HOUSTON -- Two-point-six miles is all that separates NRG Stadium, home of the Texans, from MD Anderson Cancer Center. Three turns, and you're there. But as he sits inside his dimly lit hospital room, Houston offensive tackle David Quessenberry's world is now so far away. On this mid-November morning, while his teammates prepare for the Cleveland Browns, chemotherapy flows into Quessenberry through a peripherally inserted central catheter, more commonly known as a PICC line. The tube, which has been there since he started treatment for non-Hodgkin's T Lymphoblastic Lymphoma in June, goes through his arm and into his chest. The chemicals would burn through a superficial vein if a regular IV were used.
This treatment is meant to kill all the fast-growing cells in his body, but it doesn't spare the host. Just six months ago, Quessenberry weighed a brawny 306 pounds. He was in total control of his body, watching what he ate and how he trained, in hopes of carving out a role in his second NFL season. That didn't keep this indiscriminate disease from overtaking his body. He's one of an estimated 80,000 people who will be diagnosed with lymphoma this year. Now, Quessenberry, 24, lies in his extra-long hospital bed, 30 pounds lighter than his playing weight, with so much he can't control. But each day he's here, he gets closer to winning his most important battle.
His mother, Maureen Quessenberry, spent the night here on a small, stiff couch near a window, where the sheets from her night's sleep remain.
Quessenberry has this room to himself, and his bed takes up most of it. Blue floral wallpaper behind him tops a row of outlets, and two TVs hang on the opposite wall. Breakfast just ended. A box of cornflakes, a half-eaten waffle and some unopened strawberries and granola sit on a tray next to orange juice and milk. They had a big meal last night at Prima Pasta, a nearby Italian restaurant.
"We call it the last supper," Maureen says pleasantly.
It is Quessenberry's last meal before chemo changes his taste buds again. A book by Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich taught Quessenberry that it's a bad idea to eat any foods you like during chemotherapy treatments, lest you ruin those foods forever.
• • •
It all began with a cough, and then came the unrelenting fatigue, until one mini-camp practice, during which Quessenberry felt like he was going to pass out. Texans' trainer Geoff Kaplan knew it was more than a cold and suggested further testing. Had Quessenberry waited any longer, the fluid in his lungs threatened to drown him. Instead, round eight of chemo begins on this day, Nov. 13, with a 24-hour drip of methotrexate. Each round typically lasts 21 days. He spends five in the hospital, then goes home to recover.
A nurse enters, wearing a mask for his safety, with medication he needs. Quessenberry makes a game out of this.
"Test me," he says.
"Sodium bicarbonate," she says, and he correctly guesses it helps settle his stomach.
"What about Diamox?" she says. Of that one, he isn't sure. (It's used to combat kidney damage.)
An IV bag drips the yellow methotrexate into the tubes connected to the PICC line. It's the most trying of all the chemotherapy -- as he says: "Methotrexate is like, 'Oh crap.'"
It won't really start to hit him until tomorrow -- or the next day, if he's lucky.
• • •
Three other clear bags hang with the methotrexate, working to protect him from the chemo that helps much more than it hurts, but it hurts a lot. They call this the tree of life. As Quessenberry watches a sports report about the Browns -- one about the Texans' new starting quarterback Ryan Mallett is coming up soon -- it starts to beep frantically. One of the lines is bent. It's an easy fix but a reminder that the process for destroying cancer while keeping him safe requires constant vigilance.
The chemo continues into his veins as Quessenberry unplugs the IVs and rolls the contraption over to a chair so he can put on shoes.
He has split his treatments between MD Anderson in Houston and a hospital in his hometown of San Diego. There, for rounds three and four, he was confined to his floor. Here, he can roam the hospital.
He rolls it out of his room and down the hall, past a man wearing a hospital gown, while towing his own set of IV bags. Quessenberry doesn't wear the hospital gown. He instead opts for his team-issued military appreciate gear: an army-green hooded sweatshirt with a camouflage ribbon and a Texans logo sewn onto the front.
It's another reminder he's not alone in his recovery. Between his parents, brothers, godmother, girlfriend, teammates and coaches, Quessenberry's support system is involved and far-reaching. But there are few who intimately understand this experience. Thankfully, where football and cancer overlap, a community forms.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano, a leukemia survivor, wore a shirt that read "Indianapolis For DQ" to practice one day. When Pagano contacted Quessenberry, he emphasized how much focusing on football would help pass the time during treatment. So Quessenberry keeps an iPad close by and watches practice film in the afternoons.
Herzlich, the Giants linebacker and Ewing's sarcoma survivor, sends well wishes via Twitter soon after David's diagnosis.
"Hopefully, David has an easier time of it than I did," Herzlich said recently by phone. "That's what we all hope for. That's why raising money and awareness is important."
Herzlich was diagnosed while a student at Boston College and told he'd probably never play football again. For hope, he clung to stories of other athletes who overcame cancer or other physical ailments to play again. When Herzlich wrote his own book, he hoped it would serve the same purpose for others.
It has. Quessenberry has read his book three times.
"It talks about things I'm totally able to relate to as an athlete and a younger guy," Quessenberry says as he waits for the elevator.
Herzlich offered this advice for Quessenberry: Set small goals, and celebrate them along the way. He remembers every day of chemo feels like the day after a loss.
"You feel like, 'Man, I let my team down,'" Herzlich said. "You get that pit in your stomach. That's the same thing that happens when you get chemo. ... Am I letting the people around me down? Am I being strong enough for them? You start feeling this anxiety."
Before Herzlich ended the call, he asked to be connected to Quessenberry so the two could talk on the phone.
• • •
Quessenberry takes the elevator down to the first floor and wanders into Kim's Place. The Rockets and Comets donated $1.25 million to build this rec room in honor of Kim Perrot, a former Houston Comets point guard who died of lung cancer at age 32.
Nothing can erase the monotony, discomfort and pain that come with chemotherapy, but Kim's Place helps. With décor resembling an arcade, the color red is a permanent fixture. By the door, a glass case displays a massive pair of shoes that belonged to former Rockets great Yao Ming. It is morning and mostly empty, but patients between the ages of 13 and 30 can use Kim's Place to play games, shoot hoops on the free throw machine, play pool and meet others who understand what they're experiencing.
Quessenberry has made friends here, like the teenager who recently graduated from MD Anderson High School, and has been battling cancer since he was 6 years old.
A woman named Mary Emiola walks by just as Quessenberry says he can outshoot her on the free throw machine. "What'd you lie about now?" Emiola asks, looking sly.
A fit, energetic, middle-aged woman with happy eyes and a playful demeanor, Emiola is the caretaker at Kim's Place.
Quessenberry opts against backing up his trash talk on the free-throw machine. The truth is, she's too good. As they wander back to her desk, he tells her he had been asked to present the Lombardi Award in downtown Houston on Dec. 10. It's given to college football's best lineman and helps support cancer research fundraising.
"If everything works out and my counts are up," he says. Chemo can lower white blood cell counts and decrease his immunity.
"Your counts are going to be up, you're not going to have a fever," Emiola replies confidently.
Quessenberry doesn't know it, but 10 days from now, he will have to check into the emergency room because of a fever and infection. He will be released a few days later and won't return until his ninth round of chemo.
The odd rounds are a little bit easier, but treatment will still take enough out of him that he will think about not attending the award ceremony. But he will go and say on the red carpet, "I'm going to do everything I can here in the city of Houston to try and change as many lives as I can."
A few Texans teammates will attend to show support and begin a standing ovation when Quessenberry emerges to present the award. Dressed in a blue shirt and black suit, he will stand before the room of 1,500 people and address the finalists.
"I've spent a lot of Saturdays in hospital rooms this year, and being able to watch you guys play has brought me great joy," he will say. "I wish you guys long, healthy careers filled with great memories of dedication to your craft and service to your people. You guys have a bright future ahead."
• • •
The afternoon comes. His teammates are finishing up a day of practice and meetings. Quessenberry still has four more days in the hospital and plans to leave as soon as he can. Nights here are not restful. Every few hours a nurse comes in to check his wrist band, ask his name, ask his medical number and make sure he's still alert.
"Tomorrow or the next day you really start to feel it," he says in reference to what he calls that "Oh, crap" feeling.
The IV fluids drip audibly.
Once the chemotherapy gets into his system, he has to stay in the hospital until it's flushed out. That usually takes five days. Then he recovers at home until his body has regained its strength, at which point it's time for more chemo. Despite the cycle and its effects, Quessenberry makes semi-regular visits to the Texans' facility, where he works out and attends meetings -- anything to feel normal. (He remains on the Texans' non-football illness list.)
His football family is a constant fixture in his life. Veteran linemen Chris Myers and Duane Brown orchestrated a day during training camp when the team, coaches and staff all wore "Texans For DQ" shirts. The shirts sold at team stores and raised enough money for the Texans to donate $100,000 in Quessenberry's name to the Lymphoma research foundation. Quessenberry helped present the check during the Texans' Oct. 9 game against the Indianapolis Colts.
Quessenberry's hospital visitor's list includes, among others, Alex Kupper and Ryan Griffin, his two closest friends on the team; coach Bill O'Brien; and owner Bob McNair, himself a cancer survivor.
"He likes to get caught up on whatever went on that day, what he's missed," Kupper said. "He likes to know what the coaches are saying."
A strength coach once said he'd bring a workout for Quessenberry to complete in the halls, a gesture that makes Quessenberry smile, though the coach perhaps didn't fully understanding just how taxing chemotherapy can be.
"It's really a unique feeling," he says in his hospital bed. "It wipes you out. Makes you feel toxic."
A CD player sits on the tray table in front of him. He bought it for $10 so he could listen to audiobooks. George W. Bush's "41" and Bill O'Reilly's "Patton" help pass the time while he waits for that day's practice film.
Maureen is leaving tonight, and she packs up some of David's things to take with her. One item she makes sure to grab: a silver-painted football. It commemorates Oct. 25, the day four college football programs with ties to Quessenberry -- UCLA, Colorado, Navy and San Jose State -- all played each other with DQ decals on their helmets. (Quessenberry's two brothers play at UCLA and Navy, while Colorado is now the home of his former San Jose State coach Mike MacIntyre. "Best leader, best captain I've ever been around as a coach or player," MacIntyre said leading up to the game.)
Next, she picks up a rock painted like a ladybug. They call it the warrior bug. Quessenberry's girlfriend, a gymnast at San Jose State, made it for him. During spinal taps, a process in which a large needle draws fluid from his spine, he'd hold the warrior bug tightly.
• • •
Sometimes, especially at night, Quessenberry unplugs the tree of life and takes the elevator up to the indoor observation deck. It's a room with a 360-degree view of the hospital's surroundings. To the north sits the Houston Zoo and, farther in the distance, the glittering skyscrapers of downtown. To the south, NRG Stadium is the most visible building, with its letters shining brightly in the distance.
From up here it looks even closer than 2.6 miles away.
It's now Nov. 14, three days away from the end of his hospital stay. One bag of chemo is finished and the tree of life starts to beep. The combination of medicine has given him an excruciating headache.
He pages for help.
"Can I help you?" a nurse asks. It's not the nurse he's used to.
"Yeah, I'm beeping," he says, a bit exasperated. The nurse scurries off to refill his fluids.
His headache persists because the doctor who needs to sign a prescription for a painkiller isn't answering pages. Regular painkillers won't do. Most of them reduce fever, which conflicts with the chemotherapy.
All he can do is lean back and rest his head on his bed.
Shortly after Christmas, Quessenberry will start his 10th and final round of chemo. But the end is only the beginning: He'll have radiation and need blood transfusions. Then he'll start a 30-month maintenance process, but he expects to able to return to the field during that time. "I'll have to take chemo pills once a week," he says.
He figures if he can take the pills on Monday and recover on Tuesday, he can be ready by Wednesday, when full practices begin most weeks. He knows how important that maintenance period is; he says many people his age stray, causing the cancer to return.
Is that usually why that happens?
"There's no way of knowing, and I don't want to waste any time thinking about it," he says. "What caused it? What was the reason for it? Is it going to come back? Truth is, nobody knows."
As he answers, it seems to occur to him this is just one more thing out of his control. He'll just keep fighting the best he can.