Jovan Dewitt was sitting alone in a Lincoln hospital room in late January when he got the prognosis nobody wants to hear.
Doctors thought initially he had an infected salivary gland, but antibiotics didn’t do the trick. A lump on his neck hadn’t subsided and had even grown a bit weeks after he first noticed it. He had been on the road recruiting in January with defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, but decided to head to the doctor again.
His wife didn’t come along because it seemed like just another appointment to figure out what was going on. Instead, he got life-rattling news: cancer.
Just like that, one word out of the mouth of a doctor, and a winter that started with vacation time in Florida and Christmas with the family turned upside down for Nebraska’s outside linebackers coach and those closest to him.
“It’s really a surreal process to realize that you are truthfully facing something that can kill you,” Dewitt, who has a form of cancer in his throat, said after Nebraska’s fifth practice. “Now, my cure rate is supposed to be really good, in the mid-90 percentile range. Of the people and all the doctors I’ve spoken with and talked to, they said they’ve never had anybody not respond well to the procedure. It’s just not an easy process to go through.”
It certainly isn’t. Dewitt told reporters that he’s lost 45 pounds. Most of it came concerningly fast because the radiation treatments “burn in your throat and it makes it really hard to swallow and you can’t taste anything. And chemotherapy isn’t exactly a good time.”
Dewitt had a feeding tube inserted last week, two days after he tried to come to NU’s first spring practice and it didn’t go well.
“I didn’t have my feeding tube in yet and I hadn’t eaten in probably 10 days or so,” he said. “I was probably checked into the doctor’s office shortly thereafter. It wasn’t very smart on my part.”
This is what keeps him going, though. His family, of course, and the chance to come to work and be on the practice field with his guys. Dewitt’s doctors and his wife caution him not to overexert himself, but he wants to be around as much as possible.
“It’s been really fun. It’s been hard not being there for every meeting and every position drill,” said Dewitt, who noted he’s been at every session except for last Wednesday, which was the first football practice he’s missed in 35 years, when he was 8 years old. “Sometimes during practice, I’ve got to go take a knee because I’ve got to get some hydration going through my body.”
Needless to say, his presence this spring is uplifting for Husker players and coaches.
“Anytime he gets to be back out there with us, it kind of brings a smile to my face,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “I know the kids really enjoy it, too. They love seeing him out there. He’s trying to do what he can do. The most important thing right now for him is to get healthy and take care of his family. But we love it when he comes out here. I’m glad his wife lets him come for a few hours.”
Dewitt on Wednesday talked about where he sees improvement from his players and what they’ve accomplished so far this offseason. It’s clear, though, that as much as he wants to be around to do his job, the camaraderie means as much or more than anything.
The Milwaukee native’s voice cracked and his eyes glistened as he tried to explain what the support from his players meant.
“My guys call me pretty much every day to check on me. And then, um,” he said, pausing to collect himself, “when your former players call you, and former people you worked with call you, you know you’ve done some good things because those kids call me every single day to make sure that I’m doing all right and that I’m hanging out OK. It’s been really good.
“My guys help me out a lot. More than they know. Current and former players.”
Dewitt is past the halfway point of his treatment, saying he has several chemo appointments and 14 radiation sessions remaining. He’s responding well to the treatment so far and said he hopes it’s all wrapped up early in April.
So many families know so acutely the ravaging toll cancer can take. Dewitt himself downplayed his own situation, calling attention to the kids he’s seen through his work with Team Jack and adding, “Those kids are tough, man, because this (stuff) sucks. You see kids like that who are sick and are able to hammer through it, God bless them.”
For him, though, football is therapeutic this spring. Even if his doctors might be caught a bit off guard if they see Dewitt’s beardless, smiling face on the local news.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “I’m not one for sitting on the couch and hanging out and just sleeping and then throwing up, sleeping and then throwing up.
“For me to be able to get out on the yard makes life so much better.”