Benedict Umeh won’t let cancer define him

The college football recruiting process can be cruel and unforgiving. Uncommittable scholarship offers are extended by coaches on a whim. Committable offers are pulled for questionable reasons. Players who have committed to the college of their dreams can be kicked to the curb in favor of another prospect who is an inch taller or a tenth of a second faster.

So imagine an elite prospect taking his official visits, nearing the end of his recruiting process, telling a coaching staff he’s been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and he wants to commit to their school.

Recruits regularly lose their scholarship offers over torn ligaments. This one has cancer.

Meet Benedict Umeh.

A 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive end who ranks No. 151 in the Rivals250, Umeh moved from Toronto and enrolled at Avon (Conn.) Avon Old Farms ahead of the 2022 season. His talent and potential were immediately evident and scholarship offers poured in.

Umeh took official visits to Wisconsin, Duke, Penn State and Stanford in June knowing he had a life-threatening illness.

So when he was in Palo Alto and wanted to commit to the Cardinal, Umeh explained his medical situation to head coach Troy Taylor and – as callous as the college football recruiting process can be – Umeh was greeted with nothing but acceptance, love, and support.

It’s December 2022 and the football season had just drawn to a close a few weeks prior but Benedict Umeh was already in the gym getting ready for next season. He is focused on taking his game to the next level but the training sessions are particularly taxing.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s when it seemed like certain symptoms surfaced,” Umeh said. “I was just like tired, more fatigued. I pushed the same way in the gym but had to work a little bit harder to get the same effect. I had no idea at the time. I thought maybe I just needed to like condition a little bit more here at the gym.

“I think it was like the second week after March break I found a bump in my neck,” he said. “At the time I had no idea what it was so I went to the health center. I talked to the nurses and the health center and they said it’s probably a muscle contusion or something because I’ve had muscle contusions in the same spot and it felt the exact same. So I thought that’s what it was and forgot about it for the most part.

“A month or so passed and I’m in the shower and then I realized that muscle confusion had turned into like a way bigger mass so I went back to the health center,” said Umeh. “That’s when we started doing a bunch of tests in Connecticut and then again once when I got back (home) to Toronto.”

Still unaware of the seriousness of his condition, Umeh continued with his recruiting process and took official visits to Wisconsin and Duke over the first two weekends of June. It wasn’t until after those trips when he received the results of those tests.

“I remember because I was taking my official visits at the time,” he said. “It was the middle of June when we got a diagnosis for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. From there it was another month until the full diagnosis. After another full round of scans, we figured out it was stage four.”

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a type of cancer that affects blood cells and a part of the immune system called the lymphatic system. Umeh’s medical team fast-tracked a treatment plan for him that involved chemotherapy, which was scheduled to begin in mid-July and gave him time to finish out his planned official visits to Penn State and Stanford.

“Throughout the month of June, it had really been between Stanford and Penn State and it came down to Stanford because of the academics, my family was there and my mom just loved it,” Umeh remembered. “It’s been the dream for a long time. I told them (Stanford’s coaching staff) before I committed. I said ‘Here’s the situation. Does this change anything for you? I might not be able to play my senior season.’ They were 100-percent accepting. It didn’t change a single thing for them. When I talked to (Stanford head coach) Troy Taylor he told me right to my face that I was the No. 1 guy on their board and that just meant more than I could say. They’ve been great throughout this whole process. I submitted my application with them. All I need is my teacher recommendations and we’re locked in. My mom started crying when I sent it in. It was a nice moment.”

The stress of the recruiting process pales in comparison to the fight that was ahead for Umeh but the support he received from his family, doctors, coaches, teammates, and the Stanford coaching staff was invaluable.

“It was 12 weeks of chemo so my last day of chemo was Oct. 2,” he said. “In Toronto with student athletes, especially people who play football because it’s a lot smaller here in Canada, you don’t really get a lot of support for what you’re doing. That changed for me when I got to Avon Old Farms. That was the first time I was surrounded by a strong support structure, a strong team spirit, and team environment. I saw that again when I told the people at Avon and all the people at Stanford. It was unanimous across the board, a strong outpouring of love and support. That definitely means more than I could say, honestly, to know that I have those people on my side of the ring.

“I was talking with my medical team and the whole way through the process my oncologist was like, ‘Every time we meet I’m just so surprised looking at your numbers. You’re like the best cancer patient we’ve ever had. You’re making it very, very easy for us.’ It didn’t go as badly as it could have for sure but there’s things we’ve got to get over physically, mentally and spiritually. We’re working through all that fun stuff. I’m looking at it like a bump in the road. It’s definitely a setback, no doubt about it, but all I gotta do is keep working, right? I have a goal in mind and I have enough time to get there. The plan right now is just to lockdown and get ready for my first season at Stanford.”

Umeh is now moving forward with his football career and ready to take on the next stage of his life, gaining some unexpected perspective along the way.

“I 100-percent don’t want this to be the defining moment in my life at all,” Umeh said. “I want it to be a footnote, if anything. I want to do crazy things in college, crazy things after college and have people just kind of remember this as ‘when he had cancer in high school.’

“I’ve always dreamed of going to Stanford and then doing something big in computer science and video game development. It’s been my dream since grade five or grade six and I think I got so hyper-focused on that and using football as a way to get there. Then once I realized how far I could go with football itself, I started kind of hyper-focusing on football and how far I could go with football and what I could accomplish in the world of football. I had to take a step back with this whole thing and I realized what’s more important to me is family, being happy, getting situated in life, and appreciating the smaller things like good food and just waking up everyday feeling healthy. I think life after football for me is going to be a little bit more focused on that.”

With an eye on the future, Umeh is relying on his perseverance to help him reach his goals.

“I think the key takeaway for people should be that I’m definitely not defeated and definitely not beaten,” Umeh said. “I’m gonna get knocked down seven times and get up eight times. This is just another bump in the road, another thing I have to get over and people should expect big, big things coming from me in football and after football. I think everybody who does beat this thing does deserve a little bit of recognition but, at the same time, it definitely shouldn’t define somebody’s career. I don’t want it to define mine.”


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