Linebacker Mark Fields has been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and will miss the 2003 season.
Fields, 30, was diagnosed with the illness August 14. Fields began treatment in the form of chemotherapy on August 16 and will continue the treatment for the next several months. Team officials learned of the diagnosis on August 15 but kept it quiet at Fields' request until Sunday, August 17.
Based on the current medical information, the prognosis for recovery is excellent. Statistics indicate Fields has a better than 90 percent chance for recovery.
"I'm truly blessed to have found out at this stage," Fields said in a statement released by the team. "Right now, my main goal is to focus on my condition. I don't look at this as a setback but another of life's ultimate challenges. From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank God, my wife and family and all of the doctors and staff who have encouraged and educated me through this as well as the entire Panthers organization for so much love and support."
Panthers general manger Marty Hurney and head coach John Fox visited with Fields at Carolinas Medical Center after returning from the team's 20-10 win over the New York Giants.
"He's in excellent spirits," Hurney said. "It's amazing how well he's handling things. He's an inspiration. He's approaching this in the manner he has approached everything since he has been a Panther, with an upbeat and positive attitude."
The disease was discovered after Fields checked into the hospital on Wednesday because of a thumb infection.
As is the case with Hodgkin's disease, Fields wasn't able to fight off the bacteria in his thumb and it became infected. The Panthers medical staff conducted several tests to further investigate the nature of the infection. At that time, the possibility of Hodgkin's disease was revealed and further tests confirmed the diagnosis.
Fox broke the news to his players at a team meeting Sunday at 1 p.m. at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. The team then went through practiced about two hours later.
"Mark is well thought of on our football team, both as a person and as a player," Fox said. "Obviously, it was a blow to all of them. I think there was some shock involved. But we have to move on, and Mark expects us to move on. He has got a fight that he is dealing with and he is going to win his and he expects our guys to win theirs."
Fellow linebacker Dan Morgan said he was shocked to hear the news.
"He is just a great person, and sometimes you just don't see these kinds of things coming," Morgan said. "Just like injuries, things like this are going to happen. All we can do is have his back and be there for him."
With Morgan, Fields and Will Witherspoon, the Panthers figured to have one of the fastest linebacker crews in the NFL this season.
"We're going to miss him this year," Morgan said. "He's a great player and an even better person. We're going to miss the heck out of him."
Safety Mike Minter: "He was an emotional guy. We'll miss his play, period. He was one of the best defensive players we had on our football team, so we're going to miss his presence on the football field. We'll miss his leadership skills. It's going to be difficult.
Added linebacker Greg Favors: "The biggest concern is his health. Cancer is cancer and it is bad. Your heart goes out to the family, and our prayers are with him. We are pulling for him. Fee is a fighter and he is going to fight this thing out and will pull through."
Signed as a free agent by Carolina during the 2002 offseason, Fields enjoyed arguably the most productive season of his eight-year NFL career last year and matched his career high with 15 starts at strong-side linebacker. He led the Panthers and set career highs with 127 tackles and a team-record seven forced fumbles. Fields also recorded 7.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries, one interception, eight quarterback hurries and five passes defensed.
In his statement, Fields seemed to indicate that he wants to play football again.
"To the fans, I want to say, 'I'll be back healthier and stronger than ever before,'" Fields said. "All of you are such a blessing. The support and prayers are truly appreciated."
As for this year, Hurney said the Panthers have begun exploring options for replacing Fields, who will be placed on injured reserve. The team plans to work out another veteran linebacker in the next day or so and will likely sign a player before the end of the week, Hurney said.
In the meantime, Brian Allen and Greg Favors will continue working at outside linebacker.
The Fields family has asked that flowers and cards be sent to the Carolina Panthers, who will forward them to the Fields' home.