Battler on football field now in a bigger battle off it

Devon Dredden, flanked by his parents, James and Carla Thomas, at their West Berlin home. Dredden likened his remission from leukemia to a "birthday present" from the doctor.
Devon Dredden, flanked by his parents, James and Carla Thomas, at their West Berlin home. Dredden likened his remission from leukemia to a "birthday present" from the doctor. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 20, 2014

Devon Dredden was not on the football field last fall, but his presence undoubtedly was.

At Cheyney University, his twin brother, DeAndre, donned his number, 32. Teammates decorated helmets with orange ribbon decals with Devon's name. Players at his alma mater, Overbrook High School in Pine Hill, sold T-shirts with his name and a message: "Don't give up! Don't ever give up!"

It's a mantra that Devon, a 20-year-old Berlin Township native, has taken from the field to his fight against leukemia - and one that last weekend earned him an award for courage from his church, Green Grove Baptist.

Dredden, a running back, was found to have T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia in June, weeks after he completed his freshman year at Cheyney. What first seemed minuscule - he was having trouble seeing from his left eye - soon landed him in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where he underwent intensive chemotherapy.

"I just wouldn't want to get out of bed," he said. "Everything just hit me all at once."

But one month ago, on his birthday, Feb. 18, he entered remission - an experience he likened to a "birthday present" from the doctor.

Eartha Holland, executive director of Green Grove's Emerald Vision Community Development Corp., called Devon a "champ" through his trials. The church presented Dredden with a plaque for courage, alongside Adrianne Holland, Eartha Holland's 35-year-old niece from Blackwood who has sickle cell anemia, at a banquet Friday.

Among several honored with Vision Awards was Gloucester County Freeholder Adam Taliaferro, who was paralyzed in 2000 during a Pennsylvania State University football game and recovered far beyond doctors' expectations.

Devon said Taliaferro offered some words of encouragement: "He said keep my faith up, and always have faith in God."

Adrianne Holland, a friend of his family's, said his faith would help him persevere. "Devon, I know, is going to get back on the football field," she said.

That's exactly what he plans to do. The accounting major with a 3.8 grade-point average hopes he will be able to return to school this fall.

But his family acknowledges that the challenge to remain healthy is continuous. He dropped nearly 20 pounds, from 220 pounds, during the treatment, weight he hopes to gain back if he can return to the field.

In late January, Devon had a stroke, leaving him temporarily without control over the left side of his body, which he has since regained.

"I talk to God every day," he said this week in his Cushman Avenue home, across the street from Green Grove. "I just kept it in God's hands. That's all I could do."

And the family continues to roll with the punches. Devon had planned on hosting a Super Bowl party in the house, where family photos flank Pittsburgh Steelers memorabilia. (His step-father, James Thomas, is a fan of the team, while the rest of the family cheers for the Eagles.) But after the stroke, he was hospitalized at Penn, and the family took the party - wings and all - bedside.

Devon rooted for the Seattle Seahawks, who beat the Denver Broncos.

Amid his chemotherapy maintenance and weekly appointments for blood monitoring, he continues to study the sport, analyzing plays and keeping abreast of professional sporting news, James Thomas said.

"It's in his blood," Thomas, a 46-year-old warehouse worker, said.

Devon and DeAndre, who is older by two minutes, began playing football together at age 4. They still maintain a brotherly rivalry, taking shape, for instance, in the form of a competition for top-play helmet decals in high school.

"But on the field, they have each other's backs," said their mother, Carla Thomas, 40, a nurse at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital.

Overbrook High School coach Wade Inge said the Dredden brothers - who are both 5-foot-8 and have dreams of going pro - play "a lot bigger" than their size. He said they were the "heart and soul" of the team their senior year (although the pair, along with more than 20 others, were removed from the team halfway through the season after they protested the dismissal of a teammate).

"They were very, very important to our team," Inge said. "If they were having a good game, we were having a good game."

The high school program raised $2,800 in the fall to help the family with medical bills.

Although DeAndre was academically ineligible to play his freshman year at Cheyney, the slot wide receiver picked up his ailing brother's jersey in the fall. While the Division II team experienced a depressing season, losing all of its games, the brothers are hopeful of a comeback year.

"I'm just trying to get him back on the field with me," DeAndre said. "Next year is going to be a better season."


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917 @AJFichera

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