Cancer took one of Jesse Williams’ kidneys.
It didn’t take his determination, his perspective or his dry wit.
“Hopefully, getting rid of the bad kidney got rid of a bit of the bad luck I had as well,” said the Seahawks’ defensive tackle on Thursday.
Williams is a survivor of papillary type 2 cancer, plus season-ending knee injuries in the past two seasons.
“Yeah, it’s going to be a tough little battle moving around and doing extra work, and staying later if that’s what it takes,” he said. “And I’m ready to do it.”
Remarkably, Williams is ready — and able — to resume practicing. A little more than two months ago, surgeons at the University of Washington Medical Center removed his cancerous kidney.
On Thursday morning, the third-year pro was in shoulder pads going through position drills just like the rest of the Seahawks at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center.
In a training camp so far dominated by rich contract re-signings (Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner for a combined $130.7 million last weekend) and an increasingly prickly holdout (Kam Chancellor, whose absence is seven days and counting), Williams is poised to be the feel-best story of them all.
He’s already deadpanning that he may be more agile after shedding a kidney.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a New York Giants cornerback entering his eighth NFL season, has only one kidney because he had his nonfunctioning one removed when he was 8.
But neither Williams nor anyone else knows of a professional player who has returned to the field within the same year of having a kidney removed due to cancer.
“I’m not really sure of the exact risks. I don’t ever really get smacked in the kidney too much,” Williams said, with a hint of his native Australian accent that he didn’t lose through two years at Arizona Western Community College and two more years playing for Nick Saban at Alabama. “They are going to have me wear a pad and stuff when I’m out there hitting.
“I was glad enough I had two to start off with, so hopefully I’ll be better off with this one right now. The other one was pretty bad; it was messing me up, so hopefully with this I’m a little wider and more agile without it.”
At 6 feet 3 and 325 pounds, Williams has the nickname “The Monstar.” Right now he’s a caged one, perhaps the most eager of Seattle’s 90 players in training camp to get into a game. Even exhibition games. Those start Aug. 14 against Denver.
“Man, I’ll play tomorrow if they let me,” he said. “I had my helmet and was strapped up out there today, and they’re only letting me run through individuals (position drills). But as soon as they give me the OK to go, I don’t know if you’ll see any more people out there trying to hit someone as hard as me.”
The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, a renowned treatment and research center in New York, defines papillary type 2 cancer as representing “more than one category of disease but, as a group, ... much more aggressive and may follow an unpredictable growth pattern.” Doctors found the cancerous cells in Williams’ main kidney area, as opposed to related tubes.
Sloan Kettering says the type of cancer that Williams has occurs in 10 to 15 percent of all cases of kidney cancer. It occurs most often in men aged 50 to 70.
Williams knew something was way wrong when he began urinating “straight blood,” as he said, in the spring. His family was visiting from Brisbane, Australia, but they were out when doctors called him and gave him the news any family fears.
“It was rough. … Yeah, it’s not a nice call to get when you’re just hanging out,” he said. “But, yeah, I took 24 hours to do what I needed to do. Came back, and you know I had work to do the next day, so I had to hit the ground running.”
Williams had surgery May 28. He left UW Medical Center two days later. He praises its doctors, plus those at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, as heroes for what they’ve done to get him back onto the field.
“Yeah, it definitely wasn’t the media post I was trying to get out there,” Williams said.
“The support’s been great, the SCCA, Fred Hutch, UW — everyone’s helped me through that. The Seahawks. Everyone in Seattle that stops me or yells at me as I walk by, it means a lot to me, and my family as well when they were out here.”
Williams embraces the role thrust upon him, one that is far more important than controlling the guard-center gap: That of cancer survivor and spokesman, at the sage age of 24.
“Cancer is universal, you know what I mean? Everyone knows someone (who’s had it),” he said. “So I’m trying to turn this into a positive. Come back. Do what I can. Help out, and help as many people as I can along the way, you know what I mean?”
Now he’s back in shoulder pads, working on shedding blocks instead of cancer, in a role that’s much more familiar, in a job he appreciates more than ever.
Coach Pete Carroll keeps marveling over how Williams and his family have tackled his cancer as if it was a ball carrier without a blocker. Williams just shrugs at that.
“I can’t at the cellular and molecular level control what’s happening in my body. I can only control my mindset and how I come out here and work, and that’s all I’m going to do,” he said. “I’m going to come out here and do what I need to do, and show the coaches what I’m doing.
“But, yeah, one kidney, no kidney, I’m sure I’ll find a way to get back out there.”