CHARLOTTE, N.C. (May 5, 2005) -- Mark Fields was a pallbearer at Sam Mills' funeral, a difficult job for a man all too aware of his own mortality.
Even though his Hodgkin's disease was in remission and the linebacker had emerged from his treatments to post a Pro Bowl season for the Carolina Panthers last year, Fields knew his cancer could come back at any time.
He learned May 5 it was back, in its early stages, and announced through his agent that he'll miss all of the 2005 season.
"Mark is obviously disappointed that he will be unable to play next year, but he has every confidence that this course of chemotherapy will be successful," agent Jim Steiner said. "Mark would like everyone to know that he considers this 'blip' in his recovery a minor setback and that his expectations are to return to the field for the 2006 season."
Fields and Mills, his position coach, spent all of 2003 battling cancer together. They were diagnosed within two weeks of each other before the start of the season, and bonded together to discuss treatment options while supporting each other through grueling rounds of chemotherapy.
The Panthers rallied around them, wearing T-shirts under their jerseys bearing both of their numbers and using Fields and Mills as motivation during their Super Bowl season.
Fields came back in 2004 and earned his second career appearance in the Pro Bowl after posting 60 tackles, four sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one interception.
When the season ended, and his contract with the Panthers expired, he joked that he would re-sign for $2 because he was so grateful for how the organization had supported him.
So it wasn't a good sign when the weeks turned into months without a new deal, and then his agent announced in March that Fields had declined signing a contract until after a round of tests related to his treatment.
And when Carolina used its first-round draft pick on Thomas Davis, who can play linebacker or safety, and signed free-agent linebacker Chris Draft, it was clear the Panthers were moving on as if Fields would not be back.
Still, they didn't know for sure until Steiner called them.
"We knew this was a possibility, but we certainly were hoping this wasn't the case," general manager Marty Hurney said. "Our main concern right now is to be as supportive as we can to Mark."
Fields' illness will undoubtedly be difficult for the Panthers, particularly the linebackers who were all close to Mills and viewed Fields as their leader.
Mills died in April after his two-year battle with intestinal cancer, and linebackers Dan Morgan and Will Witherspoon joined Fields as pallbearers. All three were visibly shaken at the funeral.
Witherspoon said that Fields could beat his latest setback.
"I know that he not only beat this thing once, but he's definitely going to do it again," Witherspoon said. "Knowing the way that Mark is, he wants to be back here with us and he'll do it. He has that drive to get back out there on the field and he's going to prove to everybody that he can come back yet again."
It's unclear what Carolina will do to replace Fields. Davis played safety behind Mike Minter during minicamp last week, but coach John Fox indicated he'd also get some time at linebacker. Brandon Short played in Fields' spot in the minicamp, and the Panthers also drafted Adam Seward.
No matter who gets the starting job, defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac said Fields' shoes will be hard to fill.
"Mark is an important part of the Panthers organization, not only as a player, but also as a person," Trgovac said. "His tenacity and leadership will be missed."