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Steelers Merril Hoge tackling cancer

Former Steeler says it picked the wrong guy

Friday, March 21, 2003

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Merril Hoge will read hundreds of scouting reports to prepare for the April 26-27 NFL draft, when he is co-host for 17 hours of live coverage on ESPN television.

Merril Hoge played at 225 pounds and says he's actually gained weight since he began chemotherapy. (Post-Gazette)

None will sound as positive as the opinion he renders about his own prospects in the fight against cancer.

"It has no chance to win," Hoge, 38, said the other day from suburban Cincinnati, where he lives and is having chemotherapy treatments. "I'm destroying it. I'm halfway there. In the end, more good will come of this than bad."

Hoge, an overachieving 11th-round draft choice from Idaho State who bucked long odds to became a good running back with the Steelers in the 1980s and early '90s, faces what he calls the fight of his life.

He discovered -- through luck and the pluck of a doctor -- on Valentine's Day that he had stage two non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Cancer of the lymph nodes can be a deadly disease, particularly if it advances to stages three or four, where it spreads to both sides of the diaphragm or to other organs. Hoge believes his cancer was discovered early enough to eradicate the malignancy before summer begins.

"I've canceled my golf events, my speaking schedule. My focus is destroying this and beating this. I'll do the draft and that's about it. By June 1, I'll be healthier, sounder, a better man.

"For me, to play in the NFL, I had to be a physically, mentally and spiritually strong individual. I never had a greater challenge in my life than the NFL -- until this."

Hoge, who played for the Steelers from 1987-93, was forced out of football in '94, while with Chicago Bears. A series of concussions during his career left him woozy and susceptible to more serious head injuries, doctors told him. He embarked on a broadcasting career that placed him high among a stable of former football players on ESPN. Hoge is a co-host of a weekly football matchup show with former quarterback Ron Jaworski. He, Jaworski and former Steelers quarterback Mark Malone will anchor ESPN's two-day coverage of the NFL draft next month.

Because he has lost all of his hair from chemotherapy treatments that began Feb. 28 -- "I look like Elmer Fudd" -- Hoge said he will wear a black Steelers beanie or a cap representing teams that are "on the clock" during the draft.

He does not want viewers to feel sorry for him.

"It is destroyable, it is beatable. You have everything in you to do it. The mind is a powerful thing. There is no doubt, come May, I'll be cancer free; five years after that, I'll be cured. Fifty years or whatever time I have left after that, it will be the platform I stand for. I'll be a better man. This has been a blessing."

His good fortune could be traced to an auto accident in June in which a ligament was torn in his shoulder. He needed surgery, and in a follow-up exam in February with Jim Bradley, the Steelers' physician, Hoge mentioned a small, sharp pain in his back that bothered him only on occasion when he ducked his head in the shower.

Bradley ordered tests, then more tests, then even more.

"I'll never forget when he said, 'One and one equals three and it's my job to find that other one.' He would not quit. He got busy with it and within two hours found out. He could have gone on for months."

Hoge has had two chemotherapy treatments since then and a metamorphosis.

"I read Lance Armstrong's book two years ago and was thinking, 'How would I react to cancer?' I didn't react the way I thought I was going to. It brought things out in me. I thought a lot about myself and what's valuable in life. It strengthened me as a person. I see life in a much purer, sweeter, spiritual way."

He talked to Mario Lemeiux, who overcame stage one Hodgkin's disease, and others have called him lending their support.

"If my only option to be cured was the people who genuinely care for you and pray for you, it would take them all of two hours to be cured. It's been overwhelming. I don't deserve all this concern and love; I'm almost embarrassed. I've been humbled to my knees. It's just been wonderful, awesome."

Dr. Stanley Marks, a world-renowned oncologist at UPMC, is handling Hoge's treatment. He takes his next chemotherapy April 7 and his fourth two days after the NFL draft. He will have six chemotherapy treatments, all near his home in Fort Thomas, Ky., where he lives with his wife, son and daughter.

Oncologists rank lymphoma in stages, from 1-4, four being the worst. They also attach a letter grade, A or B, depending on whether the patient is losing weight and feels sick. Marks lists Hoge's condition as 2-A, the best possible condition.

"He has a pretty good chance," Marks said yesterday. "He probably has somewhere in the range of 75 to 80 percent chance of prolonged remission and, hopefully, cure."

Hoge, who is 6 feet 2, played at 225 pounds and says he's actually gained half a pound since he began chemotherapy, and other than losing his hair, feels fine. Cris Collinsworth, a broadcaster and former wide receiver with the Bengals, plays in one of his basketball leagues and told him during a recent game, "I don't know what's in that chemo, but I might get me a bag."

"I'm still training, lifting weights, getting stuff about the draft," said Hoge, who met with new Bengals coach Marvin Lewis yesterday to prepare for next month's event.

Hoge and Franco Harris are the only two backs in Steelers history to rush for 100 yards in consecutive playoff games. Hoge ran for 100 in an overtime victory at Houston after the 1989 season and followed with 120 yards the following week in a near upset of the John Elway-led Denver Broncos.

He's not looking for a near-upset this time.

"This will be my greatest victory, my greatest performance and challenge," Hoge said. "Every competitive juice in my body says you've picked the wrong brother to step up inside."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.

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