NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — When Austin Woods walks off the football field after practicing in Oklahoma’s 100-degree August heat, sometimes it’s only the start of a grueling day for the Sooners’ center.
After being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the spring, Woods is undergoing chemotherapy treatments to deal with the form of cancer. For three to four hours every other week, a mixture of chemicals is pumped into his body through an inch-long needle in a process that leaves him feeling fatigued.
All that still isn’t enough to keep the determined Texan from reporting for another practice and putting in the work it requires to be the Sooners’ deep snapper on place kicks and the backup for starting center Gabe Ikard.
Some days, it’s practice in the morning and chemotherapy in the afternoon.
“It’s just something you’ve got to do. It’s something I want to do,” said Woods, a junior from Rockwall, Texas. “I want to play football, I want to battle this cancer and I want to win, so I want to help my teammates. That’s just something I had to do.”
Woods was bothered through much of spring practice by a sore throat and swollen glands around his neck. He eventually approached team trainer Scott Anderson, and was told it wasn’t normal. Over the course of a couple weeks, he had blood work and other tests done and was sent to an oncologist who was able to figure out what was going on.
At first, he thought he’d have to sit out this season and use a redshirt. Giving up the sport, which his father used to play and now coaches, was never an option.
“I love football. I love being with my teammates. I love the University of Oklahoma,” Woods said. “Football was the first thing on my mind: How can I get back to playing football as fast as I can?”
While fighting through the treatments, Woods is on track to be right where he wants to be this season: on the field. His role as the deep snapper is solidified and longtime starter Ben Habern’s decision to give up football after neck and back injuries could mean more playing time with the offense, too.
As much as a person can be, Woods was prepared to tackle his lymphoma. His mother, Donna, beat breast cancer when he was 5 years old and has been a key part of his support system. And he believes the fact that he was already in football shape and going through Oklahoma’s demanding workouts probably prepared his body to handle the treatments.
His position coach, James Patton, describes Woods as a “pretty powerful, strong-minded kid” with an unwavering vision for what he wants.
“The mind is the strongest part of your body. If your mind says you can do something, you’re going to do it. You’re going to get it done. That’s what my whole stance on this thing was,” Woods said. “I was going to tell my mind that I’m going to get through this, I’m going to attack these treatments just like we attack a team on Saturday. I’m going to attack these things, I’m going to get through it and I’m going to beat this thing.
“Defeat was never really an option.”
After Friday’s treatment, Woods is set to have three more chemotherapy sessions before he’s all done. The last is scheduled for around Oct. 1, one month into the regular season. So far, it has been relatively smooth sailing and he described the last scan of his lymph nodes as “excellent,” showing the cancerous cells going away.
“God does some amazing things. He’s really given me a body that’s handled the treatments,” he said. “I’m just very thankful for that and just glad I’ve been able to go through summer workouts and everything and be with my teammates.”
His fellow Sooners appreciate his presence, too.
Adam Shead, a starting guard, remembers how Woods found out he had cancer one day this spring and was right back at work the next day as if nothing had changed. Ikard recalled struggling through summer workouts right alongside Woods and thinking, “There’s worse things in life than breathing hard on a Wednesday.”
“He’s going through a lot right now,” Shead said. “When I’m tired, I think about it, `This guy has cancer. He’s out at practice. Let’s go.’ I can’t feel sorry for myself. It’s a thing that’s really humbling.”
Patton put it this way: “If a guy thinks he’s having a bad day, listen, you’ve got to change your mindset.”
Woods says the worst part is the treatments, which he gets at the university’s Stephenson Cancer Center in Oklahoma City. His teammates, including roommate and fellow lineman Bronson Irwin, have tagged along to keep him company during the process that’s not painful — except for a needle stick — but quite tiring.
Each time, he says, leaves him feeling more fatigued than the last. After a day or two, the drained feeling goes away and he’s back to normal — or close to it, with a port near his left shoulder that’s used to administer his treatment and serves as a constant reminder of what he’s going through.
“He’s unbelievable. He’s a great kid, just an inspiration to everybody the way the kid works. It’s pretty impressive. … I see that bandage right here all the time,” Patton said, motioning toward his shoulder. “That kid’s got it wrapped up and he’s out there competing and playing.”