Doctors discover Hodgkin's disease has returned
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- When his Pro Bowl season ended, linebacker Mark Fields joked that he was re-signing with the Carolina Panthers for $2 as gratitude for their support during his battle with Hodgkin's disease.
But when the weeks turned into months and there was no deal, and then his agent said Fields was holding off signing a new contract until after a round of medical tests, many began to wonder if something was wrong.
It was. Fields learned Thursday his cancer was back, in the early stages, and announced through his agent that he would miss the 2005 season.
"Mark is obviously disappointed that he will be unable to play next year, but he has every confidence that this course of chemotherapy will be successful," agent Jim Steiner said. "Mark would like everyone to know that he considers this 'blip' in his recovery a minor setback and that his expectations are to return to the field for the 2006 season."
It was difficult news for the Panthers, who lost linebackers coach Sam Mills three weeks ago after his own battle with cancer.
Fields and Mills spent all of 2003 fighting their illnesses together. They were diagnosed within two weeks of each other before the start of the season, and bonded to discuss treatment options while supporting each other through grueling rounds of chemotherapy.
The Panthers rallied around them, wearing T-shirts under their jerseys bearing both of their numbers and using Fields and Mills as motivation during their Super Bowl season.
Fields came back in 2004 and earned his second career appearance in the Pro Bowl after posting 60 tackles, four sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one interception.
But there were signs Carolina was moving on without Fields. The Panthers used their first-round draft pick on Thomas Davis, who can play linebacker or safety, and signed free-agent linebacker Chris Draft.
Still, they didn't know for sure if Fields would be back until Steiner called them Thursday morning.
"We knew this was a possibility, but we certainly were hoping this wasn't the case," general manager Marty Hurney said. "Our main concern right now is to be as supportive as we can to Mark."
Fields' illness will undoubtedly be difficult for the Panthers, particularly the linebackers who were all close to Mills and viewed Fields as their leader. Dan Morgan, Will Witherspoon and Fields were all pallbearers at Mills' funeral. All three were visibly shaken.
Witherspoon said Thursday that Fields could beat his latest setback.
"I know that he not only beat this thing once, but he's definitely going to do it again," Witherspoon said. "Knowing the way that Mark is, he wants to be back here with us and he'll do it. He has that drive to get back out there on the field and he's going to prove to everybody that he can come back yet again."
It's unclear what Carolina will do to replace Fields. Davis played safety behind Mike Minter during minicamp last week, but coach John Fox indicated he'd also get some time at linebacker. Brandon Short played in Fields' spot in the minicamp, and the Panthers also drafted Adam Seward.
No matter who gets the starting job, defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac said Fields' shoes will be hard to fill.
"Mark is an important part of the Panthers organization, not only as a player, but also as a person," Trgovac said. "His tenacity and leadership will be missed."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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