Year after year, the people who are supposed to know about such things would tell John and Marianne Maarleveld their huge son, J.D., had all the physical gifts, but not the grit, to be a great football player.
Before the season began, a Notre Dame assistant coach who knew the family stopped by the Maarlevelds' home in Rutherford, N.J. to say hello. In the course of a conversation, he told John and Marianne that their son, who is 6 feet 5, 301 pounds, "has all the tools, but he doesn't have it here." The coach pounded his heart, Marianne recalled.
The Maarlevelds have heard talk like that from the time J.D. began playing high school football, during his two years at Notre Dame, through his final two seasons as Maryland's starting right offensive tackle. It seemed strange that coaches would say a young man who fought through cancer wasn't tough enough to block a hard-charging defensive end.
Marianne had seen her son suffer through the violent side effects of chemotherapy. The other day, she recalled how she would go to games, after driving four hours to College Park, and not "give a damn" if Maryland won or lost.
"I just prayed that he'd get up, do his job, that he retained his color and that he didn't look listless," she said, admitting she went to the games looking for symptoms of the Hodgkin's disease that had threatened her son's life a few years ago.
And after every game, win or lose, the Maarlevelds would celebrate. They celebrated life, not football.
This week, the family will celebrate life and football. J.D. Maarleveld, now a senior at Maryland, was named a first-team all-America Monday by the American Football Coaches Association. Marianne first called Maarleveld's doctor with the good news, then sent her son balloons.
"I can't fathom this in any way," Maarleveld said in a lengthy, reflective conversation on Tuesday. "When I left Notre Dame for Maryland (in 1983) I just knew I didn't want to die, and I knew I wanted to play football again. I never dreamed I'd be an all-American. When Coach (Bobby) Ross told me, I wanted to jump up and down, but I'm kinda big for that.
"What's the word I'm looking for? Ecstatic? I can't even talk. I think I slept with a smile all night."
His all-America status did not come easy Monday. Earlier in the day, J.D. had called home disappointed that he hadn't been chosen for an all-Atlantic Coast Conference team that had been announced earlier (he later was named to another all-ACC team). That had been his primary individual goal this season.
His mother told him it was no big deal, that he had other things to be thankful for. Later in the afternoon, at a time Marianne knew was designated for practice, she was in the middle of a telephone conversation with her husband when the operator broke in for an emergency interruption from J.D.
Marianne said her stomach "flipped," just worrying that it might be a knee injury, or worse. J.D. came on the line and said he'd been named first-team all-America. It took some further explanation for his mother to realize that 100 of the nation's coaches had voted him one of the two best offensive tackles in America.
Maarleveld's story obviously is not typical. He was recruited by Dan Devine to attend Notre Dame. "I went there because it was Notre Dame," Maarleveld said. "It's not an easy place to turn down a scholarship to."
He played little as a freshman and a sophomore and began to start feeling the signs of his sickness his second year there. In May 1982, at the end of his sophomore year, he found he had Hodgkin's disease. Notre Dame, according to the Maarlevelds, gave away his scholarship because the Irish thought he'd never play again.
Marianne once said J.D. cried more the day he found out Notre Dame didn't want him than he did when doctors told him he had cancer. Notre Dame Coach Gerry Faust said recently he gave the football scholarship to a walk-on kicker only after he thought Maarleveld could no longer play because of his illness. He also said Maarleveld could have stayed in school, with full scholarship aid. "Kids don't come better than John," Faust said.
Whatever the case, he didn't play again at Notre Dame. There was one operation in June 1982, followed by chemotherapy treatments every other week for the rest of the year, and a series of radiation treatments.
Maarleveld would get violently ill at night after the chemotherapy. But the next day, after dinner, he would feel better and start lifting weights again, just in case he could play football.
Maarleveld says Faust called once and offered to help him transfer to a smaller school, like William and Mary or Holy Cross. Maarleveld kept lifting weights, determined to "show Notre Dame. I'll prove them wrong."
He also tried to figure out why his life had to be interrupted. "I had never been a troublemaker," Maarleveld said he told himself. "I always listen to my parents and do my homework. I'm respectful of everyone. I do right all the time. Why me?"
His mother says "his doctors say he's cured." And as the cancer went into remission in 1983, Maarleveld said his bitterness subsided. Coach Jerry Claiborne had gone from Maryland to Kentucky but remembered Maarleveld's interest in Maryland and had him call Bobby Ross.
Ross welcomed Maarleveld to College Park, and encouraged him to "work at his own pace." Fullback Rick Badanjek remembered that Maarleveld "could hardly run" and Maarleveld admits to being so discouraged, he made up fake injuries to avoid practice.
"He was so tentative," Ross said. "He tired very, very easily. But we would not push him. In terms of football, here was this awesome talent. But we had to get him through the conditioning factor, then the confidence factor."
With offensive line coach Ralph Friedgen constantly reminding him that he could achieve, Maarleveld, who sat out the 1983 season because he had transferred, broke into the starting lineup in the third game of the 1984 season. He hasn't missed a game since.
Nobody would accuse Maarleveld of being overly aggressive, even now. And Maarleveld has said several times this season, "I know I've got to work on that, I know I have to be more aggressive."
Still, the people who have seen him play this season speak of him in glowing terms. "He's one of the best pass blockers in the country, in my opinion," Ross said.
Only now has Maarleveld started to think about professional football. "I'm 24 years old, and I feel a lot older than those kids in the cafeteria who are all 18 and 19," he said. "It's time to get out of school."
Maarleveld didn't feel so old the other day when he got a letter from a man in West Virginia who had seen a Maryland game and heard Maarleveld's story.
"He asked me to send my autograph and a picture," Maarleveld said. "A man from West Virginia. Isn't this great?"