Head coach Derek Mason honors VU's Tyler Cockrell.
NASHVILLE — Following Vanderbilt’s 35-7 win over Middle Tennessee last Saturday, the postgame celebration in the locker room at Vanderbilt Stadium quickly turned serious. Head coach Derek Mason, addressing the Commodores in the middle of a sweaty scrum, told his team that any number of players deserved the game ball after a dominant win over the Blue Raiders.
But Mason ultimately handed the ball to a Commodore who hadn’t played a snap on Saturday. In fact, Turner Cockrell, a redshirt sophomore tight end, had watched the game with Mason’s family in the coach’s suite in the press box. He wore his No. 82 jersey, a cap and shorts. Yet the coach dedicated Vanderbilt’s first win of the 2018 season to Cockrell, who looked on in surprise as his emotional head coach spoke on his behalf.
“I want to be able to give the game ball to Turner Cockrell,” Mason said. “Turner leaves tomorrow. He’s heading down to Houston. He’s going to take care of some business. He’s going to win, just like we’re winning for him. Every day, there won’t be a day that goes by that we don’t honor Turner Cockrell.”
Mason embraced a smiling Cockrell as the Commodores mobbed the tight end in celebration. “I was not expecting that to happen,” Cockrell recalled this week. “It was incredible to know my entire team was fully supportive and behind me.”
Cockrell wasn’t going to Texas for a football game. Instead, the Acworth, Ga. native was set to venture to the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to continue his battle with cancer. Cockrell was diagnosed with melanoma last November, and routine scans this summer spotted more growths in his lungs that required treatment at MD Anderson.
This Friday, Cockrell will undergo a procedure with hopes of staving off more cancerous cells, the latest step in what has become the fight of his life. But all along, Cockrell has remained a Commodore – and the Vanderbilt family has stood by him shoulder to shoulder.
“It’s been a huge help to have that support at Vanderbilt,” Cockrell said. “The whole team has been nothing but supportive – well-wishes, prayers, you name it. People have been offering all types of help. It has really been kind of incredible.”
Cockrell’s priorities have shifted since he entered the 2017 season as a second-year tight end with the Commodores. That fall, he noticed two lumps on the right side of his neck, which he eventually had biopsied in late October. In mid-November, doctors officially diagnosed Cockrell with melanoma, with the cancer found in several lymph nodes from his ear to his collarbone.
“Prior to the diagnosis, my friends were joking like, ‘That’s cancer, you better get it checked out,'” Cockrell said. “I was like, nah, that couldn’t be it. When we got the official diagnosis, it took me by surprise. But having prior knowledge of cancer and treatment, I wasn’t terribly worried. I was obviously taken aback, but nothing I was too worried about right off the bat.”
Cockrell immediately informed Mason and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig of the diagnosis. As news spread in Vanderbilt’s football facility, reality began to set in.
“I go as our players go,” Mason said, “so initially, I was mad. I was upset for him. Turner has done everything that we’ve asked him to do, and he’s been a good teammate. I truly believe he’s a Vanderbilt Man, and you want to see good things happen to good people.”
On Dec. 6, Cockrell underwent surgery on his neck to remove the cancerous lymph nodes. When he returned to campus for class in January, Cockrell began 20 consecutive weekdays of radiation therapy that lasted until National Signing Day in February.
The physical toll of the treatment forced him to take three weeks away from football. But soon after, he was back in the thick of workouts at McGugin Center, trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in the face of a life-changing diagnosis.
In a way, football was Cockrell’s escape.
“I was still doing everything I could possibly do with regards to football, prior to surgery,” Cockrell said. “Even after, once I was healthy, I was still coming to football whenever I could. So much of it was about having a routine. I’ve never been without sports in my life. After a while, boredom seeped in. I was waking up at 9:30 or 10, going to class, coming back and being bored out of my mind. So I made it a point to get out, get in McGugin, see all the guys, do something physical and that kind of stuff.”
Tom Bossung, Vanderbilt’s Assistant AD for Sports Medicine, said he watched in awe as Cockrell maintained a positive attitude around his Commodore teammates.
“It was inspiring to see a young man who had been given a diagnosis that would terrify most people, and he took it on like he’d injured his ankle,” Bossung said. “He continued to work out. He continued to be around the team. It was like, ‘Okay, what’s the plan? How do I get back to football?'”
As part of his treatment, Cockrell underwent full-body scans every 12 weeks during the spring. A later scan revealed unusual growths in his lungs. Doctors confirmed in July that the cancer had spread, news that prompted an audible from the family. Cockrell and his parents, Randy and Noelle, would travel to Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center to discuss further options.
This Friday, Cockrell will undergo the first step in using tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes in Houston. The procedure will harvest cells from Cockrell’s body as doctors grow them externally before re-injecting them in six-to-eight weeks. The treatment prepares cells to more effectively attack cancerous cells.
All along the way, Mason, his coaching staff and Commodore players have formed a support system for Cockrell. They remain in constant contact, checking in with calls and texts. Last Saturday, Mason invited the redshirt sophomore to sit in his family’s suite during the Middle Tennessee opener with his wife, LeighAnne, and daughter Sydney. Mason knows Cockrell’s fight is more important than football. That’s why the Commodore family has rallied around a brother in need.
“That’s the thing about a locker room: it’s a special place,” Mason said. “A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to understand what a locker room is. It’s a brotherhood. It’s a group of young men who have a common purpose, who try to win on the field and off the field. What our players do really is a precursor to life, in how you fight and move forward. Now Turner’s in a fight, but we’re in the fight, too.”
Cockrell’s checklist in the coming weeks and months is short: Beat cancer, then get back on the field with his Vanderbilt teammates. Until then, he plans to cheer on the Dores every chance he gets.
“I’m going to try to be at every game I can this season,” Cockrell said.
The Commodores will be cheering for him, too.
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.