ZAPOTOSKY / BLADE Enlarge
It is not a fair fight, man vs. cancer. It's a despicable disease, an insidious opponent with a perversely remarkable won-loss record.
There's the sporadic, welcome triumph for medicine and science and man, perhaps the occasional tie, but the disease usually wins and in the case of cancer vs. Neil Shuff, well, the verdict sadly is going to be rather predictable.
But this disease that delivers so many blows below the belt sometimes picks on people with pluck and takes a roundhouse in return. Shuff has held it at bay for some time, a triumph of spirit and will. Neil was supposed to be a statistic by now but he's playing overtime, still targeting events and dates he'd like to be around to enjoy.
The sports pages are usually all about athletes. Shuff was never one of any renown; he played a little soccer at Waite High School and, admittedly, wasn't very good. But these pages should also be about the people who read them, who revel in the tales of glory and live with a passion for their favorite teams and favorite players.
So gather 'round for a few minutes and let us tell you about Neil Shuff.
First of all, Neil is 32 years old and is dying. He knows it. Now you do, too. He lives with his wife and stepdaughter in Walbridge in a small, neat, not-a-speck-of-dust home across from a peaceful park just off the business district. The hospice folks are in and out and so is an incredible, loving support team of family and friends.
Neil has lost his left leg, and the cancer has spread elsewhere and a man who was never a physical giant to begin with now seems especially diminutive in the embrace of his wheelchair.
Conversation can be exhausting for him, he appears weak and spent, but when he shakes your hand it is a man's handshake and when he looks you in the eye there's a glint there from someone who has already been to hell, knows nothing more can be done to hurt him, and that the next stop is filled with so much promise.
He's going to take a few things with him when he goes. Pictures from his wedding four years ago to Kristin. Pictures of little Alyssa. And then there are all those snapshots taken at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in Columbus. And the Ohio State ball cap that will lie lightly on his head. The flowers on his casket will be tipped in scarlet and gray and they'll sit atop a banner signed by dozens of OSU football players, the one with the special message near the border:
"Neil: The Buckeyes are cheering for you! God bless! Jim Tressel."
It was last fall that Neil Shuff realized there would not be many more crisp football Saturdays in his future, and that those three hours of unbridled joy every week when his beloved Buckeyes ran across the TV screen were down to a precious few.
He decided to go to Columbus, to visit his doctors and nurses at OSU's James Cancer Hospital.
"I wanted to say good-bye, to say thank you, to have some closure," Neil said. "It turned out to be a whole lot more."
Shuff may be too old for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, but
he still had one, even if he never dared to articulate it. His mother-in-law, Lisa Schmidlin, who had made that trip to Columbus with him so many times for all those treatments and surgeries, who had slept at
his side so many nights, who was on a first-name basis with
every doctor and nurse, knew there was a wish, even knew what it was.
So she talked to one of the nurses, and the nurse called someone she knew, and that someone called someone else and from all of those phone calls came one incredible day that made all of the others at least a little more bearable.
Neil Shuff became a member of the Ohio State football family on a Tuesday in October of last year.
"We made it a special trip," Lisa said. "We got a hotel room, went to a bakery Neil loves, ate at our favorite restaurant and at 11 o'clock that morning I said that we had to leave to see the doctor."
But something was amiss. Lisa turned the wrong way out of the lot and headed in the wrong direction. Neil knew "something was strange, something was up."
Joanna Otting, the girlfriend of Neil's brother-in-law, Kevin Reynolds, was with them when they pulled into the parking lot of a huge complex Neil had never seen. Suddenly, from around the corner, came Kevin and the doctor and the nurse and a man in a scarlet shirt. He was Bob Sweeney, an OSU trainer, and he said he was going to give Neil a tour.
So they saw the national championship trophy won at the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, the indoor practice facility, the training room, a few offices, and then Neil found himself parked in the doorway of a giant meeting room filled with football players. His Buckeyes.
Tressel stood at the head of the room and was reading his team a letter from a soldier in Iraq who wrote that his love of Ohio State football was sometimes all that kept him going.
"And somebody else who's very special is with us today," Tressel said, introducing Neil, and talking about his disease and his fight and his devotion to OSU football. The players stood and applauded. As they filed out of the room, each Buckeye gave him a tap on the shoulder, a handshake, and many posed for pictures.
"They all wanted to talk to Neil, to hear his story," Lisa recalled last week. "He never smiled so much in his life. Talk about your ear-to-ear grins."
But it was just the beginning.
Neil was wheeled to the training room as the players got taped for practice.
There were more hugs and more pictures, Joanna manning the camera. Many of the Buckeyes signed the big block-O banner.
Then Kevin wheeled him right down onto the practice field, so close to the action that the Buckeyes occasionally had to move the line of scrimmage toward the opposite sideline.
"Be careful of Neil," quarterback Justin Zwick shouted out to his teammates before taking the snap for a sweep in that direction.
"It meant everything in the world to me," Neil said. "It was awesome, a dream come true. I grew up watching Ohio State football with my dad and oldest brother. I still sit and watch every game, no matter what. I'm a huge fan; it's everything to me. I always dreamed of winning the lottery. This was better."
Near the end of practice a man in a sports coat and tie walked up to Neil and his entourage. Archie Griffin, he of the two Heisman Trophies, stopping by to say hello. It had been a dumbfounding day, but this put it over the top. Neil grabbed his cell phone and called his father, John, back in east Toledo. Neil handed the phone to Griffin, who spoke with the elder Shuff.
As practice concluded, the Buckeyes huddled up and Tressel asked Neil if there was anything they could do for him.
"Yeah," said Neil Shuff, reverting to the mantra of all devout Ohio State fans. "Beat Michigan."
A few weeks later, OSU did just that. When the final second ticked off the clock, Kevin opened the door and Neil wheeled his chair down the ramp at the townhouse where he lived at the time, whooped it up in the middle of the parking lot, and had a sudden thought.
"They did it for me," he said.
In the aftermath of the unexpected win, Sweeney was kind enough to call Neil and leave a message on his answering machine. Shuff still has the tape.
"He said the players were in their circle after the game and that they mentioned me," Neil said.
Tressel was in Toledo for a speaking engagement Friday night and remembered the encounter well.
"What's neat is whenever our kids get to reach out to someone, maybe someone who's going through some tough times, it ends up being better for our guys than it does for the person who comes and visits us," the OSU coach said.
"With Neil, all of a sudden they're talking for a little bit, he's letting them know he wants them to beat the Wolverines, and I think it's very helpful."
To all involved.
Neil Shuff's battle with cancer began in October of 1994. After surgery, he was in remission for some time, but another lump showed up on his left leg in January, 2001. He and Kristin rushed their wedding plans, tying the knot on March 24, before he returned to see his cancer specialist. But he knew.
They knew. And it has been one surgery after another and one setback after another since.
"Neil has taught us all about courage and strength," Lisa Schmidlin said.
"He's such an incredible person. He has changed my life."
Did he ever ask, why me?
"Sure I did, all the time. I'm human," Neil said. "But then I realized that was like saying, 'Why not another person instead of me?' And that's wrong. I tell myself that it's better me than someone else going through what I've been through.
"I just keep going and whatever happens will happen. I know it's near, but I'm a fighter. I've already fought way past the date the doctors gave us. Hopefully, I'll go a couple more months. I made our fourth anniversary. Alyssa's birthday is May 31. Then there's the Fourth of July at my in-laws with a great cookout and fireworks. Kristen's 30th birthday is in September. I'll try. I'll fight."
And when the fight ends, when Neil Shuff is whole and pain-free again, he will not have the autographed, scarlet-and-gray block-O banner with him.
"I hope my wife will have it framed and hang it somewhere in the house, so it can be a joy and pleasure for them in remembering me," he said. "So Alyssa can grow up and look at it and say, 'That's the day my daddy got to be with the Ohio State football team.' "
Contact Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.