FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) – Anyone who’s ever put on a helmet and shoulder pads in their youth has thoughts and dreams of making it to the NFL. Few, however, have been able to do so while also fighting cancer.
But that’s exactly what Florence High School grad Chandler Brewer did.
Two phone calls changed the course of his career. The first call came the day he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
“It’s just crazy that a little Oakland, Alabama, boy has made it this far,” Brewer said. “I like to tell people to stay positive. Don’t dwell on things, just try to be happy and you get through it.”
After graduating from Florence, Brewer, a standout on the offensive line for the Falcons, signed with Middle Tennessee State.
The first signal of the ensuing trials in his life came with a knee injury against Marshall in 2017. The result was a knot in the muscle on his left knee, which lingered into spring practice the following year.
A trip to the doctor a few months later revealed his diagnosis.
‘A new challenge’
On July 9, 2018, Brewer sat down with his girlfriend and a close friend at Blue Coast Burrito in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, when he got the call that he was diagnosed with a “rare blood cancer,” which later turned out to be non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“Being 21 years old and (being told) you have cancer, I thought I was healthy,” Brewer said. “I didn’t think anything was wrong with me … it just kinda blows my mind.”
The diagnosis put his football future in doubt, as he was about to begin his fourth year as a starter. He was named team captain the previous season.
Despite the challenges that followed, Brewer’s approach to his fight never wavered, aided by two of the important things in life – faith and family.
After he stepped away from the table at dinner to comprehend the news, Brewer said the hardest part was calling his parents, not wanting to put added stress on them. When he got around to it, there was emotion involved, but his dad’s response was simple: “We’ll get through it like it’s nothing.”
“Those words kind of just stuck with me,” Brewer said. “(My parents) were there for me the whole time.”
His mom, Sue Anne, packed her bags and went to Murfreesboro to see her son. When she got there, she sat on the bed with her son and his girlfriend. Naturally, it was hard for her not to be upset. But Brewer told his mom he wanted her to stop crying.
Brewer indicated he wanted to avoid having the news be a distraction.
“He was like, mom, ‘I want you to pretend that I don’t have it,’” Sue Anne said. “I want y’all to be here for me, but at the same time … let’s just keep living every day like we have been.”
‘‘Strong willed’ mindset’
To understand the approach to his battle with cancer, you have to understand where he came from. Brewer grew up in a working environment.
Darrell eventually became an electrician after his father retired, and Sue Anne worked in her family’s business.
Brewer swept the floors while his dad wired houses. He and his brothers, Austin, now 20, and Kenley, 18, were always around, always working.
“He’s very strong willed, he always has been,” Sue Anne said. “When he gets something in his mind that he’s going to do, he’s going to do it.”
Also, there was football. Darrell played in high school and got a scholarship to play at North Alabama, but it didn’t pan out. At first, he held his son out of football because he knew the dangers and potential long-term effects it could have.
He eventually gave in and let Brewer play, starting his seventh-grade year. Before the season, Brewer got pneumonia and lost about 20 pounds. By the time the season started, simply put, Brewer wasn’t a fan.
“Something clicked in him that off-season (though),” Darrell said. “He came in that spring, I’ll never forget. He said, ‘Dad, I never want to quit again.’”
Brewer spent the next years of his football career at Central before transferring to play for then-head coach J.B. Wallace at Florence. He played left tackle for the Falcons and finished the 2015 season on the All-State second team.
Wallace said having Brewer was a luxury. On the field, if the Falcons were in short-yardage situations, there wasn’t a secret where the play was going.
“He’s definitely an intelligent kid, a hard worker and a good athlete,” Wallace said. “It was kind of an insurance policy to have him there.”
‘I’ve got to get my mind right’
Despite getting regular radiation treatments at the start of and throughout the 2018 season, Brewer never missed a game with the Blue Raiders – and rarely missed practice, save a few walk throughs or meetings when he had to visit the doctor.
There weren’t many people outside of his family that knew what Brewer was going through. He trusted MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill, Stockstill’s son – former MTSU quarterback Brent Stockstill – and fellow offensive lineman Robert Behanan with the news.
Outside of those three, however, Brewer remained relatively quiet. It wasn’t until Feb. 4, World Cancer Day, that he tweeted to share the news publicly.
“I just didn’t want it to be a distraction,” Brewer said. “I was just going to set out through it myself and get through it. That’s just the way I wanted to take it.”
As the season approached, Stockstill thought it was important to tell the coaching staff so everyone was aware, but kept it at that.
“We need to not make a big deal out of it, but we need to tell (the coaches), so they understand if you are having a bad day,” Stockstill recalls telling Brewer.
Darrell said there were moments throughout the cancer process his son got down, even scared at times. But just like he did 24 hours before a game, Brewer would repeat the phrase he’s told his parents since high school.
“‘I’ve got to get my mind right,’” Darrell said. “He’d just bounce right back and said nope, I gotta get my mind right.”
“A lot of people want to hear the cancer side of Chandler. But I would like to look at it like it was the football ability that helped him beat the cancer,” his father said.
Stockstill called football Brewer’s escape. Rather than sitting in his apartment watching T.V., Brewer spent his time with teammates, practicing, lifting weights and preparing for a game with not a lot of time to think about the cancer.
“You never completely take your mind off of it,” Stockstill said. “But I would think that football probably helped him get through it.”
‘Making his way to the NFL’
Baker, who’s based in Indianapolis, had an idea. He linked Brewer up with one of his former clients and good friend, former Indianapolis Colts offensive lineman Joe Reitz.
Reitz, along with one of his former teammates, Jack Mewhort, worked with Brewer to prepare him for the league. The three worked on different aspects of pass protection while Reitz and Mewhort tried to impart different tricks of the trade they learned while playing.
“He has all the physical tools,” Reitz said. “But what I think sets him apart is his mental toughness and competitiveness. (Also), he’s very humble. You can tell that he was raised right.”
Brewer didn’t tell them about his battle with cancer until the third or fourth time the three met.
“Doing that throughout his senior year? That’s insane,” Reitz said. “When I understood that whole story and how tough he was, that’s why I instantly thought he’s going to have a decade-long NFL career. Guys that operate like that, they last a long time in the NFL.”
With help from Baker, Brewer informed scouts and team representatives of his condition. He admits he thought he had a much better junior season than he did his senior season.
At times, he wished he could’ve grinded a little harder to get better tape for the scouts, but what he was dealing with wasn’t typical for a football player.
“Not necessarily just putting (it) all on that,” Brewer said. “I was just always so tired so much quicker. I was doing all I could do.”
Now, Brewer said he’s in remission. He does yearly checkups. The Rams took a chance on him by signing him as an undrafted free agent for the practice squad on April 30, only to call him up to the active roster several months later.
The moment after he found out the news he was called up on Nov. 13, he shared it with his parents through a simple FaceTime call. Not known to be emotional, Brewer couldn’t hold it in.
Darrell called it his “relief valve” – an opportunity to release all the feelings of overcoming cancer, along with everything it took to achieve his goal.
In July, the Rams’ rookie players visited Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. When he first found out about the trip, Brewer requested to visit the cancer fusion units. Since the time he was diagnosed, he hadn’t met other cancer patients before, and relished the opportunity to hear people’s stories and relate with them.
“I had a little connection to them, knowing I’ve had it. I’ve done it,” Brewer said. “I just tried to be the best support system, saying, ‘Hey, you’re going to get through this; try to be positive.’”
Brewer’s first game after being called up was against the Chicago Bears in primetime on Nov. 17. He got in for three snaps, all on the field goal team.
For Chandler, it was the culmination of an 18-month journey from an unknown future to achieving a lifelong dream.
“God gave this to me and I knew I was going to get through it,” Brewer said. “Here I am, a year and a half later, everything is good (and) I’m on a NFL team. … It’s just crazy to finally get here, just exciting.”
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