NATCHITOCHES – Saturday’s 6:07 p.m. #FORKCANCER game against No. 13 Central Arkansas marks the third time in his Northwestern State career that redshirt sophomore Kenny Sheldon has been part of one of NSU’s once-a-semester fundraising efforts.
Because of the events of June 6, 2019, this one means a little more for Sheldon, the Demons’ starting right guard.
With his family on vacation that day, Sheldon received a life-changing phone call from ear, nose and throat Dr. John Craddock Jr. informing Sheldon the mass he found on the 20-year-old’s thyroid was malignant.
“It was a little scary, but it was calming being with my family and having them there to support me,” Sheldon said. “My mom was in tears, and that was hard to see, but everyone was very supportive.”
One day after the diagnosis, Sheldon was at former teammate Andrew McAlister’s wedding before returning to Natchitoches to resume summer workouts in preparation for the 2019 season.
He kept news of his cancer limited to strength and conditioning coach Jared Myatt and “a few close friends.”
“I just wanted to work out and feel like one of the guys,” Sheldon said.
For nearly three weeks, Sheldon took part in summer workouts along his teammates and coaches before revealing the news to his teammates two days before his June 28 surgery, an operation that came with a choice.
The Demons’ collective reaction was unsurprising, especially from Sheldon’s fellow offensive linemen.
“They were all supportive,” Sheldon said. “Our O-line is extremely close. Everyone in that room was checking on me. (Senior guard Tyler) Rapp was the first person I saw when I woke up from surgery. It was nice to see familiar faces and have teammates who support you. We’re a close room, and that was really proven to me once I had the surgery.”
That support extended past the offensive line and was born from watching what Sheldon had done throughout the early part of June.
“I was in Houston seeing my girlfriend and was able to see him the day after his surgery,” junior wide receiver Gavin Landry said. “The day he told us, we had no idea. It’s like he said, we don’t always know what anyone is going through. For him to be here that whole month of June, grinding it out with us … we circled up and led a prayer for him and his family for dealing with it. That’s what got me through it when I had to deal with my heart surgery (in 2016).”
Because the tumor was confined to one side of Sheldon’s thyroid gland, he and his family had a decision – remove one side of the thyroid or remove it all.
After deliberating with Craddock, the decision was made to remove the affected half and allow Sheldon to retain some sense of normalcy.
“Dr. Craddock said he wanted to take half of it so I wouldn’t have to take Synthroid or another type of medicine,” Sheldon said. “I got the blood work done and it all checked out. It didn’t affect me too much, except for the recovery time.”
Except for the scar that crosses the midpoint of his throat, there is little outwardly to suggest Sheldon’s recent battle, one that began with a sore throat that felt “a little different,” according to Sheldon.
He returned to fall camp on time and has started each of the Demons’ first six games of 2019 at right guard, extending his streak of starts to 16 dating to the 2018 season. Sheldon said there “never was a doubt” in his mind he would return for his sophomore season despite a diagnosis of a disease of which approximately 5 percent of cases occur in children or teenagers.
“I’ll never forget whenever he called and he talked about going back to Houston to get it checked on,” Laird said. “At that time, we didn’t think it was going to end up being what it did. I also remember talking to him after the fact. He talked about the process, and I was taken aback that he would have the ability to quickly come back and play the game he loves.
“What he had to endure was tough. It’s tough for any young man or young woman, but how he handled the situation with such a positive attitude, I can take that as a coach and learn from it.”
Much like that June 6 phone call did for Sheldon, the 2019 season has not gone to plan for the Demons (0-6), but it has given Sheldon a new perspective on battling through adversity and coming out wiser.
“One thing I learned when I had the surgery was you never know what anyone’s going through,” he said. “I remember coming back and working out after the diagnosis, and I looked at some people and thought about that. Coach Laird talks about it. We’re all together to accomplish one goal, but you never know what someone’s going through outside football, outside the fieldhouse.”
Photo: Kenny Sheldon (right) opens a hole for running back Jared West during Saturday’s game at Nicholls. Sheldon has started all six games this season at right guard, despite being diagnosed with thyroid cancer on June 6 and undergoing surgery to remove half his thyroid on June 28. Credit: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services