Cancer Couldn't Whip Tampa Bay's J.D. Maarleveld; Now He's Making Sure That the NFL Gets the Message
Rutherford, N.J., a suburb of New York City, lies at the bitter end of Route 17. It is mostly working class and largely Italian. On Park Avenue is a neighborhood deli called Johnny Bacc’s. J.D. Maarleveld’s parents own Johnny Bacc’s, which is lucky for both them and him. J.D. stands 6’5½”, weighs 300 lbs. and considers eating to be an inalienable right.
The Maarlevelds are a close-knit family. So when J.D. strolled into the deli one afternoon this summer, he found his mother, Marianne, behind the register and his Uncle Steve working the counter. There were also plenty of friends around, including a little guy who wandered up and playfully threw a punch at J.D.’s arm. J.D. playfully threw one back. “Oh, Jeez,” said the little guy, whose arm was instantly paralyzed.
Maybe the 24-year-old football player didn’t know his own strength. Or maybe he was angry.
“Angry?” says J.D., who, when he sits down, makes tables and chairs look like doll furniture. “Not really.” Not really? Come on, J.D., out with it. “Ah, yeah,” he says finally. “I’m pissed off. I don’t understand why people lie to me. They keep saying my cancer is no problem to them.”
It started back in 1982, when J.D. had just finished his sophomore year at Notre Dame. He was in Rutherford that weekend, visiting a girlfriend, when he suddenly became violently ill. He lay on the couch, delirious with fever, vomiting. The girl started to panic. She called J.D.’s mother, who said to put J.D. in the car and bring him home. But J.D. was too big to move. So Marianne and her daughter, June, rushed over to the girl’s house. They still couldn’t budge him, so they summoned J.D.’s father. Finally the four of them were able to get him to the emergency room of St. Mary’s Hospital in Passaic. At first pneumonia was suspected. But then X rays were taken, and doctors noticed a suspicious mass. So J.D.’s chest was cracked open, and a malignant tumor the size of a man’s fist was removed.
“I’m happy to tell you J.D. has Hodgkin’s Disease,” the doctor told Marianne Maarleveld, who immediately became hysterical. “You’re happy?” she shrieked. “This is my kid!” Of course what the doctor meant was that Hodgkin’s Disease is a slow-moving cancer with a 75-percent cure rate if caught early enough. So it was good news. But the Maarlevelds went to pieces before they were able to pull themselves together. “It was the weirdest thing,” says J.D. “The roles totally changed. It was the first time I saw my father cry. My mother became the strong one.”
At least that’s how it seemed. “I never cried in front of J.D.,” says Marianne. She did her crying in private. She prayed constantly. “For a year we had no sex life,” says John Maarleveld, J.D.’s father. “I had to yell at her to keep the goddamn rosary beads out of our bed.”
As for J.D., he stayed calm. “You need a positive mental attitude to get through cancer,” he says, “so I never thought about dying. I thought about getting better.” He had plenty of incentive: Gerry Faust, then the Notre Dame football coach, told J.D. he would be back at offensive tackle as soon as he beat the cancer. “We were on the phone to Gerry Faust on a weekly basis,” says Marianne. “He’d say, ‘How’s my boy doing? I can’t wait till he gets back.’ ”
J.D. endured the month of radiation treatments that made him feel like a broiled lobster. He endured the weekly chemotherapy sessions that seemed to be every bit as bad as the disease itself. “For a day after, I’d be throwing up, passing out, sick as a dog,” he says. But the moment the weakness passed and the nausea left him, he’d head right over to Johnny Bacc’s. “My Uncle Steve would make me the biggest, greasiest omelet. I’d eat it, then I’d go work out.” J.D. forced himself to eat. He forced himself to pump iron. Throughout the entire ordeal he lost only 35 lbs.
After a year the doctors pronounced him clean. The cancer was not in remission. It was gone. The odds of it coming back were 100 to 1. Because of his prodigious eating and workout schedule, J.D. was still close to his football weight of 305. Marianne Maarleveld called Coach Faust with the good news that J.D. was ready to return. Then Faust delivered the crusher: There was no place on the team for J.D. “He said, ‘Mrs. Maarleveld, how many people do you know who’ve had cancer and come back to play football?’ He’d lied to me all that time.” When J.D. heard the news, he simply could not believe it. He had to call Faust himself. “He told me I’d been out of football too long, that he didn’t think I could make the comeback,” says J.D. “He suggested I try a Division II school.”
Instead, J.D. transferred to Maryland, where he was given a full football scholarship. “Coach Bobby Ross and offensive line coach Ralph Friedgen were great,” says J.D. “They told me I could be as good as I wanted to be.” And when he looked inside himself, J.D. noticed there was something new. Something that hadn’t been there at Notre Dame—fire. As a mother, Marianne had noticed it too. “J.D. was a very lovable, sweet, sensitive child,” she says. “You couldn’t holler at him. I used to hope he’d get tougher.” Indeed, an assistant coach at Notre Dame had once told the Maarlevelds that their son had all the physical tools to play football. “The problem,” said the coach, pounding his heart, “is that he just doesn’t have it here.” J.D. now agrees. “I wasn’t aggressive enough,” he says. “I was lackadaisical. I wasn’t hungry, but being sick changed that. It was like God gave me a kick in the butt and said, ‘I gave you all this ability, all this size. Don’t let it go to waste.’ ”
He didn’t. At Maryland he delivered enough divinely inspired butt-kickings to win a spot as the starting right tackle. John and Marianne came to every one of J.D.’s games at Maryland. As long as they live, they will be haunted by their first sight of him trotting out onto the field. The Terps lost to Syracuse that day, but just by being in uniform J.D. had won a great victory. “John and I and J.D.’s grandparents were all in the stands holding hands, hugging and crying,” says Marianne. “Everyone was looking at us,” adds John. “They thought we were crazy. Nobody knew what it was about. It was the greatest day of our lives.”
J.D. went on to win 1985 All-America honors, as well as the 1984 Brian Piccolo Award as the comeback player of the year. He holds no grudges, he says, against Faust, who left Notre Dame last fall. “I proved him wrong,” J.D. says quietly, smiling. Now he has something more to prove. In last spring’s National Football League draft, J.D. was expected to be chosen in the first round. Instead he went in the fifth—to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “They treated me like I was still a cancer victim,” he says—perhaps, he suspects, because the draft followed close on the news that Jeff Blatnick, the wrestler who seemed to have beaten Hodgkin’s Disease and went on to win a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, had recently suffered a relapse. (Blatnick’s cancer is again in remission.)
To demonstrate his own fitness, J.D. underwent a CAT scan and other tests, but it seems likely that being sick cost him money. As a fifth-round pick, he signed a one-year contract worth at least $200,000. As a first-rounder, says his agent, Greg Marotta, he could have expected more with a longer-term contract. “Yeah, I’m disappointed,” admits J.D. “I had bad feelings at first.” Now the fire inside is just burning hotter. J.D. reported to the Buccaneer camp in Tampa last week and started two-a-day drills in heat that would melt down a Pontiac. “I’m really excited to get things going, get out of camp and start the season,” he says. John and Marianne Maarleveld have no doubts: J.D. has made them believers. They plan to be in the stands for Tampa Bay’s first regular season game, against San Francisco on Sept. 7. When they see their son run on the field, they’ll hug, they’ll hold hands, and they will certainly cry. “We cry easy,” says Marianne Maarleveld.