After 3 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, nose tackle Mike Pennel arrived at Florham Park, NJ last week for his first week on the job as a New York Jet.
After a childhood where he was diagnosed with hemihypertrophy at 3 months, and as a Wilms’ tumor patient at 2 years, starting his 4th
season as a professional football player doesn’t seem quite so tumultuous.
Hemihypertrophy is a condition in which one side of the body is larger than the other. Pennel’s case was so severe that a pediatric orthopedic specialist considered shutting down a growth plate. It was later learned that his diagnosed was directly impacted by a case of Wilms’ tumor.
Wilms' tumor is a rare kidney cancer that typically affects children, and is commonly referred to as nephroblastoma. It most often affects children ages 3-4, and becomes much less common after age 5. While most cases occur in just a single kidney, Pennel had tumors attached to both.
The now-defensive lineman had 1 tumor removed fairly easily, but the second tumor required that one-third of Pennel’s kidney had to be removed. 18 months of chemotherapy followed.
Despite a 1-in-10 chance of recurrence, a 12-year old Pennel officially defeated the cancer, clearing 1-, 5- and 10-year benchmarks for remission. By this point, he was 6-foot, 215 pounds, and wanted to pursue a career in football.
"His thoughts were no longer 'If I live to be an adult,' but were now 'When I grow up ...'" his mother Terri said. "I believe that's when he saw himself going to the NFL. ... I knew the odds of him making it were slim to none, but I also believed my kids could do whatever they set their mind to, and I believed that with every fiber of my being."
In May, Pennel traveled to Topeka, Kansas, for his grandfather's 70th birthday. While in the area, he made the 1-hour drive to Kansas City, Missouri, to visit Dr Alan Gamis at Children's Mercy Hospital, the surgeon who removed the tumors from his kidneys 24 years ago.
He arrived with toys, art supplies and board games that he distributed to kids battling cancer or kidney disease; children currently in a position from which he finds himself more than 2 decades removed. He spoke with their parents, trying to calm their nerves, and making sure that they saw exactly what a Children’s Mercy Hospital success story could look like.
"It was real humbling, to be honest," the Pennel said at last week's minicamp. "I talked to a lot of kids on dialysis. One kid, about 2 years old, didn't know what was going on. I just tried to raise their spirits a little bit."
"For eight years after his cancer surgery and treatment, I told him, 'God spared you for a reason -- that was His gift to you," Terri Pennel said. "What you become and make of yourself is your gift to Him."
"Life doesn't always go as planned and, if you are fortunate and blessed enough to get a second chance ... you don't blow it!" she said, repeating her message to him.
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All quotes in this story first appeared in the ESPN.com feature article by Rich Cimini.