Shon Coleman is battling for a spot on the Bears' 53-man roster. But it's not the most difficult challenge the 30-year-old offensive tackle has ever faced.
Ranked as the top high school player in Mississippi, Coleman signed a letter of intent with Auburn in February 2010. Unfortunately, a few weeks later he was forced to put his football career—and his life—on hold after being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Coleman was told that his form of cancer was 90-something percent curable. So he didn't fear for his life; he just had to adapt and adjust to a new normal. Instead of heading off to Auburn, he remained home in Olive Branch, Miss., and underwent treatment at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis.
"I wasn't really thinking about losing my life or anything like that," Coleman told ChicagoBears.com. "I just knew I had to do treatments and postpone football. My mentality was basically just get from A to B, B to C, just step-by-step and just stay like tunnel-vision focused.
"It wasn't so much I was scared. I just knew it was going to be a major step backwards before I started to go to college and do everything an 18-year-old is supposed to do."
Coleman's leukemia went into remission in April 2010, only weeks after he began treatment. But he had to undergo treatment for a full two years. He finally arrived at Auburn in January 2011 and continued treatment there, attending classes and working out but still not playing football.
"The toughest thing was having to do treatment that coincided with workouts," Coleman said. "Some days I wouldn't feel good, some days I would feel all right. But my mindset was I needed to grind through whatever I was feeling and be able to do all my workouts. With redshirt guys, they put you through some gruesome workouts. So being able to go through all that was the toughest."
Coleman eventually was cleared to resume football activities in April 2012. After redshirting for a second straight year, he appeared in six games as a reserve in 2013. Coleman followed by starting all 13 contests in 2014 and 12 games in 2015, when he earned second-team all-SEC honors.
A cancer survivor, Coleman was invited to attend the 2014 NFL Draft in New York, in part due to the league's partnership with St. Jude Hospital. He toured the city and walked on stage in front of a capacity crowd at Radio City Music Hall to announce the 13th overall pick in the first round, a selection that the Rams spent on three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.
Two years later, Coleman heard his own name called when he was chosen in the third round of the 2016 draft by the Browns. Fittingly, he hosted his draft party at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, where he received his cancer treatment, and was joined by several young patients.
"It was one of the happier moments of my life, just because you had kids there that were way younger than 18, what I was [when diagnosed]," Coleman said. "They were seven, eight, nine years old, having to postpone going to school and having to go to St. Jude every day getting treatment. I think it was good for them to see a guy who went through the same thing and was able to overcome it and see me get to a point I always wanted to get to since I was five years old. It was great. That was more important than me getting drafted, them seeing that."
“Whatever happens, I’ll never feel sorry for myself or down on myself. I try to persevere through everything.” Bears OT Shon Coleman
Coleman appeared in seven games, all as a reserve, as a Browns rookie in 2016. He then started all 16 contests in 2017. But the 6-6, 310-pounder hasn't appeared in a regular-season game since.
Traded to the 49ers Aug. 31, 2018, Coleman was on San Francisco's 53-man roster in 2018, but was inactive for every game. He then missed the entire 2019 season with a leg injury he sustained in the 49ers' preseason opener and then opted out of the 2020 campaign due to COVID-19. Coleman again was placed on injured reserve last Aug. 31 and released two weeks later.
"It's been very frustrating because leading up to the NFL, I never really had injuries," he said. "I'd always been able to stay clean. But the last couple years have been crazy. Last year, the last preseason game, I got an injury that took a couple months to heal. Before that, being with San Francisco, I was having a great training camp and unfortunately had a blown ankle. So it's been hard."
Coleman joined the Colts in January but was waived May 10. He signed with the Bears a week later and has been working as a backup tackle. The Auburn product has played 103 snaps in the first two preseason games, the most by any Bears player.
"It means a lot because I feel like I haven't reached my potential and this is a great opportunity to come in and battle for a spot," said Coleman, adding that he wants to show coaches "that I can play hard, I can make plays as an O-lineman, helping the team get better in every way and just be dependable."
Although Coleman's career has been derailed a second time due to injuries, the perspective he gained in defeating cancer will help him cope with anything.
"Whatever happens, I'll never feel sorry for myself or down on myself," he said. "I try to persevere through everything. Even when the odds are against me, just keep going. Don't take life for granted. The things that you love to do can easily be taken away from you. But if you have a chance to get them back, just keep going and try to get them back."