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Jets big man Mike Pennel, cancer survivor, 'watched by angels'

Jets defensive tackle Mike Pennel overcame several significant health issues during his childhood, including Wilms' tumor -- a rare kidney cancer -- when he was 2 years old. AP Photo/Julio Cortez

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- In mid-May, Mike Pennel returned to his first home, Topeka, Kansas, for his grandfather's 70th birthday. While in the area, he decided to make the one-hour drive to Kansas City, Missouri, to visit an old childhood haunt.

A place he barely remembers.

The place that saved his life.

Pennel went to Children's Mercy Hospital, where he was greeted with New York Jets placards and green balloons. He had called ahead, telling them his story and his plan for the day.

The hulking nose tackle, 6-foot-4, 335 pounds with a chest as wide as a doorway, arrived with toys, art supplies and board games such as Monopoly and Sorry! He distributed them to kids with cancer and kids battling kidney disease, and he spoke with their parents, trying to ease their fears. He saw his former doctor, Alan S. Gamis, who removed tumors from his kidneys 24 years ago.

"It was real humbling, to be honest," the big man 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 Pennel, who is strong enough to bench-press a couple of linebackers, it was the most satisfying lift of his life.

The new man on the Jets' defensive line is a cancer survivor. Before hatching his NFL dream, his goal was to live long enough to become an adult. He overcame a frightening childhood, took a circuitous path to the NFL and landed with the Green Bay Packers, where he spent his first three seasons.

Adversity has been a traveling companion -- he was cut by Green Bay last season after two league suspensions -- but nothing can compare to what he endured as a child.

"I still get choked up thinking and talking about that period of time in our lives," his mother, Terri Pennel, said.

Pennel was only 2 when he was diagnosed with Wilms' tumor, a rare kidney cancer that primarily affects children. He went in for a routine checkup, a screening for day care, when a physician's assistant felt an abnormality in his stomach. That was on a Wednesday. By Friday, following a CT scan, he was in surgery.

Tumors were attached to both kidneys. Dr. Gamis was able to remove the tumor off of one kidney, but the other was complex. To extract the tumor, he had to remove more than one-third of the actual kidney. Next came 18 months of chemotherapy, and many car trips from Topeka to Kansas City. Each time, he spent a few hours in the pediatric oncology center, watching "Barney" movies as potent, cancer-killing drugs filled his little body.

"Every appointment was a reminder and fear of treatment not working or the cancer metastasizing to his lungs, liver or pancreas," Terri Pennel said. "I stayed, prayed up and kept pushing."

Pennel was a hefty 9 pounds, 11 ounces when he was born, and his medical issues started almost immediately. At 3 months, he was diagnosed with hemihypertrophy, a condition in which one side of the body is bigger than the other. It was so severe that a pediatric orthopedic specialist considered shutting down a growth plate. The bone length and diameter on the right side was thicker and longer than the left.

Eventually, it made sense. Doctors told Pennel's mother that hemihypertrophy correlates with Wilms' tumor. They said there was a 1 in 10 chance of a recurrence.

"'Emotional wreck' is an understatement," she said, recalling how she felt.

Mike Pennel beat the cancer, clearing one-, five- and 10-year benchmarks for remission. By the time he was 12, he was 6-foot, 215 pounds, thinking about a career in football. He wanted a personal trainer and a weightlifting set for Christmas. He got the weights, not the trainer, but he was on his way.

"His thoughts were no longer 'If I live to be an adult,' but were now 'When I grow up ...'" his mother 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."

After a stint at Scottsdale (Arizona) Junior College, Pennel enrolled at Arizona State, but he clashed with the coaching staff, got suspended three times in a year and left after playing in only five games. By now, his family had moved to Aurora, Colorado, so he decided to transfer to Colorado State-Pueblo.

Pennel dominated at the Division II level and received a free-agent contract from the Packers. In training camp, on Family Night, his mother cried when he was introduced at Lambeau Field. It was the culmination of a long journey from the oncology ward at Children's Mercy.

He worked his way up the depth chart, impressing with his unusual athleticism for a man his size. He was projected as a starter, but then came a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. Then came another four-game ban for the same violation. Upon returning, he was released by the Packers on the eve of their playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys.

Pennel said "something clicked" in his mind as he watched the Packers on TV. At that moment, he said, he decided to make changes in his life. The Jets picked him up on waivers, hoping he'd make the most of his second chance.

"He’s had a good spring, he’s had a very good spring," coach Todd Bowles said. "He’s into it, and we like what we’ve seen in the spring. If that continues in pads, he’ll have a future here."

The question is, can he stay out of trouble?

"In this business, there are no guarantees," Pennel said. "I could be cut tomorrow or I could do something tomorrow. For me and my family, putting them through everything I did last year, I know that's something I don't want to do again."

Pennel received some tough love from his mother, who gave it to him straight.

"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.

A week before the Jets' OTA practices started, Pennel took that trip to Children's Mercy, where he spent three hours with the kids. Maybe, just maybe, he got as much out of it as they did. It was a sobering reminder of his past and how lucky he is to be alive. It was emotional for him and his mother, who believes "it gave some parents some hope to see my baby beat cancer."

In the spirit of determination and redemption, she designed two tattoos for Mike. On his left arm, it says, "BEAST," with claws. On his right arm, there's a large cross and it says: "Blessed by God, watched by angels, destined for success."

"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."