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No quit in Steelers nose tackle McLendon

| Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, 4:15 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Titans quarterback Jake Locker eludes the Steelers' Steve McLendon during the third quarter Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, at Heinz Field.

Steve McLendon's season hasn't gone as he envisioned.

Trusted to replace nose tackle Casey Hampton, McLendon has been singled out — even by himself — as the reason the Steelers' once-stout run defense has struggled, and that was before being slowed by a sprained ankle over the past month.

But that hardly counts as adversity considering what McLendon went through a couple of years ago.

Then a strapping 21-year-old with thoughts of making his junior season at Troy his last before turning pro, McLendon paid no mind to that fact he had not felt well. It was the flu, he told himself. At worst, it was pneumonia.

Both could have been reasonable explanations.

There were several consecutive unusually cold days during the spring that year in the South, and McLendon refused to wear anything but shorts. When he finally was told he had pneumonia, it made sense.

Surely pneumonia was why he had a little lump on his neck, too. Either that or it was a side effect of hitting the weights hard that year , or so he was told.

“Honestly, I just thought I wasn't taking care of myself,” McLendon said.

He was in for a surprise when he went to have the lump checked.

Major scare

McLendon walked through the Montgomery Cancer Center not far from his Ozark, Ala., home with his mother, Cynthia, in horror.

A biopsy on the lump revealed Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system.

“I was devastated,” McLendon recalled.

But not satisfied with the diagnosis. With the pneumonia that slowed him gone and McLendon once again feeling strong, he refused to believe he had cancer.

McLendon never will forget a consultation with the oncologist at the cancer center, where he walked through a room of cancer patients who were undergoing chemotherapy.

That's when McLendon reached his breaking point.

“I know I disappointed my mama that day, but we walked into the back and I said to the doctor that I don't have what they say I have,” McLendon said. “I said, ‘Mama, let's go.' She said to just give it a chance. I said, ‘Listen, I don't have this. Look at these people. These people are sick. Do I look like that?' I said let's go, and we left.”

McLendon walked out not knowing what the next move would be.

It didn't take long for him to seek more answers. The family made the three-hour trip north to Birmingham, Ala., to get a second opinion. McLendon had one biopsy done then another.

The results came back negative both times.

“It was a relief,” McLendon said. “I knew I didn't have it. I felt great, but it opened my eyes. I was playing football my entire life, and I thought it was all going away just like that. It was just God trying to get my attention. I was probably doing some things or going down a path that he didn't see fit for me.”

It took a few months to work himself back into football shape, but McLendon started the season-opener at Arkansas and collected four tackles against the Darren McFadden and Felix Jones-led Razorbacks.

“That entire ordeal was like a nightmare … it was horrible,” McLendon said.

McLendon would have two more biopsies: once before the draft and one with the Steelers.

Both came back cancer-free.

Back to football

McLendon was used to getting that dreaded call telling him thanks, but no thanks. It happened plenty during his first couple of years in the league.

After not being drafted following a nondescript senior season at Troy, the Steelers liked McLendon's potential enough to sign him as a free agent and invite him to training camp.

Whatever the reasons, McLendon never was good enough to stick around, but he always was good enough not to stay away long.

McLendon was released five times in his first 18 months in the NFL, including three times in 33 days during his second year with the Steelers.

“But they always told him to not go anywhere,” said guard Ramon Foster, who roomed with McLendon that first year.

McLendon found himself back with the team time and again.

He never spent more than seven consecutive days unemployed.

Don't think that getting cut all those times didn't have an effect.

It did, and Foster saw it firsthand.

“The Steve that you know now is not the Steve that came into the league in 2009,” Foster said. “He was a nervous wreck kind of guy. He was always worried about the little things.”

Being cut so many times will do that.

“That's what you think about all the time,” McLendon said. “It is something that never makes you comfortable. ... I feel like my job is on the line every day. I know I need to get over that and just go out there and play football, but I know it is tough because I know the road I had to take to get to this point.”

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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