73 : Stripped of Football Glory By Cancer w/ CrossFit Games Regional Qualifier, Marco Dapkey - Part 1/2

This week on the Heads 'N Tales podcast we hear from Marco Dapkey who is a survivor of acute lymphoblastic leukemia and has recently qualified for the CrossFit Regionals (an absolutely incredible feat). Marco's interview has been broken up into two parts.  In part one (Episode 73) we learn about Marco’s cancer diagnosis, which caused him to miss his highly anticipated senior season of high school football.  We also talked about the treatment process and the struggles of watching his team succeed without him.  To end the episode, Marco took us through his attempted comeback to football only to receive yet another sign that football might not be in his cards.

As I have mentioned in many of the previous podcast episodes, CrossFit was a great outlet for me in my transition to life after sports.  Marco obviously felt the same connection to the sport and has excelled to an elite level.  For those of you wondering what CrossFit is, what the regionals are and why you should care, the video below will explain.

To put it in simple terms, CrossFit is a high-intensity fitness program incorporating elements from several sports and types of exercise.  You don't necessarily need to compete in CrossFit, and I would venture to guess that most people who consider themselves "CrossFitters" don't.  For athletes who miss the feeling of competition, there are plenty of opportunities to get your fix in the sport.  The video above explains the general gist of the CrossFit Games, but the specifics have changed slightly since this video was published.  It is now actually much more difficult to qualify for regionals because only the top 10 men and 10 women from Asia, Africa and Latin America, 20 men and 20 women from Canada West, Canada East and all U.S. Open Regions, and 30 men and 30 women from Australia and Europe are invited to compete.   In 2016, 324,307 participants from 175 countries participated in the open, further proving how difficult it is to qualify for regionals.   We will save the rest of the CrossFit talk for part 2.

Before Marco found CrossFit, he was captain of his football team at Neshaminy High School where he played safety and outside linebacker.  There was lots of hype going into his senior season with the prospects of Division 1 scholarships and a state title.  As the team began to wrap up their spring strength and conditioning program at the end of Marco's junior year, he started feeling sick.  This feeling started off with a cold that had him coughing and wheezing and no matter what he did, he couldn't seem to kick it. He eventually came down with swelling in his throat and a lump in his cheek.  Each of these symptoms came about over a span of 3-4 weeks.  All the while, Marco was suffering his way through practices and training sessions like any competitive athlete would have done.  Marco recalled that a week before he was diagnosed with cancer his team was testing their lifts before the start of summer training.  Despite feeling like hell and unknowingly having cancer, he ended up power cleaning 285 lbs and squatting 485 lbs. Marco said he almost fainted after the squat and knew in his gut that something was seriously wrong. 

Eventually his symptoms got so bad that he needed to be taken to the hospital after having difficulty breathing.  After a slew of tests, X-rays and a bone marrow biopsy the doctor confirmed that he had cancer. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia to be exact (just like our Episode 24 guest, Dan Exter).  With dreams of playing college football and winning a state championship the first thing he asked his doctor at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) was could he play football.  After learning about the treatment process he realized football was not an option and that news was the only thing that made him cry throughout the whole process. As a football player, you often feel invincible so the question of how could this happen to me quickly consumed Marco's thoughts, especially because no one had an answer as to why he got cancer.  Fortunately, the treatment protocol for Marco's cancer had a strong track record, but it was going to be a long road.

Marco's treatment plan of action was as follows:

  • Stay in the hospital for a month, or until the cancer has been proved to be in remission.
    • Leukemia is a blood cancer, so he had tumors everywhere.
    • He was on a lot of steroids, "not the good kind" to suppress the tumors.
  • Over the next six months Marco received out patient treatments once a week.
    • Felt really sick
    • Lost his hair
    • Suffered from a pulmonary embolism 
  • The last leg of his treatments included 2.5 years of maintenance where he got chemo treatments once a month.
    • This is the phase that he was able to start getting his life back together.
Marco #7

Marco #7

Despite having a lot of positive support throughout the process, once football season rolled around, Marco struggled mentally and emotionally.  Being a team captain, Marco wanted to be at every game, but didn't want to show any inclination of weakness. He remembers mentally putting himself into the plays and couldn't help but think about what could have been.  He also struggled to fight off the jealousy he felt when his teammates were out there on the field even though he still wanted them to succeed. Marco says that being unable to play that season still haunts him every so often.  I feel your pain brother.

Despite the down times, Marco was always about quickly turning negative thoughts into positive ones.  Marco's cancer was a pediatric cancer and he was inspired by the young kids receiving treatments at CHOP.  He reminded himself that the younger kids, who didn't have the opportunity to develop the mental toughness he was able to forge over his years of playing football, had it worse than he did. 

We begin to transition into part 2 of Marco's story by talking about how he ordered P90X when he got home from CHOP because of all the infomercials he watched in the wee hours of the morning when he couldn't sleep.  After getting home and eager to put some of his muscle back on, Marco remembered trying to do five pushups in the first workout and was out of breath.  He quickly realized he wasn't quite ready for that yet, but started back up with the regimen when he entered maintenance phase of chemo. P90X was especially beneficial because it allowed him to workout in the safety of his own house to avoid infection.

As mentioned earlier in this post, the maintenance phase of Marco's treatment lasted for 2.5 years.  Marco decided to attend West Chester University (WCU) so he could continue his treatments at CHOP.  It didn't take long before Marco got the idea to walk on to the WCU football team because one of his high school teammates was playing there.  The doctors told him he could pursue this goal while receiving treatment.  Marco was actually recruited by WCU in high school but did not go after the opportunity because of his dreams of playing Division 1. The WCU coaches remembered Marco and had him filming practice to start out.  Eventually he started doing some drills but felt slow and lacked motor control.  However, he worked his butt off over winter break and was finally getting back in the swing of things.  The WCU coaches were also making note of his significant improvements.  Unfortunately, Marco ended up breaking his foot playing pick-up basketball with some friends and came to the decision that maybe he wasn't meant to play football.

Stay tuned for next week's episode for part 2 of Marco's story where we focus on his transition to life after football.

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Download Episode 73 : iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud