The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

The SEC Blog: UK's Paschal proves himself a champion

254 days ago
Kevin Scarbinsky
Photo: SEC

He didn't ring the bell.

Of all the things there are to know, respect and admire about Josh Paschal - impact University of Kentucky defensive end; Christian young man of faith; cancer survivor - none may speak louder than that moment of silence at a time of triumph.

Ringing the bell is what cancer patients do to signify the completion of their treatments. For Paschal, the opportunity arrived Aug. 7, 2019 at the UK Markey Cancer Center in Lexington. It was the end of a hard road that lasted more than a year, through three surgeries and 13 months of immunotherapy treatments. What he first thought was a blood blister on the bottom of his right foot was diagnosed as malignant melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer.

After his final treatment, Paschal had every right and plenty of reason to mark the day and ring the bell. He didn't. Why?

"I got to see a lot of people struggling there," Paschal said. "The drug that I was taking, the side effects weren't as extreme as chemotherapy side effects. So I didn't really feel as if it was the best idea for me to celebrate at that time. There were so many people suffering through things that were much worse. I wanted them to win their fight more than anything."

It's no wonder Paschal is one of five college football players named to the 2019 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Team, which will be honored at the Maxwell Football Club Awards Gala in Atlantic City, N.J., in March. For 12 years, Uplifting Athletes recognized a Rare Disease Champion. In 2019, the focus of the award shifted to a team concept that provides an opportunity to recognize leaders who have made a positive and lasting impact on the Rare Disease Community.

"All of us share something in common," Paschal said. "It's an honor to be recognized with a group of guys who overcame so much."

One UK athletics official said, shortly before Paschal first discovered the lesion on his foot in the spring of 2018, he'd stopped by the office to talk. He wanted to find a way to use his platform as a student-athlete to help people. His cause arrived after his first surgery to remove the lesion and the small margins around it, after his journey took him from the Kentucky trainers to a podiatrist to a dermatologist to an oncologist. The diagnosis of the original black spot on the bottom of his foot that gave him "a small burn when I ran" progressed from "abnormal cells" to "malignant melanoma."

"I was really just shocked," Paschal said. "In that moment, you would think you would have just one emotion, but it's like a hundred emotions going through your head. You're thinking about your life. You're thinking about your family. You're thinking about football. You're thinking about your faith. It was really like a blur. It's like that time was so long ago."

So many people rallied around him, from friends and family to teammates, trainers, coaches and others in the University of Kentucky community. They weren't thinking about football.

"I don't believe they believed I would return to football that quickly," he said. "There wasn't necessarily a timetable for me to return. They were more concerned about my health than anything."

Paschal never stopped believing or working, continuing to train throughout the course of his monthly immunotherapy treatments. He said the Kentucky trainers made him take the day off after a treatment, but on the sly, he didn't always comply. Shortly after those three surgeries and not even halfway through the 13 months of treatments, the 6-foot-3, 284-pound defensive end returned to the football field "to be with my brothers." First, Paschal contributed to the final three games of the program's special 2018 season. Then, after finishing his treatments at the start of fall camp in 2019, he made an immediate impact as a starter. Playing in all 13 games as a redshirt sophomore, he totaled 34 tackles, finishing second among the Wildcats with 9.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in helping the 'Cats advance to their fourth straight bowl game and win their second bowl in a row.

"This season I was able to just get back to playing football," he said. "It was hard being away from the game."

Paschal and Kentucky offensive line coach John Schlarman, battling a different kind of cancer himself, have served as twin pillars of inspiration for the program the last two seasons. They also have supported each other through some trying times.

"It helped so much that I had someone to talk to," Paschal said, "someone I could relate to during that time."

Paschal's journey has given him an even stronger platform on multiple fronts. Despite his genuine lack of interest in the spotlight, he generously donates his time and tells his story - including on NBC's Today Show - to encourage others to be vigilant about skin abnormalities, especially young African-Americans who may think, as he once did, that skin cancer can't happen to them.

Paschal also is not shy about sharing his faith and the critical role it played in his recovery. Not long before his ordeal began, he became a Christian and was baptized. He remembers hearing someone else's testimony then that "the hardest times of their life came right after they gave their life to Christ."

So it was for him as well. Some of his first thoughts at the start of a hard road proved inspirational and prophetic. He's now cancer-free.

"When I was initially diagnosed, I thought I'd faced adversity before," Paschal said. "I thought, 'This is different from any adversity I've ever faced, but I know I can overcome it because I have faith in Jesus Christ. I believe that I'm healed through my faith.'"