Starting this season, the focus of the Rare Disease Champion Award shifted to a team concept in order to provide a platform to recognize all the qualified leaders that have made a significant and lasting impact on the Rare Disease Community. The Rare Disease Champion Team ensures all the inspiring rare disease stories of qualified leaders in college football are shared and celebrated. Uplifting Athletes will honor the 2019 Rare Disease Champion Team at the Maxwell Football Club Awards Gala in Atlantic City and at the Uplifting Athletes Young Investigator Draft in Philadelphia March 6 and 7, respectively.
University: University of Kentucky
Vitals: 6-3, 285-pound, redshirt junior, defensive end
Quick Hits: Diagnosed with a rare malignant melanoma on the bottom of his right foot in July of 2018, the Wildcats’ defensive standout faced a new battle. Josh endured four surgeries and a year-long treatment protocol of monthly immunotherapy treatments. He missed most of the 2018 season, but he found the strength to return for the final three games. The guy teammates call the “heartbeat of the team” and who was elected team captain by his peers completed his treatments in August of 2019 and was a full-time starter last season.
INSIDE THE STORY
Before he knew anything about what was going on in his foot, before he learned of his diagnosis with a rare malignant melanoma, the University of Kentucky defensive standout was already exploring a new part of his life.
Josh was becoming fully in touch with his spiritual side absent of a life crisis. He found strength and purpose in being a believer.
Shortly before finding out the nagging stinging he noticed in his foot was a serious problem, Josh made a commitment to turn his life over to Christ.
Now on the other side of his diagnosis, back to playing the game he loves for the Kentucky Wildcats and chasing his NFL dream, Josh knows the timing of his faith commitment was no coincidence.
“It was only a couple months before my diagnosis that I made the decision to turn my life over to Christ,” Josh said. “I just remember hearing a testimony about how the hardest thing we can do as believers is giving up ourselves wholly to Christ. After that was the first time I put my full trust in him.
“Then I was told I had cancer. I believed I would get through it, though. I knew it was something that to give me an opportunity to share his Kingdom.”
Josh credits his faith with giving him the strength to keep everything that was going on with his diagnosis in perspective. He battled through several surgeries and setbacks trusting the plan was not his own, but rather God’s plan for him.
And it changed him on several fronts. He became keenly aware of how much emphasis he was putting on being a football player. His perspective on the game and how he saw life altered.
Fortunately when he returned to the field, he was the same player as before his diagnosis. He just saw and approached almost everything he did with a slightly different lens.
“Before all this, I wasn’t the type of guy to share much. Once I had football taken away from me, my love for the game changed. I almost had it taken away from me, and that’s something I never experienced,” Josh said. “When it came back it was the same in many ways, but also very different. I appreciate getting up early to work out, doing extra drills and sprints. I look at film and realize how far I’ve come along on the journey. We look at big picture a lot as players, but I now enjoy the journey of each day.”
THE RARE JOURNEY
Late in 2017 and into the early part of 2018, Josh noticed a small spot on the bottom of his foot. He told the University of Kentucky trainers about it and they told Josh they would keep an eye on it over the next couple of months.
The pain wasn’t obvious. Occasionally, when he would run and hit the right spot with his foot, he would notice a little sting. In the life of an elite football athlete, a small spot on the bottom of your foot is not real cause for concern.
During the summer of 2018 – prior to Josh’s redshirt sophomore season – he was sent to see a podiatrist about the spot on his foot that wasn’t going away. The podiatrist sent him to a dermatologist who removed the spot surgically and told Josh he would have it tested.
The only thought going through Josh’s mind at the time was how fast can he get out of the walking boot he was in and to return to summer workouts full-time.
When he returned to see the dermatologist for his follow-up and hopefully to remove the walking boot, the news was not good.
He was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma in his foot and it was deep enough that the doctors were concerned about it traveling to other parts of his body.
“When I first found out I was shocked,” Josh said. “I was all excited for the follow-up appointment to get out of my walking boot and go back to work.”
Football was immediately put on hold that August day. He quickly met his oncologist and started monthly immunotherapy treatments that would take a full year to complete.
And he had follow-up surgeries in order to make sure the melanoma had not spread. Josh had procedures on his groin, shin and another one on his foot to be safe.
“The most consistent thought (in my head) I had was not to trust my plan and trust God’s plan,” Josh said. My family, parents, sister and brother, they all rallied around me and kept me strong. What went through my head the most was not to be so worried about my plan but to follow God’s plan.”
As a testament to his determination, Josh made a comeback before the end of the 2018 season – only three months after his diagnosis. He played in Kentucky’s final three games and was named Southeastern Conference (SEC) Co-Defensive Player of the Week following the game against Middle Tennessee.
He continued his monthly treatments throughout the offseason and just prior to the 2019 season he completed his treatment protocol.
Josh started 13 games for the Wildcats this past season, notching 34 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks, 3 pass break-ups and forced four fumbles.
“Coming back (in 2019) and going through the season, I noticed there was a time before this where I would say I was grateful for everything. But now I know what that really means,” Josh said. “I was so humbled by the small things. I believe going through this is a big part of my journey. It’s helping me connect with other people I never would have talked to. I get to speak at different events and share my testimony. We are here to serve others and I believe that’s what I’m doing when I step on the field.”
WHAT THEY SAID
“When you go through something like that, there are a lot of thoughts racing through your head. You don’t think about who is going to be there for you. But you learn all those thoughts in your head and who’s going to be there for you go hand in hand. It surprised me, but at the same time it didn’t. Because when I look back at it, I see a lot of family. I never felt alone.” – Josh Paschal