LINCOLN — Jovan Dewitt's happy place is on the practice field, and he's never appreciated being there as much as he does now.
Dewitt has returned to his job as Nebraska's outside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator following intense treatments for throat cancer that caused him to lose 102 pounds and sapped most of his energy.
His voice was raspy, and he sipped from a backpack filled with water because he's unable to produce saliva, but he wore a broad smile when he walked into the football building after a two-hour practice Monday.
“For me, it's my ultimate release, being on the grass coaching ball and working with our guys,” Dewitt said. “To be out there is a complete relief for me.”
Dewitt noticed a lump on his neck last winter and initially was treated for what was thought to be an infection. The lump got bigger, and further tests indicated cancer.
He had 38 rounds of radiation and three rounds of chemotherapy, simultaneously, and was hospitalized most of April. He weighed about 310 pounds before his diagnosis and was just over 200 after going through the aggressive treatment regimen. He said he was 227 pounds when he last weighed in.
A CAT scan several weeks ago showed no cancer in his body, and the prognosis is good.
Dewitt, 43, said he tried to keep a positive outlook through the ordeal. He said family and friends, Nebraska players and coaches and even old teammates from his playing days at Northern Michigan visited and kept his spirits up. Still, with a wife and two daughters, he was frightened.
“There were days it was touch and go,” he said.
Dewitt missed much of spring practice but kept up with his charges by watching film and speaking regularly with defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. Other assistants filled in coaching the outside linebackers and special teams.
“Even though he wasn't always there physically, I was still getting messages from him, still talking to him; he was watching practices from home,” linebacker Alex Davis said.
Davis said it was inspiring when Dewitt felt well enough to attend spring practices.
“That's big to see someone going through something like that and still giving 100 percent as much as they can,” Davis said. “That's nothing but a confidence boost. If you're tired and you look over and you see him just barely being out there, that's big.”
Dewitt spent much of July playing catch-up on recruiting duties, and he took a vacation with his family. He said his strength is at 95 percent. Coach Scott Frost and his fellow assistants don't want him to overextend himself. He said he tries to rest his voice in the afternoons and get home at a reasonable hour.
“I got yelled at by Scott for coming in a little too early,” Dewitt said. “He wants me to make sure I'm managing my time and getting in and getting out and being more efficient. I'm working at the same pace I normally did.”
Dewitt said he is supposed to take in as many calories as possible, and he drinks about 2 gallons of water per day from his hydration backpack. He said it could take two years before he's able to produce saliva.
The start of preseason practice has brought normalcy, something he didn't have in the spring when he was going through treatment.
“When I don't have football, I don't feel normal,” he said. “Last year was the longest I've gone without being involved in football since I was 8. I don't know any other way.”