Sooner lineman stands strong against cancer
On OU’s official athletic website, junior offensive lineman Austin Woods’ short biography doesn’t accurately reveal the Sooners’ student-athlete.
Sure, all the usual information is there: Woods is listed as a 6-foot-4, 293-pound guard from Rockwall, Texas. There’s a little factoid about how he won a Cotton Bowl art contest in consecutive years back when he was in the first and second grades, and the last section also explains that he chose to don the No. 50 jersey to pay tribute to his father, who as a coach reserves that same number for the team’s starting center.
But missing from the particulars on the limited website space is probably the most important story that defines the person that is Austin Woods: OU’s special teams’ starting deep snapper fought and beat cancer while not missing a beat on the field this season.
The Battle Begins
During last spring’s practices, Woods said he noticed swollen glands around his neck during what seemed like a routine sore throat.
After ruling out several potential ailments, he went to see an oncologist and received devastating news: he had stage three Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer in the lymphatic system that hurts the body’s ability to fight infection.
Immediately, Woods said he began to think about how he was going to let cancer affect his life.
He opted to take the road less traveled.
“I wanted to stay in class and continue working out,” Woods said. “Doing that, I could keep the right attitude to beat this.”
Woods meet with his doctors in Oklahoma City to get chemotherapy treatments every two weeks. The poisons being pumped into his veins to help fight off the cancer have a notorious history of robbing patients of their daily strength, forcing Woods to entertain the option of using his redshirt year.
But Woods said he was determined to let opposing defenses be the only thing beating him on the gridiron.
“It’s all about your attitude,” Woods said. “You can’t control how you feel every day, but you can control your attitude.”
Not Fighting Alone
Throughout the summer months, Woods continued to receive treatments while attending two-a-days all the way through summer and fall camps. He said he noticed the difference in his strength at practice but learned how to accept the regular setbacks.
“I was more tired than usual,” Woods said. “Every two weeks, I would go get that next treatment, and it would knock me down, but I knew that it would take a couple days before getting back to full speed.”
Junior guard Bronson Irwin accompanied Woods to his treatments, something he said he didn’t expect even from his closest friends.
“We get so little free time that I didn’t want them to spend it watching me get pumped with chemicals,” Woods said.
But Woods was never alone; at least one of his parents made the trip from their home in Texas to be with their son during every round of treatments.
“It just worked out,” Austin’s father, Don Woods said. “I took the summer shift, and (Austin’s mom) Liz (Woods) took over once school started. We decided to let Austin get the treatments in Oklahoma because he had a great support system of doctors and teammates that helped him.”
Like Mother, Like Son
Elizabeth Woods’, who also is a breast cancer survivor of 15 years, battled the disease when her oldest son was just five years old. At the time, she also just had a newborn baby — Austin’s younger brother Clayton Woods — to take care of while meeting for treatments.
“I knew after each treatment, I would gradually get better,” Elizabeth Woods said. “Anytime I was feeling down, I just picked up one of the boys.”
Although the mother of two knew firsthand what her oldest son would experience after learning of the diagnosis, that factor didn’t make it any easier.
“It was hard knowing what Austin would have to go through,” Elizabeth Woods said. “And we were just so shocked and surprised that a person that was so big and healthy-looking was sick.”
But like his mother, Austin Woods was to keep his mind off of his body’s battle by being able to concentrate on practice schedules and playbook responsibilities.
“The coaches talked about redshirting him, but the doctors said Austin needed something to look forward to, and staying active could help his treatments,” Don Woods said.
And Austin Woods’ commitment to the team didn’t go unnoticed. He purposely scheduled his treatments on Fridays in order to have the weekend to regroup before starting the weekly summer practices.
“It’s a tough thing for someone to go through, and he went through all of summer workouts, too,” senior offensive guard Lane Johnson said. “I really look up to him because of his perseverance.”
Johnson wasn’t the only Sooner to notice Austin’s resolve.
“When we were going through workouts and you look to your left, you look at Austin, and he’s going through it,” junior center Gabe Ikard said. “You’re like,`It’s not that bad.’ And there are worse things than breathing hard on a Wednesday.”
Leaving a Legacy
Although Austin Woods just finished his chemotherapy treatments during the first week of October, his journey to share his experience is just beginning.
Austin Woods was honored Oct. 28 by the Austin College women’s soccer team and the local Alpha Phi Omega chapter who raised money to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in Woods’ name. His father used to play football for the school, and his girlfriend Maddy Millender is a member of the women’s soccer team.
And it’s those kinds of opportunities that Austin said he wants to use to share his experience to continue to pay the positivity forward.
“I just hope my story helps someone that has cancer get through it,” Austin Woods said.
One of the last items on Austin Woods’ online bio lets readers know he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps to eventually become a coach.
And if that desire comes to fruition, Austin not only will be able to empathize with his players after experiencing first hand the melee of two-a-days with a historic football program; he also will be able to continue to share his inspirational story of the time he went toe-to-toe with cancer and overcame the odds to continue playing the one game he truly loves.