For Michigan quarterback Davis Warren, fight to become cancer-free a ‘blessing’

Michigan quarterback Davis Warren is just more than three years removed from completing…

For Michigan quarterback Davis Warren, fight to become cancer-free a ‘blessing’
For Michigan quarterback Davis Warren, fight to become cancer-free a ‘blessing’
For Michigan quarterback Davis Warren, fight to become cancer-free a 'blessing' 1

Ann Arbor — Perspective is an interesting concept that means so many different things to so many different people. It is found in the simple and complex, and at this time of year, as the holiday season kicks off with Thanksgiving and feelings of gratefulness are overwhelming, perspective is important.

Michigan walk-on quarterback Davis Warren is in his second season with the program and will be heading to Ohio Stadium with his teammates for Saturday’s annual Michigan-Ohio State game, a meeting of unbeatens with a Big Ten championship game berth on the line and, likely, a spot in the national playoff. He is the backup to starting quarterback J.J. McCarthy and has played in five games this season.

That he is here now at Michigan and about to play in the biggest game of the season, well, Warren’s journey is what has given him perspective and what has touched so many of his family members, friends and strangers. Warren is just more than three years removed from ringing the most beautiful bell he has ever heard, signifying his completion of chemotherapy treatments and being cancer-free.

“The way that I look at what I’ve gone through, it’s almost like a blessing, because it’s changed how I view the way I go about my day-to-day life in so many ways,” Warren said in an interview with The Detroit News. “It’s a competitive advantage for me, because if I can go through that, then what can’t I do?

“I’m willing to dig a little bit deeper and do a little bit more and be a little bit more grateful and that can give me just that one extra rep or that one extra this or that, and maybe that’ll be the difference. Me being sick definitely set me back in my career and my path, but now I’m in the spot where I’m at where all my goals are in front of me. It’s pretty cool.”

As he looks back at his recent journey, Warren knows about perspective and evolving. He likes who he is having gone through this.

“There’s a clear line of a different Davis that that was pre-cancer versus post,” he said. “Not that pre-cancer Davis was bad, but post-cancer Davis is definitely better.”

‘Hit by a truck’

In March 2019, Warren said he wasn’t feeling quite right. On a Friday night, Jeff Warren took his son to urgent care near their home in Manhattan Beach, California, outside of Los Angeles. Davis had been tired and had swelling of his lymph nodes. He recently had his wisdom teeth removed, so they all assumed it was a reaction to that.

“They did blood tests at the hospital, and at midnight, they came and said, ‘You have leukemia,’” Jeff said. “That was like getting hit by a truck.”

Jeff and Terri Warren have four children. Davis, 20, is the second born; his sister, Kelsey, is 18 months older, and he has two younger brothers, Carter and Brandon. Davis was a soccer goalie and a Los Angeles Loyola High quarterback. Specialized quarterback coaches in the area raved about his strong arm, and Davis decided to pursue college football.

Then he learned of his leukemia diagnosis and the chemotherapy his body would endure.

“There was a period for like two days where I really was like, ‘OK, this is bad. What’s gonna happen?’” Warren said. “I didn’t just immediately say, ‘All right, let’s go get it! Let’s go get ‘em now! We got this!’ There was definitely a period where I thought, ‘Oh my God, why did this happen to me?’ It took me a couple of weeks, maybe even longer to accept it for what it is.

“The faster that I settled into it, I thought, ‘OK, this is my reality now,’ then I was like, ‘OK, let’s go attack this thing.’ And I had a lot of people helping with that and the acceptance of it.”

His mother said friends immediately created a chain and sent the family dinners for five months. They felt the support of their community and the Loyola High football team, but really, Davis was the one leading the way like the quarterback he’s always been.

“Your world turns upside down, and you take one step at a time,” Terri Warren said. “I have to say, Davis led that charge. He was wanting us to stay positive for him, and so that’s what we did. It was all hands on deck.”

Davis had plans that fall to go to a boarding school in New Jersey, the Peddie School, where Chris Malleo had built a strong football program. Even while undergoing chemo treatments that spring and dropping 35 pounds from his 6-foot-2 frame, he told doctors he would be playing football by early October.

“He was on a mission,” his mother said. “After every round of chemo, all your blood cells have to recuperate before you start the next round. No one knows how long that’s going to take, but he never wavered. Four days from the time we were going to leave for the boarding school, his counts were not up. Lo and behold, two days before we were going to leave, they were at the right level.”

Playing with the ‘big boys’

In August 2019, Davis rang the bell and headed to the Peddie School. He worked with the strength staff there to try to get back to his pre-cancer body as much as possible, and he would play some series in games. When Malleo left the program, Davis transferred to the Suffield Academy in Connecticut where he would play for Drew Gamere in early 2020. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the football season.

With little to no film of him playing to send to schools for recruiting purposes, Davis, who had never given up on playing college football, had to rely on word of mouth to get his name out there. He had worked with 3DQB training in southern California and that certainly helped. Warren got on the radar of then-Michigan offensive analyst Steve Casula, now offensive coordinator at UMass, in the late summer of 2020, and the two would watch film and break down football over Zoom.

“Casula recognized this kid knows football,” Jeff Warren said.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh offered Warren a preferred walk-on spot as did Duke. Warren arrived in Ann Arbor summer of 2021.

“He was like, ‘I want to go where they do football,’” Terri Warren said. “And even then, I was just happy he was doing what he loves. He was dead set that, ‘I don’t want to have any regrets. I want to go see if can play with the big boys.’”

Warren is playing with the “big boys” now and about to head to Columbus for the biggest game of the season, what is often called, The Game.

He has come a long way as a football player who now weighs 195 pounds and has thrown for 89 yards in five games this season. But he has come a long way as someone who has survived cancer.

“When I was getting treatment, that was great because I was getting better,” Warren said. “And then I was done with it, and it was like, ‘OK, let me just push this away and not think about it.’ I tried as hard as I could to never ever think about it and then I’ve slowly had this process of getting back to it and being like — and I say this with so much perspective — this was the best thing that happened to me.”

Warren is a student ambassador for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. It has taken a while, but he’s now comfortable being public about his story. In August, he made an Instagram post to celebrate his three-year anniversary of ringing the cancer-free bell, but Warren thought hard about whether he wanted to be that public.

“It took a lot for me to be willing to talk about it and be open about it, but since I have, it’s just been so rewarding,” Warren said. “No one should have to go through this. The reality is, I’m not doing the research, I’m not finding the cure, so all I can do is be there for (kids) when it happens. It was hard for me put myself out there like that. It wasn’t easy. But I probably get at least three-four times a month someone reaching out to me saying, ‘I know this person, can you send them a video or talk to them?’

“The perspective that I have, for them to be able to see firsthand and tell them what I was going through and how quick the turnaround was, how fast I was back out there on the field, that just doesn’t exist in a lot of places. It’s important for me to be there for them. And I’ve seen how much it means to them. And that’s really made it worth it.”

Davis said he looks at things differently now and finds enjoyment in anything and everything. He refuses to sound negative or complain. He is different now. Post-cancer Davis, as he said, he’s happy with himself and who he has become.

“Where I’m at now, the position I’m in, it’s pretty awesome,” Davis said. “I don’t mind being the heartwarming story. I’ve come to a point where I’m OK with that, because if I can help one person feel better and be inspired to do something or one kid who was sick to see my story and it makes their day maybe if they’re getting chemo that day, that makes it just a little bit better to me. It makes it all worth it.”

Twitter: @chengelis

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