Stanford football: Ryan Beecher’s toughest opponent came in the form of cancer

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By Ana Kieu

When Ryan Beecher runs out of the tunnel into Stanford Stadium on Saturday for the last time, he’ll be met by water works.

It’s Senior Day against No. 15 Notre Dame, so Cardinal players will be recognized before the game and greeted by their families on the field. Emotional, but even more so for Jim and Julie Beecher, and their other children, Annabelle (’17) and Holden.

In December 2017, the night before the team was flying to the Alamo Bowl, Ryan was packing at his home in Fresno, Calif. when he received a phone call from Stanford Hospital. A pathology report had come back about a lump under his armpit and a biopsy revealed he had tested positive for Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.

Scared and uncertain about his future, Ryan stayed home and sought an immediate diagnosis. Steve Schwartz, the father of teammate Harry Schwartz, arranged an appointment with a lymphoma specialist at UCLA. The family was told he had a treatable strain.

“The days before Ryan was officially diagnosed were some of the hardest days of my life,” said Julie. “Suddenly, my young, healthy son had this terrifying word, cancer, hanging over his head and we had no idea what that would mean for him.”

Teammates quickly rallied around Beecher. They signed his No. 43 game jersey and wrote messages, and it arrived at his home the day before the game. On game day against TCU, Beecher wore the jersey and watched the game on television with his family. Many Stanford players wrote his number on their arms and JJ Arcega-Whiteside pointed to it after catching a touchdown pass.

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“From Week 1, it was just an overwhelming amount of love and support,” Beecher said. “I will always be thankful to them.”

The official diagnosis was a rare form of lymphoma called “ALK-positive.” Beecher underwent six rounds of chemotherapy, lost his hair and considerable weight off his 6-1, 230-pound frame.

“The eyebrows took some getting used to,” Beecher said.

Teammate Lewis Burik cooked a big dinner for Beecher and his friends before his first round of chemotherapy. Kaden Smith helped him shave his head.

Beecher was unsure about his football future and missed spring practice and two quarters of school. He never complained and told his mom he wanted to climb Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

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“Right before the Spring Game that year, Ryan was at a low point,” said Julie. “It was hard to get him to go because he was completely bald and pretty run down from months of chemotherapy. He decided to go, and as he was walking into the game, Coach (David) Shaw approached him and told him he was being put on scholarship. When Ryan told us after the game, it an was incredible moment. It still makes me cry to think about it.”

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Beecher was cleared to participate in fall camp in the summer of 2018 and hasn’t missed a beat.

“Getting back out on the field was a goal and dream of mine once it got taken away,” Beecher said. “Football was a huge motivator in the sense that it taught me a lot of mechanisms to respond to that type of adversity. I give a lot of credit to our training staff and coaches for instilling in us the sense of reacting to adversity and staying positive.”

Beecher was initially told to take it easy, especially during wind sprints, but he tuned out the strength and conditioning coach.

“I’m a stubborn guy and didn’t listen as much as I should have,” Beecher said. “I was pretty exhausted after that first workout. But let me tell you, it was so relieving after months and months — the doctors didn’t want me to go into any gym and expose myself to germs — being back. There’s a certain type of energy you get working out, especially with a group of guys you love.”

Cardinal team captain Casey Toohill said Beecher’s attitude and determination inspired everyone.

“The thing that impressed me the most was when he came back for summer runs after just doing the chemo, he made all the times, which is unheard of, because people miss the times anyway,” Toohill said.

Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, wasn’t surprised Beecher sold out.

“Being through something similar with my brother the last couple of years, the appreciation of life is powerful,” said Shaw. “To come back from cancer and say all I have to do is run gassers? That’s it? I’m not going to pull back and I’m going to go as hard as I can and know my body is going to respond.”

Beecher, a former walk-on and now a fifth-year senior, played on special teams in 13 games in 2017 and 2018. This season, he has appeared in every contest and earned his first start against Colorado, collecting a career-high five tackles. Beecher has 16 total stops, one pass breakup and one quarterback hurry.

“To play as well as he’s played, stepping up and contributing at inside linebacker, it’s been amazing to watch,” Toohill said. “I’m just proud to be his friend.”

Shaw said, “He’s a tough guy. And tough guys like being around tough guys. To see a guy fight through what he fought through and be able to get in there and grind with his brothers on the field makes you feel like you’re around someone special.”

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Beecher isn’t the biggest, strongest or fastest player on the team. If you walked by him on campus, he looks more like a history major — which he is — than a football player.

Looks can be deceiving. Beecher started 32 consecutive varsity games at San Joaquin Memorial High School and made 232 tackles, leading the league in 2013.

“All he thinks about is his job and what he can do,” said Shaw. “His teammates appreciate that. Every time he makes a tackle or a play, the sideline goes crazy. They’re always cheering and rooting for him. To be able to coach a guy like Ryan Beecher makes you feel good about what you do on a daily basis.”

Beecher is cancer-free, but will need follow up scans for the rest of his life.

“Going through something like that, you take things a little more serious now,” Beecher said. “Definitely happier and more thankful for everything … my family, my friends and everyone who was in my corner supporting me. It’s just really easy when you have a bad day to kick yourself out of it because you’ve had worse days for sure.”

Connor Wedington, K.J. Costello, Paulson Adebo and Malik Antoine will not play against Notre Dame.

Donald Stewart caught his first career touchdown pass last week against Cal, and it was a feel-good moment for everyone. He has overcome injuries, dipped on the depth chart and has spent much of the season working with the scout team. He never complained, went full speed, remained positive and stepped up last week when Connor Wedington was injured on the opening kickoff.

“Donald has had the entire college football experience from playing early, playing well, from not playing much, playing more and making big catches,” Shaw said. “He’s probably grown as much as anybody on the football team.”

Shaw continued to remind him that nothing is set in stone. If you put in the work, it’ll pay off.

“I commend Donald for trusting us,” Shaw said. “We put him back in the rotation and for the last month, Donald has been ready. It was great in a big moment in a Big Game for him to be open and that was a tough catch. Great to see that for him and guys celebrating for him.”

Davis Mills will make his sixth career start at quarterback against the Fighting Irish (9-2). Due to injuries, he didn’t play in 2017 and saw brief action in one game last season.

“Technically, in my book, you’re still a freshman until you play 12 games,” said Shaw. “We’re still technically in Davis’ freshman year. He’s capable of extreme highs.

“We’ve had outstanding effort and consistent play from a handful of guys, led by Casey Toohill,” Shaw said about the unit’s showing against Cal. “The guy just pours his heart out every single play. Everybody that stepped out on the field played well.”

Shaw also praised the efforts of Andrew Pryts, Curtis Robinson, Thomas Booker and Jovan Swann.

“As injured as we are, we have the guys on the field that can make the plays,” said Shaw. “And now it’s when we make those plays. If it’s late fourth quarter, we make to make those plays. The same thing about us offensively.”

Containing mobile quarterbacks remains a challenge. Stanford will encounter another quick, athletic and explosive player in Ian Book on Saturday.

“That’s been a difficult thing the entire year, understanding the integrity of where you need to be,” Shaw said. “The rush lanes containing the quarterback are vital. We’ve struggled with that and must improve.”

Shaw commended the leadership of his seniors for never letting down this season.

“Even after a couple tough losses, the guys come out and are flying around, practicing hard and pushing each other in a positive way,” said Shaw. “That credit doesn’t go to our coaches; that credit goes to our seniors and our leaders.

“These guys have been outstanding in a year when most people are understandably talking about the record and it’s not what we want it to be. But there have been some moments this year at any point in time where these guys could have packed it in, and their teammates wouldn’t allow them to.”

Lynn Swann grew up in Michigan and is not a Notre Dame fan. That being said, he respects what the program has accomplished and knows they are benchmark for success.

“It means a lot to strap up and go against a team like that,” Swann said. “People have dislike for them because they are such a great program. I just happened to be born in Michigan.

“I think they’re a great team and we have a great challenge ahead of us and I’m excited to play against them because when you make plays against teams like that it shows you are a real team and can compete against some of the best in the nation. And I think that’s our mentality this week to play to the best of our ability.”

“Growing pains are called growing pains because they hurt.” — David Shaw on using 20 freshmen this season.

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