The Chargers scout was leaving pro day at Middle Tennessee State when he stopped to shake hands with guard Chandler Brewer, and to let him know that he tested well.
Brewer, a team captain for the past two seasons and a first-team Conference USA selection, thanked him before making the impossible transition into a disclaimer he’d been providing to any evaluator who didn’t know his story:
“You know, I battled with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma this year…”
According to Brewer, the scout’s bag hit the turf. He pulled out a notebook and began jotting everything down about the cancer that surfaced in Brewer’s left knee just a few months earlier. It wasn’t the first time he’d gotten some version of that bug-eyed reaction this spring.
“You never think you’re going to have something like cancer come up, especially when you’re 21 years old,” Brewer said by phone this week. “I thought I had nothing wrong with me. I was a healthy kid. A lot of people, when they hear that, they think the worst. I just told myself to stay as positive as could be, and I’d get through it no matter what.”
The razor-thin margin between good collegiate player and NFL player is never more pronounced than this time of year, where pro day workouts and combine measurements are used to break deadlock ties between prospects stacked on a big board. A person’s future could come down to one play, one time when he was being watched by the one right person.
Which is why this stretch of time has been unique for Brewer, who hid his diagnosis from everyone except for his coaching staff, close friends and family until posting it on Twitter and Instagram a month ago. Ranked one of the top 30 players at his position heading into 2018, he knows his future is in the NFL. Coaches have told him so. His training partners for the last three months, former Colts Jack Mewhort and Joe Reitz, have told him, too. But what if that one time someone caught his game he looked a little gassed? What if they didn’t go back to his junior year tape to confirm?
“If I could go back, I guess I’d want the scouts to know when they came to practice,” Brewer said. “Just because, if some days I looked a little more fatigued than others, they wouldn’t just think ‘OK he’s just tired.’ It’s because he was in radiation an hour ago. If I could go back, I wish I let the trainers tell them.”
Reitz, who played offensive line for the Colts from 2011 to 2016, had no idea either. He started his first training session by watching film with Brewer from his 2018 season and didn’t hesitate to point out plays where he felt Brewer didn’t finish a block strongly enough.
“He never brought it up,” Reitz said. “I’m telling him, ‘See if you can finish a little better here,’ and we both find out a few weeks later that he had cancer, and it’s like, ‘Dude, we’re talking to a guy who was probably playing at 50 percent of his capacity and we’re telling him he needs to finish more.’
“It was just amazing that he was on the field.”
The three spent much of their time together challenging Brewer more from a three-point stance. Reitz and Mewhort would intentionally line themselves up offsides to simulate a better speed rush, going after Brewer as hard as they could.
Clips of Brewer dating back to high school show a mauler with long arms. At Middle Tennessee State, he was constantly on the move in the Blue Raiders’ RPO, quick screen offense, swinging his 6' 4", 318 pound frame toward linebackers, edge rushers and tackles across a rocky schedule that included Georgia and Kentucky.
Like many at the position, a quiet personality hatches into something more intense at practice and on game day.
But his off time is spent hunting and fishing. Brewer said he likes to drive his truck around with the windows down listening to country music—the same tunes that the staff at Saint Thomas Rutherford Cancer Center had playing for him when he went in for his daily pre-practice treatments. He prefers solitude, which is why he wanted to complete his senior season without constantly being reminded of his fight.
“I didn’t want it to become a distraction for the team or anything,” Brewer said. “Obviously we had a job to get done. We wanted to make the championship, win and get to a bowl game. I didn’t want people coming up and–not necessarily feeling sorry–but I didn’t want all that. I just wanted to come in every day, grind and not even think about that.”
He discovered his condition during spring ball when a knot surfaced on his left knee. At first, Brewer thought it was something that needed to be rolled out or scraped. After a while, a trainer insisted he get it checked out.
A removal procedure in June led to a phone call the following month that Brewer received during a lunch with his roommate and girlfriend at a burrito joint near campus. After all the ceremonial follow-up calls were made to a worrying mom, a dad who promised his son he’d get through it and a doctor who laid out a battle plan, Brewer wanted to confirm that he could still play his senior season.
“A lot of people say they can’t eat when they’re stressed out. I guess I’m a stress eater because I just kept eating and I couldn’t get full,” he said.
He considers himself lucky now that the hurdles only manifested themselves in the post-surgery pain, and an arc of time from right after the Georgia game on Sept. 15 to right before the Kentucky game on Nov. 17 where his energy level bottomed out. He had to put an increased focus on diet and hydration. He anticipated the wall of fatigue that typically hit him toward the end of games and practices much earlier.
Then, the week of practice before the Wildcats game hit, Brewer said he felt an anvil lifted off his back. He was whooping and screaming during practice again. It felt like everything his body had lost came rushing back. The actual end to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma was still yet to be confirmed (Brewer said after one more stint of radiation in early April, his appointments should start getting pushed back to six months and eventually once a year), but this was a metaphorical benchmark. A recognition that, during the biggest performance window of his lifetime, he’d maintained a foot in the NFL world despite a cancer scare.
“You know, the first thing I thought was, ‘Man, this was the worst timing possible,’” Brewer said. “But that was quick. I knew everything happened for a reason. God put it in my path just to make me stronger, maybe a better believer, too. I wouldn’t change anything.”
PRO DAY NEWS: Just as it was a bummer for the teams who had their pro day workouts during the league meetings, when most of the NFL’s executives and head coaches were busy with various media and rule lobbying responsibilities, it was a bonus for Arizona State, who had a well-attended workout on Wednesday as most of the coaches departed Phoenix. The big name here: Wideout N’Keal Harry, who some believe is the best player at his position in the draft. Both of the receiver-needy Bills’ major decision makers were on hand. The Cardinals, Broncos, Saints and Lions are also on the radar… Cool story from Stony Brook Pro Day where running back Jordan Gowins raised money for the local children’s hospital ICU with his bench press reps (30, by the way)… Darrell Henderson of Memphis, maybe one of the biggest home run threats in this year’s class, stood on his combine number for the 40-yard dash… And while you’re here, check out the MMQB’s Mock Draft 8.0, hot off the presses today.
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