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Chadwick Boseman: King, Role Model, Honorary Tar Heel

Some passings hit you in different ways, and this one was like a ton of bricks.

Chadwick Boseman And The Cast of “21 Bridges” In NYC Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for STXfilms

Those of us that spend a lot of time on social media have been there: something pops up and it’s so out of nowhere, that your first thought is “I’m not believing this until I see it from multiple trusted sites.” Sadly, in 2020 we’ve had that feeling a lot. For many, the first time this year was at the end of January (The “Before Times”), when word trickled in that Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash.

For me, that type of moment happened on Friday night a little after 10 PM when I came across the AP tweet notifying the world of Chadwick Boseman’s passing. The statement itself was just perplexing and there was no way you could believe it was true:

“Wait,” I thought. “I didn’t know he had been battling colon cancer. For four years? Nah, that can’t be right, that has to be a typo or something. Is that the blue check mark AP account? Ok, it has to be a mistake. Surely, if he would have been battling cancer for four years, strong enough to kill him, we would have heard about it by now.”

Unfortunately it was true, and a few minutes later in what has become, ironically, the most liked ever on Twitter, his own account confirmed the truly shocking news:

You are going to go to other sites and read beautiful eulogies for him. I can’t begin to summarize the remarkable career he had, playing so many iconic men and doing it so well. One thing always made me smile just a little bit more anytime I saw him light up the screen after Black Panther in February, 2018. It all boiled down to a moment on “First Take” as he was doing press for the movie. After all of the showbiz talk, the hosts asked him about the NBA because they happened to be in LA for All Star Weekend. That’s when he piped up that he really didn’t have an NBA team, instead:

The quote came about a week after Carolina’s great win over the Blue Devils in the Smith Center, and it felt like another huge win because, hey, how many fans get to say they can include the Black Panther as one of their big supporters? I always loved being able to slide that “Yeah, and he pulls for Carolina” into conversations with friends when we were discussing the next little bit of Marvel magic that was about to happen.

You may have noticed there isn’t an embed of him actually saying this on the show, because I powered through a Google and You Tube search to find it, and just couldn’t lay my hands on it (if you do find it, please feel free to throw it in the comments below). That said, in case there were any doubt there is proof of his fandom thanks to the “Inside the NBA” crew interviewing Boseman before opening night of this NBA Season.

The pure joy Kenny Smith has on his face when he knows what Boseman is going to say is a real beauty to behold. With Boseman being born in 1976, he would have been around 8-10 years old during The Jet’s time at UNC, and that’s prime time for a fandom to really blossom. Put that together with the fact that he’s from South Carolina, and the fandom makes sense. So, Boseman may have been a Howard alumnus — and a deservedly proud one — but we all basically accepted him as a Tar Heel.

But looking back on that clip, what’s even more remarkable is that he did that interview three years into his cancer fight. No one had any idea.

Funny thing, unless I had told you, no one would have known anything about mine, either.

The release indicated that Boseman was 43 when he passed and was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer back in 2016. For those lucky enough to not know the different stages, basically the first couple of stages indicate the tumor is there but hasn’t moved beyond the actual location of the cancer. Stage III means that the cancer has spread to the point where it is now in your lymph nodes, which is how it can potentially spread to becoming Stage IV, when it has moved into other organs. Mine never moved beyond the lymph nodes, and I “only” had to endure four months of a bi-weekly chemotherapy infusion, six weeks of radiation with oral chemo, and the complete removal of my large intestine, which included, to put it delicately, having where it used to end being sewn up.

When Boseman gave that first quote to “First Take,” I hadn’t even been diagnosed. The tumor was nothing more than an occasional pain in my backside. By the time he was asked about his fandom again by “Inside the NBA,” I was not only done, I had been declared officially cancer free for over a month. He was still fighting.

Just typing those words still knocks me back. I had always thought of my treatments as annoying, inconvenient, and maybe even frustrating. The funny thing is, though, is that they worked. By the time blood work was done after a couple of treatments, they could already tell the cancer markers in my blood were going down, and I never got sick during the whole thing. My hair thinned, but other than that no one would really know it was going on unless I had explicitly told them. I had decided early on that I would be “public” about what was going on, because I didn’t want some people to know and others to not, but only a few knew about the “bad days.” Those days I would be showering and randomly need to throw up for no reason, or the days when I just was so tired I could barely see straight. To the outside world I laughed about not being able to drink cold things, but it annoyed the hell out of me to not be able to have anything cold for fear of my throat becoming instantly numb. You don’t complain about the increasing metallic taste in your mouth, and you really don’t want to go into graphic details of the prep needed for scans or exams of the area. That doesn’t exactly make for great water cooler or dinner conversation.

I never complained, though, because I knew that it could be so much worse. At the start of the process, the doctors gave me a 65-70% chance, which when you’re dealing with cancer at any stage makes you feel confident. When it’s spread in any form, it makes you feel great. There were small bumps along the way, but with the support I had from the great medical team and my wonderful friends, family, and colleagues, I came through great. I never really had to face my own mortality because there weren’t any real setbacks. I was just some guy who works a desk job and managed to swallow his pride in enough time to see a doctor and get great treatment, that happened to work.

So when the news of Boseman’s passing came through, I felt a crushing weight hit me. Here was this guy who had so many more advantages than I in a lot of ways. By the time he was diagnosed, he had already signed on to be the Black Panther, and had had enough iconic roles to the point where whatever he needed to kick this disease, he'd have much easier access to it. He wouldn’t have to fight with insurance companies, take a lesser treatment because someone sitting at a desk thought he didn’t qualify for it, any of that. You never knew he was fighting. Same age, same organ, same stage, way more famous, and yet he didn’t make it and I did. If that doesn’t knock you off your feet, nothing will.

With that I’ll push out the public service piece to this: colorectal cancers are really starting to pop up in younger people. On my first sit down with my outstanding oncologist, he had remarked that this type of cancer was really starting to show up in younger people. In the coming days, I hope it comes out as to what caused Boseman to get checked out and get the diagnosis, but whatever it was the world is a better place because he did. There’s not enough room to go into the socioeconomic concerns or a discussion of the American healthcare system than can leave so many behind to the point where when they actually can’t get diagnosed, or if they do it’s too late, or they simply can’t afford to do it. That’s a real problem, but so is something that those with access confront: embarrassment. To get this diagnosed properly, you have to get a colonoscopy. It’s not fun, although the drugs you get are. Because of current guidelines, you may have to fight like hell with your insurance to get them to cover it should there be a suspicion, but if you see symptoms, don’t just try to wish it better. I survived, and Boseman may not have but he got four years, and look at what he did in those four years. My hope is the last bit of legacy Boseman will leave is that many more people that had been putting off getting seen will do so.

Speaking of those four years Boseman had; for Christmas in 2018, along with the tickets to the BC game, my wife gave me a book that I devoured in about two nights. Everyday I fight was the autobiography from Stuart Scott that detailed his life including his cancer fight. I had been meaning to read it, but reading it then with only two chemo treatments left helped put the words in a broader perspective. It reminded me that for all the “sacrifices” I was making, it was nothing compared to what others were going through just to eek out one more year, one more week, or one more hour. Before he passed in 2015, Scott had a memorable ESPY speech. He gave it likely knowing it would be one of the last times people would see him in public. Included in it was this line:

When you die, that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live.

Look at what Boseman did since 2016. I’d like to think that sometime in the last couple of days, he’s gotten a chance to see Stu. Stu would greet him with a simple “you sure kicked cancer’s ass like we did to Michigan State in 2009, didn’t you?”

Rest in Power, Mr. Boseman.