WINCHESTER — Ideally, people are supposed to think about what they're thankful for on the fourth Thursday of every November.

On the morning of Nov. 28, 2019, there was no room for those thoughts in the mind of Fredericksburg resident Jahquan Collins, then a 20-year-old sophomore at Shenandoah University.

It was Thanksgiving Day, but he couldn't think about his academic progress or his football prowess as a linebacker. And he certainly wasn't thinking about a turkey dinner or watching the Dallas Cowboys play football.

All he could think about was the pain his mother Nicole Gordon was in as they listened to the results of Collins' biopsy together on speakerphone.

"They said I had cancer," said Collins, now a 5-foot-10, 220-pound senior, inside SU's Aikens Athletic Center three weeks ago. "I was like, 'What?' My mom started breaking down, so it really hurt me to see my mom like that. My mom breaking down is what really messed me up."

Collins — who had a biopsy done in Winchester after discovering a lump on the back left side of his neck — had been diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma. It's a cancer of the lymph system, which is part of the immune system. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 8,830 new cases in 2021, with most of those cases male and people in early adulthood like Collins, and about 960 deaths. 

During that Thanksgiving phone call, Collins listened to some of the details. But eventually, he had to just let his mom handle the rest of it.

"I was like, 'I'm not trying to hear that type of stuff,'" Collins said.

Gordon was horrified. Whenever she had heard "cancer" she just thought about the worst outcome imaginable.

"I never really knew much about cancer other than it kills," Gordon said. "I’ve seen people have it for years and then later end up passing. I'd never heard of a curable cancer diagnosis."

Gordon's angst about her son would only increase when she received heartbreaking news about her friend's daughter, who died from lupus that day. She was just one year older than Collins. 

In the coming weeks, Gordon and Collins would get a better understanding of Collins' Hodgkin Lymphoma, which was Stage 2A and highly treatable. Collins had cancer in multiple lymph node areas on the left side of his diaphragm, the thin muscle between the lungs that separates the chest and abdomen.

But on that morning, Collins and Gordon only knew the basics of the biopsy result. Obviously, Collins was upset by the news as well. But when his mom got off the phone he didn't want to spend too much time focusing on the possible negative outcomes of what he had just heard.

Collins wanted to focus on what he could do to get better. He had never backed down from a challenge before, and he wasn't going to start now. 

He was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes at 8 years old, but he didn't let that slow him down. 

An almost complete lack of football knowledge didn't stop him from soaring through the Massaponax depth chart in high school.

College wasn't on his mind at the start of his senior year, much less a potential career as a strength and conditioning coach. But the exercise science major embraced the prospect of continuing his education when it was presented as an option.

Collins didn't know what to expect upon arriving at Shenandoah, but he played in every game as a freshman and became a starter with three games left in the season. Collins has started in every game he's played in since. 

Simply put, few people were better suited to tackle cancer than Collins, an outgoing person who can be quick with a joke and a respectful person who knows when it's time to be serious and time to work. 

"That kid is one tough kid," Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said. "He's handling a lot of stuff that a lot of other college kids don't.   

"His mental approach to life is refreshing in this day and age. He's just, 'I'm going to do what I've got to do so I can do what I really want to do.' There's just not enough of those no-nonsense kids anymore." 

Gordon said, "He's definitely a courageous person."

Diabetes diagnosis

Collins' first major medical jolt came on another major holiday. When he was 8 years old, he was told he had Type 1 Diabetes on Halloween.

Gordon said there was one incident shortly after Collins' diagnosis when his blood sugar was too high and he had to be hospitalized. But outside of that, Collins hasn't let his situation get out of control. He was taught how to check his blood sugar and give himself insulin, so Collins has been giving himself insulin shots from a young age.

"My parents took control at first and helped me out a lot, but after that I just got used to it and started doing it on my own," Collins said. "I was young, so I wasn't really used to anything. I was just like, 'This is what I have to do now.' I just did it, and it became a habit."

Collins was put on a low-carb eating regimen, and he got used to that, too. Collins said it was definitely an adjustment monitoring his blood sugar when he started playing football on a regular basis in high school, but he eventually took control of that situation as well. He always checks himself before he goes out on the field, checks himself if he feels off during a practice or game, and checks himself when he's done with athletic activity.

SU defensive coordinator Brock McCullough said the Hornets will also make sure to ask Collins how he's doing, in part because Collins never complains about anything. If anything, Collins can be more animated than everyone else on the field.

"He's special," said fellow senior starting linebacker David Agyei. "He's a guy that doesn't let anything bring him down. He's going to have high energy. If you're on the field with Jahquan, you'll hear him. He'll make sure the whole crowd hears him. 

"He'll lay a big hit, talk a little bit, then come right back. You're not going to get away from him. He's always going to be there."

There was once a time when football was the furthest thing from Collins' mind.

Finding his path 

Collins first started playing football for a recreational team in Caroline County when he was 13. In his third game, he tore an anterior cruciate ligament.

Collins hadn't played football enough to love it, so when his leg healed he was in no hurry to get back on the field.

"I didn't want to get hurt," said Collins with a smile.

But then Collins moved from Caroline County to Fredericksburg the summer before his sophomore year, and he figured playing football would be a good way to meet new people. He also liked the idea of playing for a winning program in Class 5 Massaponax, which was coming off its second straight undefeated regular season. Caroline hasn't had a winning season since 2008.

Collins — who had never played defense before — was assigned to play linebacker. By the end of the season, he was on varsity. At the start of his junior year, he became a starter by beating out an incumbent starter. 

Collins had found his calling.

"Linebacker, you've got to read and react," Collins said. "You can't really think too much. Just hitting stuff, that's pretty fun for me."

Off the field, Collins is a pretty good thinker. Gordon notes that Collins didn't have to spend a lot of time studying to do well in school.

"He has [perfect] 600 SOL scores from the Board of Education," Gordon said. "I probably have like 10 of them downstairs. He's a very bright young man."

Collins wasn't planning on going to college at the start of his senior year. Once he graduated, he was going to do whatever he could to make money, even though he didn't know what.

But after the football season was over, Collins was introduced to McCullough by Massaponax head coach Eric Ludden, who's had numerous people play for SU over the years, including his son John. Collins had changed his mind about his future, and he liked that SU was close to home.

Collins didn't know what to expect when he arrived at SU in 2018, but he saw no reason why he couldn't play during the preseason. He was inserted into the starting lineup when another player got hurt. He showed he deserved the opportunity — he had 15 tackles (seven solo) in his first start against Bridgewater. Collins ended the year with 37 tackles (24 solo).

The Hornets got the production they were hoping to get from him as a freshman.

"He has that defensive mentality of 'I'm going to be strong, I'm going to be physical, I'm not going to be passive,'" Yoder said.  

An aggressive approach would serve him well when his world was turned upside down at the end of the 2019 season.

Cancer diagnosis

After one of the last practices in a 2019 season in which Collins had 41 tackles (21 solo) and 4.5 for losses, Collins made his way to the dorm of some of his teammates on a cold night. They pointed out that Collins had something on his neck and joked with Collins about it.

Collins went to see SU's head athletic trainer Mike Kotelnicki, who recommended that Collins schedule a biopsy with Winchester Medical Center.

Collins never would have imagined that the result of that trip would be a cancer diagnosis. Looking back, he realized he felt a little more tired at times than usual that season. But because of Collins' strong work ethic, he didn't think a little fatigue was anything worth discussing. 

Not long after Thanksgiving, Collins and Gordon went to see a doctor in Richmond, who gave them hope. The doctor told them he felt Collins' situation was 99 percent curable based on his assessment. 

"Once he talked to us, and once we, of course, prayed, we felt a lot better that he could overcome this," Gordon said.

Gordon said they initially considered doing Gordon's cancer treatment in Richmond, but it was decided it would be more convenient for Collins to do it in Fredericksburg. A treatment plan was developed. About three months after the diagnosis, Collins started six weeks of chemotherapy. Collins said he had three-hour sessions every Tuesday.

"That sucked a lot," Collins said. "I was just sick to my stomach."

Following that, Collins had two weeks of radiation, which Collins considered a breeze by comparison. He had to do it every day for two weeks but it was only 20 minutes each day.   

Through it all, Collins continued to work out and keep himself in shape. When Collins found out he had Hodgkin Lymphoma, his research turned up people like football player James Conner, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma in December of 2015 at the University of Pittsburgh while he was out with an injury.

Conner worked out vigorously while undergoing chemotherapy. He returned to the field in 2016 and rushed for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns on 216 carries before launching his professional career, which is now in its fifth season.

"I was in the gym every week," Collins said.  "I was just looking for inspiration with athletes. They were running every day, sweating, making sure your body's still fighting. Not just sitting there, being depressed about it, being sad about it, but still working. See what you can do. I was able to still run, still able to play with my friends back home."

Collins not only kept working out, but he didn't have to take any time off from school either. And with COVID-19 forcing students away from campus in the spring of 2020, Collins returned to Fredericksburg and didn't have to travel for treatment.

Though SU's coaches checked in on Collins, they said he didn't share much about what he was going through. They weren't surprised. 

"We live in an era where a lot of people do things for attention," McCullough said. "But he wasn't looking for sympathy. Some people might post a hospital bed selfie, but he's a tough guy mentally and he didn't want people to know. He knew it was the type of cancer he could attack, and he battled that just like everything else he's battled in his life.

"He was having a great college football career, and obscurity is what he was looking for in the whole ordeal. He's amazing."  

Gordon certainly couldn't have been prouder of what she witnessed with Collins as he endured sickness and lost his hair.

"I've seen a lot of people go through ailments, and I've seen people that went through cancer treatments who are no longer on this earth," Gordon said. "He always had a positive outlook on life. He never ever gave up. He's been through a lot of trials and tribulations, but he doesn't have the give-up mentality." 

In October of 2020, Collins' faith was rewarded. Gordon said that's when doctors told them Collins' cancer was in complete remission.

Collins was thankful, but he didn't want to stop and smell the roses. He needed to continue working hard at his education and football.

"My grandmother was like, 'You had this from the start,'" said Collins, who has to continue to have checkups to make sure his cancer hasn't returned. "I worked toward something. I got it done. Now it's on to the next thing." 

Finishing strong  

SU didn't have a season in the fall of 2020. So in September of 2020, Collins was one of the people organizing player-led workouts just so the SU football players would have something to do and keep active. The Hornets didn't even know at the time if they would have a spring season. 

"It just felt natural," Collins said. "I was just going to get back into it. It wasn't like a calling or nothing. We just had to do what we needed to do to get ready for the next season." 

Agyei said Collins' ability to exercise hard through cancer treatments can motivate anyone. But even players who know nothing about Collins' background automatically respect him just by watching him.

"He's someone who's going to be at the front of the line for every drill and is going to be working harder than everybody else," McCullough said. "His value can't be understated."

"He's locked in at every practice and every meeting," Yoder said. "He's just a mature, tough dude that everybody respects."

Collins had 21 tackles (four for losses) in SU's five-game season in the spring of 2021. In SU's regular 10-game season this fall that finished on Nov. 13, he had 34 tackles (16 solo).

Collins has played at each of SU's three linebacker positions based on where he's needed, but this year he was mainly focused on the Will weak side position. It's not necessarily a spot that calls for Collins to make a lot of tackles. It does require him to react quickly to what he sees in the running game, and in the passing game, redirect and cover receivers and blitz when necessary.

Collins can pile up up the tackles when he needs to. Three years after that 15-tackle starting debut against Bridgewater, Collins earned his only SU Defensive Player of the Game honor when he had 10 in this year's Bridgewater game. The Hornets were down 24-0 but staged the biggest comeback in school history to win 34-27. 

"I think that night, it was just kind of Jahquan in a nutshell," Yoder said. "He was all over the field, being where he needed to be, and he made a lot of plays and a lot of tackles.

"I think the biggest thing with Jahquan is that as he's gone along, every year he's gotten better. As he's gotten more comfortable in our system, he's played faster. If your eyes are right and you know what to look for, you can react really well. You've got to be prepared, and he does a great job with preparation and understanding opponents." 

When it was all said and done, Collins was part of a senior class that helped the Hornets go 7-3 this year, the program's highest win total since 2004.

Because the NCAA granted fall athletes from the 2020-21 school year an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19, Collins could play another year if he wants to, but he says he's done.

He's working toward graduating next year, so he can be a strength and conditioning coach and help high school or college athletes get bigger and better. Gordon said Collins will be the first in her family to graduate from college.

If he can impact people in his career in the manner that he did at SU, his career will be a rewarding one.

"I'm going to miss him," Yoder said."He's a great kid. I just wish we had more time with him."

"I would hope that one of my two daughters would marry someone of that high character," McCullough said.

"He's like a brother," Agyei said. "We'll definitely always be there for each other." 

One of the things Collins can be thankful for this Thursday is that he got to play football for SU. Wanting to play with his teammates again definitely helped him in his fight with Hodgkin Lymphoma.

"It means a lot [to play for SU]," Collins said. "They're my brothers."