SI Vault
A Life on the Line
Jill Lieber
July 11, 1988
Giants offensive tackle Karl Nelson, stricken 10 months ago by Hodgkin's disease, is working back into condition
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July 11, 1988

A Life On The Line

Giants offensive tackle Karl Nelson, stricken 10 months ago by Hodgkin's disease, is working back into condition

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Karl Nelson, an offensive tackle for the New York Giants, detested having his chest X-rayed. During physical exams at two consecutive May minicamps, in 1986 and '87, a tiny spot had appeared on his X-rays, but each time further tests had come back negative. Understandably, when Nelson checked into New York's Hospital for Special Surgery last August for arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder, he balked at the idea of having another picture taken of his chest.

"I don't need the hassle," Nelson told Dr. Russ Warren, the Giants' physician.

But Warren insisted because a chest X-ray before surgery is standard procedure. When the X-ray looked suspicious, Nelson was given a CAT scan—a computerized X-ray. It revealed that the tiny spot in his upper chest had developed into a mass some six centimeters (2? inches) in diameter.

The shoulder surgery was postponed, and two days later, Dr. Arthur Okinaka removed tissue from Nelson's sternum for a biopsy. To reach the mass, the tackle's right lung was collapsed and five inches of his bottom right rib were removed.

That evening Warren phoned Heidi Nelson, Karl's wife, at their Montvale, N.J., home with the diagnosis: Her husband had cancer, though the exact form of the disease was still in question. Heidi became hysterical. She started crying uncontrollably, fearful that Karl was going to die. She jumped into her Blazer and raced 65 mph through the residential streets, smoking one cigarette after another. She thought she was headed in the direction of her best friend's house, but instead she ended up on the street in nearby Woodcliff Lake, where she and Karl had owned their first home. That was two miles from her intended destination.

"I really have no idea why I went there," Heidi says now.

A few days later she had a better grip on the situation. Karl's illness had been diagnosed as Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the immune system. At one point his small hospital room was loaded with dozens of floral arrangements and packed with family, including his parents, Jan and Bill, who had flown in from DeKalb, Ill., and friends, among them Giants right guard Chris Godfrey. The loud, nonstop sports chatter ran the gamut from Godfrey's memories of his days in the USFL to the Giants' opener in Chicago on Sept. 14.

"Nobody was addressing Karl's cancer," Heidi remembers. "It was as though everybody had just dropped by the house for a friendly visit."

When Karl declared that 42 radiation treatments would enable him to return to the team by midseason, Heidi exploded. "Damn it, all of you!" she screamed. "Stop denying that this is cancer. We're talking about Karl's life. Who gives a damn about football?"

Only a handful of men have resumed NFL careers after bouts with cancer. But Nelson, a hearty 6'6", 273 pounds, has apparently overcome his, and according to Dr. David Wolf, one of Nelson's doctors, it is now in remission. Since mid-February, Nelson has sequestered himself four days a week in the basement of Giants Stadium, enduring five monotonous hours of physical therapy, strength training and cardiovascular conditioning.

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