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Saturday, April 20
The Indiana Daily Student

sports football

Former Hoosier beats second bout of leukemia

Dave Schnell

The only quarterback ever to lead Indiana University to victories against Michigan and Ohio State in the same season has been inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame — but that’s only part of the story.

The rest is of a father of four who has twice defeated cancer and the support of a University that feels more like a family than an institution.

Dave Schnell has twice been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Schnell encountered his first fight with ALL while trying to slim down, which for him symbolized a strange and unfortunate irony.

“I weighed 270 pounds and I was trying to lose weight, and then all of a sudden I became ill in 2007 and I dropped down in weight,” Schnell said. “After the chemotherapy I was on a ventilator and they read my Last Rites to me.”

However, Schnell continued to fight, refusing to give in or give up.

“I came through that, but when I came out of the hospital, I weighed 187 pounds,” Schnell said. “I looked in the mirror and it was like, where did I go? I felt like a skeleton.”

Schnell thought he had won his battle against cancer. Three years later, he found out he was wrong.

Earlier this year, Schnell suffered a relapse of the leukemia he originally battled in 2007. Schnell was admitted for chemotherapy as doctors attempted to remove the cancer from his body.

Five weeks later, Schnell left the hospital 50 pounds lighter — but he also left cancer-free, having bested the illness for a second time in four years. Since that time, Schnell has been recovering at his Indiana home and spending time with his children.

The relapse happened shortly after Schnell learned of his Indiana Hall of Fame honor, and he was unable to attend the ceremony himself. His mother Peg, along with former IU teammate Anthony Thompson and former IU coach Bill Mallory, was part of the contingent that represented Schnell when he was inducted earlier this summer.

When describing what it was like to represent his former quarterback, Mallory spoke with a self-proclaimed tremendous amount of respect for Schnell not only as a player, but as a person as well.

“I was very pleased and excited for Dave,” Mallory said. “It’s a great honor for an excellent career that he had not just at IU, but also in high school.”

Schnell called the induction bittersweet, though he was able to watch a recorded version of the ceremony on DVD. The disc included an emotional speech from his former college coach that had Schnell dreaming of a comeback.

“I got a chance to watch the ceremony when I got home from the hospital, and to hear coach Mallory talk about my career was special,” Schnell said. “He started getting fired up in that video, and I told Coach afterward that I was getting goose bumps and that I was ready to go out and play again.”

With the memories of the induction ceremony still fresh, Schnell is eager to visit Richmond, Ind., and see his plaque among those of other greats who have been inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame.

“It’s on my list of things to do,” Schnell said. “Once I get my feet back under me I’ll go over and check everything out. It’ll be interesting to see.”

Hoosiers for Life

Both Thompson and Mallory have reached out to Schnell over the last few years as he’s battled his illness, each carrying their time at IU with Schnell over to a life-long friendship. Thompson, who rushed for 65 touchdowns in his career and was the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1989, had been able to offer not only encouragement as a friend, but spiritual guidance as well.

After playing in the NFL for a few seasons, Thompson returned to his college town with a new vision for his life and is now the pastor of the Lighthouse Community Church.

Thompson speaks of Schnell not as a former teammate, but as a current one, this time in a new arena.

“When you see a teammate in this situation, it just really makes you think about the game of life and how we really need to love our family members because you never know when you’ll see them for the last time,” Thompson said. “Dave is going through a tough situation, and with the thoughts and prayers of everyone, he’ll preserve through another battle.”

With Schnell hoping to be fully recovered in the near future, a visit to IU to hear Thompson preach in front of his congregation also occupies a spot on his to-do list.

“I told Coach Mallory that sometime soon when I get through this illness that I want to come to Bloomington and hear Anthony give a service, because I thought he was that good,” Schnell said. “He really prayed hard for me, and it was really inspiring.”

Thompson and Mallory represent a larger contingent of the IU community that has offered their support to Schnell, which was evident two years ago when Schnell visited Bloomington and took part in the 1988 Liberty Bowl championship team reunion.

“All the players and everybody associated with the University was very supportive,” Schnell said. “It really comes down to an individual saying ‘I have to do this myself,’ but they were very supportive and it’s been a positive situation.”

A positive demeanor might not be what you would expect from someone who’s been through what Schnell recently has, but that sentiment comes from someone who has spent his entire life refusing to have a negative outlook on what lies ahead.

“You weren’t going to keep Dave down, I tell you,” Mallory said. “That’s just the way that he is with his illness that he’s encountering right now. Dave is going to come out swinging, and he’s going to do what it takes to succeed and win.”

A Winner

Schnell’s undefeated record against cancer is an extension of the exemplary performance he gave while quarterback for the Hoosiers.

“Dave was a winner,” Mallory said. “That’s the best way that I can describe him. You show me a good team, and I’ll show you a good quarterback — and Dave was the type of person who you wanted to lead your team.”

Schnell was a three-year starter at IU and led the team to bowl appearances after the 1987 and 1988 seasons. The 1988 season ended with a 34-10 win against South Carolina in the Liberty Bowl, and Schnell was named Liberty Bowl MVP after throwing for a then-Liberty Bowl record 378 yards and two touchdowns.

Though Schnell didn’t start for IU during his freshman season, he still made the coaching staff take notice.

“I knew Dave was going to be what I though he would be — and that’s a winner for us,” Mallory said. “He was what I was looking for, which was a quality person with high character.”

Schnell graduated from Elkhart Central High School in 1985, earning All-State and Parade All-American honors. He also was ranked as the No. 1 high school player in the country by Sports Illustrated after his senior year, prompting interest from a number of colleges with storied football programs. But in the end, he decided to stay in his home state and attend IU.

His father passed away 10 days before Schnell signed his national letter of intent, but his father still influenced his college choice.

“My dad really liked Coach Mallory and I really liked coach Mallory, and I ended up going to Indiana,” Schnell said. “I don’t have any regrets about it whatsoever.”
Schnell didn’t know it at the time, but his time at IU and the work that he put in at countless practices would serve him even after he left Bloomington.

“I told Coach Mallory that I never thought I would ever do anything in life again that was harder than what we did together at Indiana,” Schnell said.

Schnell’s expectation is understandable, as overcoming cancer later in life isn’t something that most people plan for — though Schnell prepared for exactly that during his career at IU, even if he didn’t realize it at the time.

“All the running and mental stress that I went through at IU made me mentally tough,” Schnell said. “Then I got sick, and I said, ‘Wow, all that really helped me through both of my bouts with cancer.’”

For Schnell, refusing to give in doesn’t require physical strength or prowess, but rather the right mind set.

“When you’re fighting cancer or any major illness, it not only takes a toll on you physically, but mentally as well,” Schnell said. “You have to be mentally tough and you never give up. You say you’re going to beat this thing, and that’s the way it is.”

Coach, You Gotta Have Poise

The 1987 season was expected to be the turning point in Coach Mallory’s tenure at IU, a season that could potentially bring a conference championship and a Rose Bowl bid to Bloomington.

Mallory said that beating Ohio State was a major goal for the team that year — and one necessary to win the Big 10. He said it wouldn’t be easy, but Mallory also knew what it took to beat Ohio State, having previously been an assistant at that university under legendary coach Woody Hayes.

However, the Rose Bowl bid took a hit after an early-season loss, and Mallory asked Schnell to take his game to another level.

“I thought Dave needed to step up and show a little better poise as the quarterback because he was our leader,” Mallory said. “He didn’t lose us the game, but I felt that for us to beat Ohio State that his poise definitely had to be better because he was going to lead the way to make us a productive offense.”

The season went on with improved results, and the team entered the Ohio State game sporting a 3-1 record and a mind set of making history, despite not having beaten the Buckeyes in 36 years.

The game was tied 10-10 at halftime, and as the Hoosiers walked off the field and into the locker room, the Buckeye fans voiced their presence.

“Ohio State fans are very vocal, and they got on our case and they made some strong comments,” Mallory said.

Reliving a scene that took place almost 23 years ago, Mallory talks with such insight and joy, he makes you believe that it happened earlier that day, including details that have never faded from his memory.

The Hoosiers stopped the Buckeyes on the first possession of the second half, helping set up the defining drive of the season for IU.

Schnell and the rest of the offense then took the field. What transpired next is one of the most captivating moments of IU football lore.

Schnell said that what he did next aged Coach Mallory considerably, but it also showed the confidence that he had in his team that season.

After calling the play, Schnell took a few steps back and turned to the crowd. Instead of voicing any displeasure, he goaded the fans by raising his arms and motioning for them to make even more noise.

Thompson was in the backfield for that moment and remembers the scene just as vividly as Schnell.

“David begins to put his hands up and tells the crowed to get louder,” Thompson said. “Then we drove the ball down their throat and scored a touchdown. That’s the kind of leadership that Dave Schnell brought to the team.”

Looking back, Schnell said he wouldn’t have changed a thing.

“I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t think I could get away with it,” Schnell said. “But I had a good feel for my offense, and we were clicking on all cylinders.”

Mallory walked up to Schnell after the touchdown and still remembers the look on his quarterback’s face after the season-changing moment.

“I’ll never forget how focused he was — boy, you talk about having your jaw locked,” he said. “He pointed to me right in my chest about three times and he said, ‘Coach, you gotta have poise.’

“That was Dave. He was a winner and that’s how he led.”

IU went on to win the game 31-10, shutting out the Buckeyes in the second half.
For Schnell, the game represented more than just a single moment.

“We really wanted that win not only for ourselves, but for Coach and for the program — and we felt that we were turning the corner for the program with that win,” Schnell said.

Later in the season, Schnell led the Hoosiers to a win over Michigan, completing a two-week period that saw IU take down the Big Ten’s two perennial powers.

“I’ll never forget when we beat Michigan at our place 14-10,” Schnell said. “That’s something that I guarantee that most people didn’t think was going to happen going into the game. The fans were like a 12th man. They were very supportive and that helps you.”

IU would go on to finish the season with an 8-4 record, including an appearance in the Peach Bowl.

The season featured the evolution of Schnell as not just a great individual player, but as a team leader as well.

“Dave took great pride in not only excelling himself, but he was also a team person,” Mallory said. “He really cared about his team and his teammates. He was focused on being a contributor to us as a team to make us a winner and make us a successful here and that’s exactly what he did.”

Life After Football

His days at IU weren’t the end or crescendo, but rather the beginning of Schnell’s successful life, both on and off the playing field. While some players struggle to adapt to life after a storied athletic career, Schnell moved seamlessly into business, founding Berkey Insurance.

To his former coach at IU, Schnell’s success doesn’t come as a surprise.

“He’s not a complainer — he never was,” Mallory said. “Dave is the kind of person that’s going to find answers to what he can do to succeed, and that’s why he’s been very successful.”

Overcoming cancer once may very well cause someone to live life with a renewed enthusiasm, as it did with Schnell. Now having bested a relapse of his leukemia, Schnell enters every day with a revised set of priorities, having admitted that his temper has been curbed.

“You look at things differently,” Schnell said. “When you go through something like this, you realize that in the grand scheme of things, stuff that used to bother you isn’t that big of a deal and that everything will be all right.”

With plenty of life left to live and four children to watch grow up during the coming years, Schnell offers one final glimpse of his days playing quarterback at IU.

“I’d love to do it again, I tell you,” Schnell said. “That was an awesome time in my life.”

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