Punter Podlesh embodies spirit of Jags' turbulent season

It's so odd how life and sports sometimes run parallel. In this particular case, what's unfolded with the Jacksonville Jaguars and their punter, Adam Podlesh, intersect, albeit for far different reasons, to where Sunday's winning Hail Mary touchdown pass over Houston provided the proper point to tell this story. One, for months, Podlesh didn't want told.

Last March, Podlesh discovered a growth behind his ear and went through team doctors to get it checked out. A cancerous tumor was discovered. That changed his perspective radically.

"It was a bit of a shock," Podlesh, 27, said.

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He had salivary gland cancer and needed to have the tumor removed right away. In just more than a week, the procedure was scheduled at the University of Pennsylvania, but the frightening news kept coming.

"Your facial nerves go through the gland, the things you need to blink your eye, move your mouth," could have been affected, Podlesh said. "If things went wrong, it would be like some of the symptoms you see from stroke victims."

Podlesh didn't care. He'd rather have his life and not be able to smile properly than the alternative. While this was going on, Podlesh kept his plight private. His family, some coaches and team doctors knew because he went through the Jaguars for medical treatment. It wasn't easy for anyone.

"There's the shock that sets in when you get news like that," coach Jack Del Rio said. "Most guys we're around are so healthy and vibrant. You get that news, you deal with the shock, help him deal with the shock, tell him, 'Don't worry about football right now, get yourself healthy and take care of that. We're here supporting you.'"

Once the tumor was removed, Podlesh went through six weeks of recovery but didn't need chemotherapy or radiation. It was a slow recovery process, but he eventually was able to exercise and to start punting. He had no idea if he'd ever get back to where he was in terms of playing in the NFL again.

"The NFL can be a cruel world, and all I know, they may have been thinking, 'He might not make it,'" Podlesh said. "If it didn't work out, fine with me. I'd try my darndest but there are more important things to worry about. That gave me a sense of clarity preparing for this season. If it didn't work out, I have a lot more things to be thankful for."

Podlesh sports a lengthy scar down the front of his ear on the hairline -- he said it's like a facelift scar -- and a more noticeable three-inch scar down his neck.

"There's also a cavity where the growth was," Podlesh said. "But not so much anymore. It's tough to see unless you're looking for it."

He went on.

"As bad as the whole situation was and as much adversity there was with through this ordeal, I feel it's developed so much character."

Oddly enough, that quote captures the essence of what has unfolded with the Jaguars' season, something Podlesh acknowledged.

They've been counted out more than once -- victories over Indianapolis and Buffalo were sandwiched between four bad losses to San Diego, Philadelphia, Tennessee and Kansas City. Del Rio's job security seemed shaky and discussion of the playoffs was more punch line than anything. Quarterback David Garrard put his job in jeopardy a few times, prompting a benching and the addition of former Buffalo starter Trent Edwards to possibly take over.

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David Garrard dialed up a Hail Mary pass that bounced off a Houston defender and into the hands of Mike Thomas for a Jags win. Was that the best Week 10 had to offer? Vote now.

And here they are at 5-4, in the thick of the AFC South playoff chase. Garrard has been nothing short of dazzling the past two games -- both victories -- completing 41 of 52 passes for six touchdowns with no interceptions.

With any team but this inconsistent one in particular, things can change quickly, starting Sunday against Cleveland. Del Rio said he senses something different, though. Players are realizing that grinding through adversity and challenging themselves is starting to yield the desired results, he said. He added that the Hail Mary play has ratcheted up the confidence and the belief that they're never out of a game and that anything can happen if you simply push through.

"The guys continue to remain committed, the work ethic has been strong, some of the younger players we put in positions are making fewer mistakes," Del Rio said. "As a team, when we put it all together and execute at a higher level, we have a chance to contend with everybody."

The team is inspired. Interestingly, not a lot of players know of Podlesh's situation. He's not afraid to tell them if they ask -- the questions have mostly been about the scar on his neck -- but he hasn't volunteered his story until now. He wants to go public during his and the team's recovery and resurgence to let people know that "you can turn a negative into something positive."

'A work in progress'

When the Bears hired Mike Martz as offensive coordinator this offseason, it was assumed that he was the type of tough, innovative coach who could develop gifted but inconsistent quarterback Jay Cutler. The jury is still out, clearly.

Cutler's numbers (12 touchdowns, nine interceptions) tell a lot of the tale. The disjointed play at wide receivers and a shaky offensive line haven't helped, either. General manager Jerry Angelo told me the good thing is that Martz and Cutler have each other's trust and respect, but things are still "wait and see."

Martz has been forced to change the identity of the offense because of the inability to protect Cutler, Angelo said, and some players' inability to grasp the nuances of Martz's system. As for Cutler's growth under Martz?

"It's still a work in progress," Angelo said.

Return of Thigpen elicits (not so fond) memory

Of the 11 games Tyler Thigpen started for the Chiefs in 2008, there was one in particular I was told to look at by a Dolphins' staffer to figure out part of the reason Miami traded for him and is so optimistic about his potential. There it was: Dec. 21 vs. Miami; 38-31 Dolphins victory. Thigpen's numbers: 20 of 41, 320 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions, six rushes, 57 yards and one touchdown.

Statistically, it was the most productive game Thigpen has played. The Dolphins really had no answer for him then. Now that he is getting an opportunity, they're hoping he can re-cast similar efforts, especially with his ability to run and extend plays.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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