Phil Nauahi thought he had reached a safety net, a King's X, that he'd conquered the deadly form of blood cancer when it went into a miraculous remission after his first diagnosis 13 years ago.
But tests this past winter showed the ugly disease had returned for another round. Now, as his former BYU football team begins a new season, the 43-year old is battling a familiar foe of his own.
Nauahi's bone marrow treatments started up once again in June and, like the trooper his loved ones know him to be, his game plan is simple: Take it one day at a time.
Nauahi was Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer's first center at BYU, a team captain along with safety Troy Long, receiver Chuck Cutler and corner Rodney Rice. He signed with the Los Angeles Rams in 1990 before giving up football.
One summer day in June 1995, he was playing a Turkey Bowl football game with some friends, including a former teammate, linebacker Bob Davis, when he and Davis collided and both fell in a heap on the ground. Davis said he really felt the hit. Nauahi said, "No, I really felt that hit," and his lower back ached.
Nauahi got it checked out. Doctors discovered he had a form of blood cancer that attacks the calcium in the body. It's usually found in people over 70.
"They couldn't believe it, I was too young. They gave me 24 to 48 hours to live and asked me to talk to my wife and family and prepare them," Nauahi said.
"A lot of things go through your mind when you hear that."
Nauahi started the fight. It was painful, but he finished it and the cancer went into remission. He went on to help administrate and start up a chain of massage therapy schools. He and his wife, Mary Ann, from Spanish Fork, have two children, Spencer, 16, and Courtney, 14. For all their lives, his children have dealt with their father balancing this ailment, living in the shadow lands between a clean bill of health and the threat of a return.
There is no cure for the disease. Doctors can only create an expanded stretch of life and hope it is a long one.
In January, tests showed it was back after a dozen years in remission. Bishop of the Hunter LDS 16th Ward, he was released from that calling. He's using all his energy to embrace another series of treatments.
The treatments involve taking his white blood count down to zero, literally taking out the cancer, then putting back bone marrow to manufacture unsullied blood back into his body. His bones,
robbed of calcium, take the hit. Many victims of the disease break their legs, ankles or hips. So far, Nauahi has broken some ribs.
"If you took an X-ray of my body, it would like somebody took a shotgun and shot it at my skeleton," he said.
Right now, he feels pretty good, but the treatments leave him weak and his immune system is almost non-existent to help fight off diseases healthy people wouldn't even be bothered with.
A bone marrow biopsy during this latest treatment showed he is cancer free. For now.
"They say it will always return," said his wife.
"Phil is a great guy and was a really athletic player and a real upbeat person to be around," said BYU assistant football coach Lance Reynolds. "Obviously, we're really disappointed he's in the situation he's in now. We hope he can keep his head up and wish him the best. I know he always kept his head up as a player all the time. He never got discouraged but was always positive."
That's how you find Nauahi today. And it's inspiring.
Nauahi is such a bundle of hope the BYU football program plans to salute him during a future Thursday's heroes, a new tradition done every week after one of the practices.
"What you do is take it one day at a time," Nauahi said. "You live with no regrets. You try to live each day with no anger or resentment or ill-will for anyone, and if you do have some issues, you resolve them immediately. It's not worth it to carry any of that around, not at all.
"You live each day as if it were your last because in my case, it could be.
"I used to be so worried about what would happen to my wife, my kids, my job and how I'd cope or how they'd do without me, or what life would be like if I didn't have this, but you can't see it that way you have to exist with no regrets, nothing at all."
Nauahi said his BYU coach, LaVell Edwards, taught him an important lesson when he played football, that the only thing that mattered was the next play, the next first down, the next score and to take each one as they came, one at a time. If everyone worked hard to just get that one additional yard, the rest would take care of itself.
"I apply that to my life now. Nothing matters but that next yard, that next first down. Edwards and my position coach, Roger French, told me, 'You never, ever give up, you never quit, no matter what. No matter what the score, no matter how tough the game appears, because anything can happen."'
Nauahi believes that. It's always worked before, just like in the Freedom Bowl, hiking the ball to Detmer, coming back and beating Colorado.
"I always say, it's just on the other side of the mountain, if we can just get over that hump, it's just over there."
And it works.
"First downs lead to touchdowns," he says.
And he's right.
By September, he hopes to get back to work.
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