For Marshall Lefferts, cancer is a detour, not a roadblock. The story of the Nittany Lion football player you never got a chance to know.
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Five days a week, Marshall Lefferts repeats an offseason routine that is unique among college football players. He starts each day with a strenuous morning workout. In the afternoon, he goes for chemotherapy.
The workouts are voluntary, a statement of resilience from a young man refusing to see his dream derailed. As for the chemo, well, he doesn’t have much choice.
Lefferts is the sort of player Penn State fans would love to root for, if only they’d had the chance. He left his home in Texas to be a preferred walk-on with the Nittany Lions, and he chose Penn State as much for the reputation of the business school as for the quality of the football program. His high school coach talks at length about his character and toughness, and Herb Hand, the Penn State position coach who never really got a chance to coach him, calls him simply, “a great kid.”
(It seems worth mentioning that he’s probably also the largest Four Diamonds kid of all time. But more on that in a minute.)
The leukemia that doctors found in his blood last fall changed Lefferts’ life, ending his time as a Nittany Lion before it began. But the prognosis, both for his health and his playing career, is bright. He plans on playing football again, both because he still loves the game, and because, he says, “I don’t want to let cancer win.”
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He was born and raised in Dallas, and played his high school ball there at the Episcopal School, which had a reputation for terrific academics and limited success on the football field. When Clayton Sanders took over as coach in 2012, he inherited a program with dwindling participation and seemingly little hope for a turnaround. One of the few glimmers was a massive sophomore lineman named Lefferts. “The obvious thing that struck me was his size—for a small private school, a kid his size was unusual,” Sanders says, adding with a laugh, “I was happy to see it.”
His new coach quickly discovered that Lefferts had the heart to match his frame. During the most demanding aspects of practice, particularly intense tests of will and conditioning like pit drills and mat drills, Lefferts’ girth was his enemy. But you wouldn’t have known it to watch him. “The thing about Marshall, he never gave up,” Sanders says. “To have a guy his size throw his body around like a 145-pound wide receiver … he’d throw up, but he’d come right back and get in line. He never missed a day. He showed up and gave everything he had.”
The toughness paid dividends. After going 3-6 during Lefferts’ junior season, a much-improved Episcopal made the state semifinals in 2013, leading the state private school division in rushing. “And we ran behind Marshall a lot of the time,” Sanders says. “That senior class was a high character class—they were really the reason we went as far as we did. And Marshall was the main cog.” Now standing 6-4, 300 pounds, he capped his career a four-year starter and two-year captain, and played in a pair of national all-star games.
Lefferts decided his next stop would invert the big-fish-in-a-small-pond reality of his high school years. He had scholarship offers from some smaller schools, but he knew he wanted to play for a big-time program. The bigger priority, he says, was academics. “My ultimate goal was to graduate from a top-ranked business school,” he says. In the end, he narrowed his choices to a pair of preferred walk-on offers: Miami, and Penn State.
“He was pretty much set on going to Miami, believe it or not,” says his father, John Lefferts, “but on a whim, we went up to State College.” Marshall already knew the reputation of the Smeal College of Business; once on campus, he was struck by the football program’s family atmosphere, and also felt a strong connection with Herb Hand and James Franklin. The coaches made it clear they wanted him on board. “I gotta tell you, I’ve met a lot of persuasive guys,” John Lefferts says, “but Coach Franklin is the most persuasive guy I’ve ever met.”
Lefferts made it official last April, and he was back in Happy Valley in June for the start of summer classes and offseason workouts—and, in July, a team trip to visit young cancer patients at Hershey Medical Center. On the field and in the weight room, he understood quickly how much work he had to do before he’d see any playing time—he says he was overweight, and he’d never faced such high-level competition—and so he prepared for a redshirt season and focused on adjusting to college life.
But as the fall semester was getting underway, Lefferts wasn’t feeling himself. “I had no energy,” he says. “I would go to class, come back to my room, and sleep all day.” After talking it over with the staff and team doctors, it was agreed he would sit out fall practice, with plans to resume football work after the season. But as the fall dragged on, Lefferts felt worse; he figured he might have mono.
On the second Tuesday in November, Lefferts went in for blood tests, which revealed frighteningly low numbers for his platelets and white blood cells. After additional testing at Mount Nittany Medical Center, he was put on an ambulance for the Hershey Medical Center. “I thought I had some really bad virus,” he says. “They hadn’t used the words ‘cancer’ or ‘leukemia’ at all.” But, by the time his mom got there late that first night, after flying from Dallas to Philadelphia and driving the rest of the way, he knew that cancer was a possibility.
Finally, that Friday, Nov. 14, Lefferts was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia, or APL. He says he was “relieved” when he found out—he now knew what the problem was, and he knew he had one of the most treatable forms of the disease, with an 85-90 percent survival rate, and a low chance of recurrence. “I was very thankful,” he says.
Once doctors had the diagnosis, the family learned how lucky—relatively speaking—they really were. “If you’re going to hit the lottery for cancer,” John Lefferts says, “this is the one to get.” One of the biggest risks early in the course of the disease comes from the dangerously low platelet numbers. “If I’d bumped into a wall,” Marshall Lefferts says, “I could’ve died of internal bleeding.” In retrospect, staying off the football field last fall was the best thing he could’ve done.
“It sucked at the time to put football on hold,” he says, “but if that hadn’t happened, I probably would’ve died. The doctors told me, ‘One hit would’ve killed you.'”
And about those doctors, his father doesn’t mince words. “I gotta tell you, they were first class,” he says. “To diagnose a cancer like that is very difficult, and I applaud the doctors at Penn State. They figured it out right away.”
Marshall echoes his father’s appraisal of the care he received. He also appreciates the irony of his stint in Hershey: One of the more memorable experiences of his brief time as a Nittany Lion was that team trip last July to the visit Four Diamonds kids. Four months later, he was one of them himself. “I still kind of fall under the category of pediatric cancer,” he says, “so Four Diamonds paid for everything that wasn’t covered by insurance while I was in Hershey.”
While there, Lefferts got started on a chemo regimen, and began to focus on the future. “He went through a day or two of ‘Why me?'” his father says, “but after that, he got this attitude like, ‘I’m going to beat it.'” He began a targeted chemo regimen, and underwent a couple of platelet transfusions, and by December, he was technically in remission. He’s now in the San Diego area, where his father lives, as he continues his treatment. At this point, things couldn’t be going much better.
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You can almost hear his father smile when he describes his son’s spring schedule. “He works out in the morning and does chemo in the afternoon,” John Lefferts says. “That’s what he calls his two-a-days.”
Marshall says the chemo is “not that bad.” It leaves him exhausted for a few hours after each session, which is why he does it in the afternoon, leaving him as fresh as possible for his morning workouts. For those, he’s using the same offseason program the Penn State strength and conditioning staff gave him as a guide before he came to campus last year. His most recent blood test showed no sign of cancer, although he’ll continue the treatment after a month off from chemo. “Honestly, I’m set to come out of this in better shape than I was a year ago,” he says.
A year ago, of course, Marshall Lefferts was getting ready to play college football. Today, he sees no reason why he shouldn’t be back on the same path.
“He made the decision that he’s not going to let cancer end his football career,” John Lefferts says. “If he’d quit right now—which would’ve been easy to do—he’d regret it the rest of his life. He said he’s not going to let that happen.”
Lefferts says his doctors have told him he should be able to return to the field in August—the question now is where. He’s looking primarily at schools within driving distance of Dallas, where his mother lives, or Southern California. Given what he’s still going through, it only makes sense that he finds a place closer to family. He’ll do well wherever he lands: He’s a mature, intelligent kid, fluent in French, a catch for any school even if football wasn’t part of the equation. “My ultimate goal is to play somewhere. I don’t know if it’ll be at the level of Penn State, but it’s a big priority for me,” he says. “At the same time, my No. 1 priority is getting a great education, and I know I would’ve gotten a phenomenal education at Penn State.”
About that, Lefferts is adamant that the fans who never got to know him understand why he moved on. “I loved my time at Penn State,” he says. “I will always be grateful to my friends, coaches, and teammates who have supported me through these difficult times.”
Sanders, his high school coach and an avowed Penn State admirer despite his Texas roots, figures that connection will endure no matter where Lefferts ends up. “Penn state and Marshall are intertwined,” he says. “They’re going to have a really cool history.”
As Marshall Lefferts and his family are constantly reminded, that that isn’t likely to change.
“Coach Hand and Coach Franklin, the whole coaching staff, they’ve been great. His teammates rallied around him. It’s a great community up there,” John Lefferts says. “And even out here, when we walk down the beach and Marshall wears his Penn State sweatshirt, people come up to us and say, ‘We Are.'”
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