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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."