friend, but when I found out what (Nall) was dealing with it made me want to stand by him and be a better friend,'' senior defensive tackle Wes Tunuufi Sauvao said. ``Breast cancer runs really deep in my family. My grandmother and my two aunts -- my father's two sisters -- died of that, so it's really strong in our family. Anything like that, I want to get out and try to do anything that I can. With Darius, I would go out and call him to see if he needed anything. To see someone fight like that is a great inspiration and makes me want to be a better person.''
Nall admitted that sometimes he felt the pressure to get back on the field last season to prove that he had beaten the cancer that once took over his body. There were times away from the field when he would reflect on what he had accomplished last season while recording four sacks and 4.5 tackles for losses. But more often than not, he was increasingly frustrated by his inconsistency brought on by his wavering levels of stamina and strength.
``Sometimes it would hit me that I was back out there and I'd be happy,'' Nall remembered. ``But then I'd have a game where I didn't do as good and I realized that it was something where I had to get a lot better.''
Nall went to work on his body this past offseason in an attempt to get back to the levels that he was at before his cancer scare. He regained the 35 pounds that he lost following the surgery and radiation treatments. And he added 20 pounds to his bench press max and 40 pounds to his squat max.
As evidenced by his relentless energy last Saturday night and his harassment of NC State star quarterback Russell Wilson, Nall proved that he is finally fully healthy. Now, he and UCF's defensive line have their sights set on some lofty goals.
``I want 10-plus sacks. I think that's something that I can do,'' Nall said. ``And us as a team, we want to try and lead the nation in sacks and tackles for loss. We do that, we can be a great defense.''
John Denton writes for UCFathletics.com. E-mail John at email@example.com. Follow John on Twitter at @JD_UCF.