Football is a game of inches, they say, but that can mean different things to different people. For Purdue defensive tackle Will Colmery, the inches came inside his head. They were the difference between him rejoining the Boilermakers for spring practice last week and having his football career, if not much more, derailed by a brain tumor.
Nobody in West Lafayette, Indiana -- where new coach Jeff Brohm has started to teach his nation-leading, head-turning offense to a struggling Purdue program -- was more excited to start spring workouts in late February than Colmery. Doctors say he won’t be able to participate in contact drills until this summer at the earliest, but the junior has been suited up and on the field for all five of the Boilermakers’ practices thus far.
“Even though I’m not doing everything, it feels really good to be back,” Colmery said. “I think about it almost every day. I feel like I’m lucky and blessed to have things work out the way they did. It could’ve been a lot worse.”
Nine months ago, a neurosurgeon made an incision that stretched nearly ear to ear across the edge of Colmery’s scalp, just above the hairline. It took four hours to remove the pieces of a tumor that had ruptured inside his skull a day earlier. Intact, the large mass of misplaced cells growing behind his left eye was roughly the size of a tennis ball. When it finally became too big and burst on the morning of June 28, it sent Colmery’s body into a seizure on the floor of Purdue’s indoor practice facility.
The diagnosis ended a mystery for the football program’s medical staff. About a half-dozen times in the previous year, Colmery said he had blacked out. For roughly 30 seconds, his friends and family told him, he would speak nonsense before returning to his senses completely unaware that anything strange had occurred. Initially, it happened once during a summer conditioning workout and then many months later during a practice last spring.
Team doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him. They thought perhaps he was dehydrated. These types of tumors aren’t terribly rare, but the symptoms don’t usually present themselves in someone as young as Colmery, who was 20 years old. When the blackout episodes became more frequent in June, the training staff pulled Colmery from training until they could diagnose the issue.
They started with his heart and had scheduled an MRI on his head for early July. The seizure hit before they could get to it, while Colmery watched his teammates complete an early-morning weight-room session. Each time the tumor swelled, it put enough pressure on Colmery’s brain to cause him to act out of character. That morning, it grew too big for the pocket it inhabited.
Jeanne Colmery was at her home in Chicago’s southwest suburbs that morning when then-head coach Darrell Hazell called early enough to alarm her. Jeanne and her husband, Scott, hurried to make the two-plus-hour drive to a hospital near Purdue’s campus. By the time they arrived, Will was awake and was already determined to return to football.
“We call him ‘Strong Will,’” Jeanne said. “He never felt sorry for himself. The day we drove down there, he was already talking about how nothing was going to stand in his way of returning to the field. ... I just said, 'Let’s just take one day at a time.' After talking to the doctors, I think he realized how lucky he was and the most important thing was that he was going to be healthy.”
The tumor grew in the space between Colmery’s skull and brain. Had it nested an inch or two in another direction, on his brain, his problems might have been much worse. More importantly, doctors tested the cells and found they were non-cancerous. They said the way the tumor ruptured would not have any ill effects on his vision or speech. It was a harrowing experience, but Colmery had dodged several bullets.
He left the hospital four days after surgery and began plotting his path back to the field. He watched training camp from the sideline and helped out with the defensive line where he could. He wasn’t allowed to do anything more strenuous than going for a long walk before late September.
“I’ve been playing football since third grade. It felt really weird not doing anything, especially when I couldn’t work out,” Colmery said. “That was terrible. Not getting exercise for me was kind of a big deal and was kind of weighing on me a little bit.”
Colmery was cleared to return to the weight room in the fall, and he had to pace himself to avoid dizzy spells. If he pushed too hard, blood rushed to fill the area of his head once occupied by the tumor and gave him an amplified version of the disoriented feeling of standing up too fast.
He was cleared for football activity in the winter, but his future isn’t fully settled. The biggest risk of future problems comes from the metal plates that surgeons used to help strengthen his skull after breaking it open. Colmery has more tests scheduled in July, a year after the surgery, to make sure his head has continued healing properly.
The path to getting his first game snaps as a Big Ten player is still long and hard. He’ll have a good deal of ground to make up physically. He’ll have mental obstacles to hurdle as well. Colmery said he weighed the merits of returning to a violent game with his family and his doctors. They told him about other athletes who had returned from similar problems. His parents -- both former college athletes -- and his older brothers encouraged him. He decided that as long as there is a healthy way forward, he’ll take it.
“I want to get out there and play again,” he said. “That’s definitely my goal.”
However Colmery ends up contributing to the Boilermakers, he says there’s no doubt that he’ll do it with a renewed sense of appreciation for being a part of the team.