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Cancer Visit Hits Close To Home For Nolan Cooney

Cardinals punter might not be in NFL if not for illness

Punter Nolan Cooney delivers a football to a patient at a visit to Phoenix Children's Hospital this week.
Punter Nolan Cooney delivers a football to a patient at a visit to Phoenix Children's Hospital this week.

For Nolan Cooney, it was a phone call from Lance Armstrong and being able to spend time with three-time Super Bowl winner Joe Andruzzi.

When the Cardinals punter had cancer when he was in high school, those were the moments he got some needed distraction, some needed support from heroes who were cancer survivors.

That's what Cooney was hoping to be for the kids he saw this week at Phoenix Children's Hospital, a visit that had been a long time coming.

"Knowing the situation those kids are in, remembering the people I spoke to when I was sick, it's a chance for a distraction from what is going on and bring joy to them," Cooney said. "And it brings joy to myself."

Nine years after his bout with testicular cancer, Cooney is healthy, hoping a second stint with the Cardinals leads to a full-time job. With veteran Andy Lee gone, the Cardinals at the moment are choosing between Cooney and veteran Matt Haack as their next punter.

That Cooney has made it to this point seems unlikely, especially knowing Cooney might not have even been punting had he not gotten sick.

The Rhode Island native grew up playing basketball and soccer. The only football he played was the touch variety with his friends, when as the guy who played goalie he was the one who inevitably kicked off. His cancer was found during his routine physical before his junior year of basketball, and later, nodes were found in his lungs as well.

Nolan Cooney launches a punt at practice.
Nolan Cooney launches a punt at practice.

He was home for more than three months. Admittedly, he had so much confidence in his doctors "it was never much of a scare," Cooney said, although that didn't make the chemotherapy treatments easier.

At one point, trying to help pass the time, Cooney's father took him to a kicking camp, and it caught Cooney's attention. While Cooney was not allowed to play both soccer and football in his district – he stuck with soccer as a senior, and amazingly even made it back to the basketball team at the tail end of his junior season after finishing chemo – football was in his head.

Even aside from football, Cooney wasn't ready for college. So he spent at year at Bridgton Academy prep school in Maine, "a great place for me to grow" and also learn punting. Maybe, just maybe, he could have a future in that role.

Cooney went to a full-fledged kicking camp, where he got to know former Syracuse punter Riley Dixon. He asked who at Syracuse he should send his tapes to; Dixon told him just to send the tapes to him and he'd pass them along.

Meanwhile, Cooney jumped on YouTube, devouring every punting video he could get his eyes on.

"I surfed for anything I could find," Cooney said. "Technique, timing, anything I could. You have so much access now that it's almost like you can find one-on-one coaching."

The Syracuse coaches also reached out in late June, telling him to show up Aug. 1. He had a foot in the door. Cooney wasn't the Orange's punter until he was a fifth-year senior, but he did enough to earn time with the Saints in 2021 in the preseason and then a stint with the Cardinals last preseason.

He was also on the practice squad later in 2022, before returning to try and beat out Haack.

His cancer hasn't been an issue, although he has remained good friends with his oncologist – Cooney and his doctor will be attending one of the Red Sox-Diamondbacks games this weekend in Phoenix.

And Cooney knows, regardless of his football future, he made an impact with his visit to the hospital.

"It's just joy," Cooney said. "When you walk in and you can see the smile on their face, because you know, of the 24 hours in a day, there might be 23 that are tough. Sitting with an IV in the arm, or you are in pain, or fatigued, when you have that distraction, it's such a powerful thing."

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