It was an enormous room. Dan Lloyd remembers there were 300 people there, all in agony. Some were bald from treatment, some so consumed by cancer that their wasted torsos bent toward the floor. And some, like Lloyd, who was a linebacker for the New York Giants at the time, were waiting to find out if they would live out the year.
"I already knew I had some form of cancer, but I didn't know how bad it was," says the Federals linebacker, sitting in front of his locker at RFK Stadium. "My wife Vicki and my 3-year-old daughter came with me to Sloan-Kettering because I was already too weak to drive myself. There were so many miserable people there, and they didn't hide anything. You'd see the people coming out of the doctor's office with tears in their eyes and you knew it was terrible news.
"It was so strange. I could see everything around me so clearly. Then I went into the doctor and he told me there was a possibility I would die. There was an even greater possibility of football being over. I needed my wife. I went back out into the waiting room and there were tears in my eyes. It was like everything was suddenly invisible. I couldn't see any of those other people. Nothing. All I could see was my wife, she was two months pregnant then, and my little girl.
"She looked at me and I said, 'Something is very wrong.' That was it."
The Lloyds got in their car and headed back to Rutherford, N.J.
"All we could do was hold each other's hand and drive home. Some way or another we had to decide to get through it. We had to get a positive attitude. That was important. But I knew that a lot of people with positive attitudes died anyway."
It was March 1980 when Dan Lloyd worked out at Giants Stadium and woke up the next day to discover welts on his neck "the size of nickels." He was 27, a starting outside linebacker who had been playing football since the seventh grade.
Lloyd weighed a hard 235 pounds; his brow was stern, his jaw angular, his hair sandy and thick--a trained athlete at the height of his considerable powers. He came to the Giants as a sixth-round choice in the 1973 draft after an outstanding career at the University of Washington and began to impress fans in his rookie season when he knocked Redskins kick returner Eddie Brown out cold in the Giants' 12-9 victory over Washington. As a starter, he was playing with Brad Van Pelt and Harry Carson, one of the best linebacking units in professional football.
"When I was playing with the Redskins, our offensive coordinator, Joe Walton, always used to tell us to look out for Dan Lloyd when we were going to play the Giants," says Federals quarterback Kim McQuilken. "He was so strong against the run. He just filled those holes right up."
So when Lloyd told his trainers and team physician about the lumps in his neck, they thought at first that it was a neck strain of some kind. They recommended ice and rest. Why not? After all he was young, strong, seemingly invulnerable.
But the lumps grew and Lloyd began to feel feverish, his temperature continued to rise, and he wondered if he had a bad case of flu, maybe mononucleosis.
"I was going hot and cold," he says. "One minute I was freezing, the next minute I had to soak my pajamas in cold water and wear them wet just to cool off. It was like a roller-coaster. Finally my temperature got up to 104 degrees and I asked the doctors, 'How long does this go on before I get alarmed?' "
At a hospital in New Jersey, doctors told Lloyd that he had a treatable cancer, that he would certainly be able to return to football within a year. No problem. But his body provided cruel, contrary evidence. He dropped 35 pounds. His hair fell out in clumps like loose sod.
Finally Giants owner Wellington Mara, whose brother died of cancer, recommended Lloyd visit the renowned Sloan-Kettering cancer institute in Manhattan. There, Dr. Burton Lee told Lloyd he had cancer of the lymph nodes, a curable cancer in most cases, but one that had to be combatted through painful chemotherapy treatments.
"My heart just sank. All of a sudden you aren't in control. It's nice to have the kind of good attitude they teach you in football, but either the chemotherapy was going to work or not work."
Billy Taylor, who recently won a job as the Federals' starting fullback, was Lloyd's teammate then. "The whole thing was shocking to me when I found out about Dan," he says. "Just the week before, I'd been at Sloan-Kettering to visit kids and sign autographs, that kind of thing. The next week it happened to Dan. He looked awful. I thought he was going to die, I swear to God. I just tried to be nice to him until it happened."
The image of an athlete's brief flowering and death has given rise to a minor literature of which A.E. Houseman's "To An Athlete Dying Young" is but one example. Pathos is at Parnassian pitch when it is focused on youth's demise, the departure "from fields where glory does not stay." The photograph of Lou Gerhig, dying, waving farewell to Yankee Stadium is a naked sadness.
Yet Dan Lloyd's chemotherapy treatment defies sentiment and bathetic imagery. There is no distance. It is a deliberately toxic treatment, one that inevitably kills healthy cells as it kills the cancerous ones.
No poetry could soothe his terror as chemical toxins "the color of cherry Kool-Aid" were deliberately pumped into his arm to kill as many cancer cells as possible. No novel could help drag him up the stairs when the treatments made him as weak as one three times his age. No parable could solve the chemically inflicted depression of 12 nightly tablets of andriamiocin, a drug used in chemotherapy. And no fantasy story could ease a 3-year-old girl's terrified confusion as she watched her father vomit fitfully in the bathroom, night after night.
"I had to fight, that was all," Lloyd says. "My daughter, well, she would try to help me as much as she could. I had a father-daughter talk with her, and I think she understood I was in a little trouble.
"We were pretty much alone. Our families are on the West Coast and it was the offseason so the players are all out of town. Vicki is the real hero. I remember I met one guy in the hospital who had an awful skin cancer, and at the same time his wife was leaving him. God, how'd you like that? To be all alone like that, can you imagine? I looked at my wife and wondered if I would be around."
After six months of treatment, Lloyd started working out.
"I had the comeback scenario all staged. I would come back to the Giants and be the star of the team. That's the way I always played from when I first started. Nothing had changed. But the whole thing was like a greased pole."
In the literature of sport, players are forever returning from injury to score the winning basket, make the crucial tackle.
"But this was no broken leg," Lloyd says. "There's not much glory in it."
Last summer, after a full two years of chemotherapy had come to an end, Lloyd attended the Giants' training camp. He was strong again. The doctors predicted, but did not promise, that the lymphoma had been eradicated. But only a few days into camp, a rookie cut Lloyd down on a block and injured the linebacker's knee. Trying to return from the injury five days later--"I'm always trying to get 'attaboys' from the coach"--he tore ligaments in his ankle.
The Giants were loaded with linebackers, and soon Lloyd was looking for a job. He suffered the indignity of being released from his local U.S. Football League team, the New Jersey Generals. Four weeks ago he arrived at the Federals' practice field for a three-day tryout. He made the team, but Washington is hoping to develop Ed Baxley as its primary inside linebacker, and Lloyd has played mainly when the team shifts to a 3-4 defense and on special teams.
Last Sunday, Lloyd returned to Giants Stadium for the Federals' game against the Generals, but his feelings were mixed: "Most of those people didn't even know me. I never got announced or anything."
He wants desperately to start. When you don't play, Lloyd says, you get a lot of "who-are-yous . . . I've gotten a lot of them lately."
In practice, Lloyd sprints ostentatiously to his huddle. He deliberately imparts his veteran NFL knowledge with a certain self-conscious intensity. "Sometimes I look around to see if the coaches are watching me when I hustle," he says, "but then I think, why?"
More than once in workouts he has made running backs regret their brief passage beyond the line of scrimmage, but Coach Ray Jauch still wonders how much strength and speed he has lost. And several times a coach has called Dan Lloyd "Doug."
Lloyd says he would be miserable without football; it is part of his life's mosaic that wants back in fitting place. He has two daughters now, and he has his health. Doctors have told him he is likely to stay healthy. But as a player, he is only too aware of the odds.
"Football has a reality factor of its own," Lloyd says. "Everybody is fighting for a chance to play this game, and a 29-year-old cancer patient can't rank up real high with anybody."