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Friday, September 30, 2022

Gators center T.J. McCoy watched his father battle cancer. Now, his father is watching T.J. carry on his football legacy.

<p>T.J. McCoy walks onto the field during Florida's 33-17 loss against Michigan on Sept. 2, 2017 at AT&amp;T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.</p>

T.J. McCoy walks onto the field during Florida's 33-17 loss against Michigan on Sept. 2, 2017 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Tony McCoy had never experienced anything like it before in his life.

Drenched in sweat as he trudged across the field of South Lake High School, the former NFL defensive lineman suddenly collapsed to one knee in a state of exhaustion, gasping for air as fatigue overwhelmed him.

It was a hot October afternoon in Groveland, Florida. Tony had just run two 50-yard sprints at the end of South Lake’s football practice.

It was a ritual for him – a volunteer assistant coach at the school – to participate in team conditioning drills with the rest of his players. But on this particular day in 2011, something was gravely wrong.

Tony’s body throbbed and ached with every stride he took. The pain was unique, piercing his chest like an arrow striking a target.

As he fought through his second sprint and turned around for another, his shortness of breath became too debilitating. He stopped for a moment to regain his composure. When it never returned, he reluctantly sprawled onto the ground in defeat.

“It was the first time in my life I felt like I quit something,” Tony said. “I came to do that third sprint and I was like ‘I can’t.’ I just laid there on the field on my back.”

South Lake’s players crowded around their assistant coach to see if he was okay. Among the group was his oldest son, T.J., a freshman offensive lineman concerned about the condition of his father.

“I’m alright,” Tony insisted. “Everything is fine.”

Unbeknownst to him, everything was not fine.

It took Tony almost three hours to finally catch his breath. He was so worn out he asked T.J. to drive him home.

Bewildered over his lack of stamina from that day’s conditioning drills, Tony scheduled a doctor’s appointment to undergo blood testing.

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Several days later, the office called back to inform him of the results. As Tony looked down at his phone and prepared to answer, he had a gut feeling the news wasn’t going to be good.

Little did he know, it was about to change his family’s lives forever.

***

The responsibility of fatherhood is something Tony has never taken lightly.

His dad wasn’t in the picture when he grew up in Orlando in the 1970s. The two never even met.

So when Tony and his wife, Jodie, had their three children, Khrystyna, T.J. and Isaiah, the defensive tackle worked around his hectic schedule to spend as much time with them as he could.

After finishing his senior season of college at Florida in 1991, Tony and his family spent eight years in Indianapolis while he played for the Colts as well as one year in Arizona while he was a member of the Cardinals.

Tony kept his kids involved as much as possible throughout his career, frequently bringing them to practice and allowing them inside the locker room.

T.J. in particular enjoyed shadowing his dad. Tony still remembers watching his oldest son waltz into the Colts’ weight room while he and other players were in the middle of a workout.

“T.J., show me your muscles!” Tony’s teammates yelled. The 3-year-old T.J. obliged, raising his arms and flexing his biceps as he flashed a grin at Marshall Faulk and Jim Harbaugh.

Another time, during an exhausting day at a Colts practice, Tony was preparing to complete his final drill of the afternoon when he looked over his shoulder and spotted T.J. galloping toward him.

As T.J. reached him, he grabbed his dad’s finger and asked if he could do the drill too. Tony was ultimately excused from the end of practice instead, receiving permission to head to the locker room early with his son.

“I looked at (T.J.) and said ‘Man, you saved me from that one last drill,’” Tony said with a laugh. “Anything that had to deal with me, he wanted to be around.”

Indianapolis’ team facility wasn’t the only place T.J. had begun developing an interest in football.

He was just as enthusiastic about it at home, where he’d dart around the kitchen wearing a Colts helmet before rushing into the living room to tackle stuffed animals.

“I did see him as a little man,” Tony said. “Just as a little guy that was looking at me and said ‘I want to mimic you.’”

T.J. was homeschooled through eighth grade and wasn’t allowed to play organized football by his mom until he turned 13.

When he finally joined a youth team and began competing against other kids his age, his love for the game grew even more. In his first season playing in a junior league, his team went undefeated, winning all 10 of its contests.

“That got him hooked from that point on,” Tony said.

T.J. continued on to high school football once he enrolled at South Lake. He mostly played offensive tackle and guard his first three seasons with the Eagles before transitioning to center his senior year.

In September 2014, he officially committed to NC State as a two-star recruit, telling the Orlando Sentinel he felt the Wolfpack was “the best team” for him.

The future looked pretty bright for T.J.

He was on a full scholarship to play at a Division I college. He was joining a program that was excited to have him. He was even elevated from fourth-string center to second-string center following his first semester in Raleigh.

But after receiving some unexpected news later that summer, everything changed. T.J. realized he didn’t have a choice. He was going to have to leave school.

***

Tony picked up the phone and heard the voice of his doctor.

“Tony, you need to come into my office as soon as possible,” he recalls being told.

The father of three knew a demand like that wasn’t a good sign. He and Jodie woke up the following morning and drove to their medical center, only to learn that Tony’s white blood cells weren’t functioning properly.

He most likely had cancer, according to his doctor, but it couldn’t be confirmed without undergoing a spinal tap.

When he went in for the procedure later that week, the prognosis was even grimmer than anticipated.

The specialist was unable to extract any fluid from Tony’s spinal canal, confirming he had leukemia. Doctors gave him a 30 percent chance of survival and said he needed to go to the hospital immediately.

“My kids were floored,” Tony said. “But they stayed strong. It was a very challenging time for us.”

Tony began undergoing chemotherapy treatment near the end of 2011 at Florida Hospital in Orlando. He was restricted from leaving the facility during his chemo cycles.

“It wasn’t like I’d get treated and go home,” he said. “Your white blood cells are wiped out. Your platelets are down. That makes you susceptible to any virus or any breathing in the outside air. You could catch a cold and die.”

With Tony unable to venture into the outer world, T.J., Khrystyna, Isaiah and Jodie spent countless days at the hospital over the next few years. It wasn’t an easy endeavor for the foursome, especially T.J.

In one instance, Tony became gravely ill following a round of chemo and was rushed by doctors into an emergency room. He was given medication to help numb the pain, but it was so strong it caused him to cry.

When T.J. caught a glimpse of the tears streaming down his father’s face – something he’d never seen before – he began to weep as well.

“He doesn’t deserve to be in this room,” Tony recalled T.J. saying. “He’s fought too hard. If he’s crying, it must be pretty bad.”

It was pretty bad for the retired NFL veteran. The man once regarded as one of professional football’s most physically imposing defensive tackles was suddenly in the midst of a battle for his life.

After receiving treatment in Orlando for close to 12 months, Tony decided to switch doctors and relocate to Shands Hospital in Gainesville. His inpatient room overlooked Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, his college stomping ground from 1987 to 1991.

Tony continued to undergo chemotherapy for another two years at Shands. His family still visited him every day despite being an hour and a half away from home.

But at long last, following dozens upon dozens of weeks of endless discomfort, Tony was finally given some uplifting news from his physician, Dr. John Wingard.

The former Gator could once again return back to his wife and kids. His leukemia was heading into remission.

There was just one small catch. He wouldn’t be allowed to travel under any circumstances. Even for something as important as T.J.’s first college football game.

***

T.J. sat down and stared at his parents, dumbfounded by what he’d been told.

The 18-year-old had just come home after attending NC State’s Spring 2015 semester as an early enrollee.

He’d been looking forward to returning to Raleigh for the second half of the summer and competing for playing time on the offensive line.

But after learning his father wasn’t well enough to attend Wolfpack games despite his recent release from the hospital, T.J.’s excitement for his freshman year quickly dissipated.

“I don’t want to do this. If you can’t be there, I don’t want to be there at all,” Tony recalled T.J. telling him. “If you aren’t going to come to my games, that’s not what I want to do.”

Despite protests from his dad, T.J. didn’t budge on his stance. Unless both his parents were able to sit in the stands every Saturday, he had zero interest in ever returning to North Carolina.

After explaining the situation to NC State coach Dave Doeren, Doeren granted T.J. his release from the team.

“I was contemplating just going to college,” T.J. said in an interview last season. “Not even playing football.”

New Florida coach Jim McElwain had other ideas, however.

McElwain, who’d been hired earlier in the year to replace Will Muschamp, inherited a team with only four scholarship offensive linemen on the roster.

When he learned T.J. was available and wanted a school close to home, he invited the McCoys to Gainesville and offered their son a scholarship.

“To see that door open in that moment was just surreal,” Tony said.

T.J. enrolled at Florida for the second half of the summer semester and ultimately redshirted his first year with the Gators.

But in 2016, he made his mark.

Opening the season as the third-string center on the depth chart, T.J. was thrown into action after starter Cameron Dillard suffered a season-ending knee injury against Arkansas on Nov. 5 and backup Tyler Jordan hurt his ankle on the first play of the following week against South Carolina.

The redshirt sophomore played the rest of the game against the Gamecocks and hasn’t missed a snap for UF ever since.

“I think T.J. McCoy was kind of a lightning rod for us from a transformation piece,” McElwain said on the center’s insertion into the lineup. “The care, the want, being a legacy and playing in The Swamp for him, that’s real.”

Tony still occasionally takes trips to Shands to receive treatment for his leukemia, but he remains in remission and continues to improve on a daily basis.

“He’s feeling way better,” T.J. said. “He’s starting to work out again, getting back in the gym. Something I did this offseason was just working out with my dad, having him teach me some stuff.”

The father-son duo has also continued a tradition it began last season: in-depth film sessions every Thursday and Sunday evening. Tony drives up to Gainesville from his home in Clermont and meets with T.J. in UF’s video room.

On Thursdays, the two analyze every play from that week’s practices and give T.J. a grade on his effort and technique. On Sundays, the two evaluate every offensive snap from that weekend’s game, once again giving T.J. a grade on his effort and technique.

“It’s a great way for us to really break down what he’s doing and get those tendencies in his head,” Tony said. “It allows me to stay on top of him.”

Whether the two are thoroughly studying football or casually chatting about life, the frequent visits from his dad gives T.J. some quality bonding time, something that was put into jeopardy several years ago.

“It’s a weight off my shoulders,” T.J. said on Tony’s improving health. “I feel like it’s really good because I feel like it gave me just a sense of like, ‘Man, I know my father’s doing good.’ That way I can kind of just really focus on what I have to do as a football player.”

You can follow Dylan Dixon on Twitter @dylanrdixon, and contact him at ddixon@alligator.org.

T.J. McCoy walks onto the field during Florida's 33-17 loss against Michigan on Sept. 2, 2017 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

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