After Losing His Leg To Cancer, Sitting Volleyball Player J. Dee Marinko Thankful For Another Chance To Play

By Scott Powers | Feb. 04, 2016, 2:45 p.m. (ET)


J. Dee Marinko seen here competing at the 2015 Parapan American Games.

Every time J. Dee Marinko puts on his USA Volleyball uniform, it’s a reminder he lost his left leg due to a cancerous tumor.

That same uniform also reminds him he is doing the most with his life despite what happened to him. In what would undoubtedly fall into the category of things rarely said, Marinko has even come to describe his cancer as a blessing.

“God’s plan for me now is there was a wrench thrown in the spokes of what I thought was a great life, and now I have this other great life I never knew about or thought about,” the 35-year-old Marinko said. “Looking back, it’s an amazing ride. I would say it’s an amazing adventure ride. It’s been crazy. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve met a lot of great people I would have never met before if I hadn’t been blessed with cancer, blessed with losing my leg.”

Those feelings are drastically different than what Marinko felt in early 2009. He had gone to a doctor in late 2008 to treat poison ivy. He mentioned a pain he was suffering in his left foot. Shortly thereafter, he visited a podiatrist and a mass was discovered. His doctor was hopeful it was just a cyst.

“He said, ‘By the way, there’s a one percent chance it could be a tumor, but I’ve never seen it before,’” Marinko said.

The doctor first saw it when Marinko’s test results returned. Marinko was in that one percent and had a cancerous tumor.

Marinko’s next step was to visit a specialist in Oklahoma City. His choices were laid out for him. He could keep his left leg and face a high percentage that the cancer would return or he could have his leg amputated.

Marinko received that news on a Tuesday and returned home to where his 6-month-old son waiting for him.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I have a 6-month-old son. I have to be here for him,’” said Marinko, who now has two sons, Kash and Liam. “I called her on Thursday and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

That following Monday morning, Feb. 2, 2009, he had his left leg amputated.

Marinko suffered through a range of emotions following the procedure and for months afterward. He was angry. He was sad. He was frustrated. He didn’t understand why it had happened to him.

On top of that, Marinko had been an athlete his entire life. He was a star wide receiver at Newcastle High School in Oklahoma and went on to play college football at Oklahoma Panhandle State University. And as he saw it, he not only lost his left leg, but he also lost his identity as an athlete.

“It affected me big time,” Marinko said. “Having all the confidence I was an athlete and I was able to do things. The not knowing, the not knowing what the future holds. Am I going to be able to get up and walk? Am I going to be able to get up and run? That was big.”

After all those thoughts and emotions were released, he grabbed a hold of something internal he had learned from being an athlete.

“Just having that’s athlete’s mentality of always striving and always being the best helped me overcome all of those doubts,” he said. “My high school football coach was probably the biggest influence I had in never to give up. Sports in my opinion is one of the greatest life lessons you can ever have. It teaches you can work hard and overcome anything you want. If you put your mind to it, you can overcome anything. That was huge. Just because I had my leg cut off that’s not going to hold me down.”

Marinko needed an activity to channel that into. He discovered Edmond, Oklahoma was a U.S. Paralympic Training Site for two sports — sitting volleyball and track and field. He wasn’t interested in track and field because he had always enjoyed team sports more. Volleyball was something he only associated with having played in the sand and just for fun with his friends in high school.

Marinko ultimately decided to give sitting volleyball a try in early 2010. It changed his life.

Marinko did have to endure some early physical and mental challenges. Despite having been a college athlete, he described sitting volleyball as the “most physically demanding sport I’ve played” and he “had muscles I never knew of that were hurting the week after.”

Marinko didn’t let that discourage him. He was driven to be a great sitting volleyball player, and he also understood what that took.

“I told my family at the time if I do this, I’m not doing it just for fun,” he said. “I’m doing it to be the best. I want to strive to be the best on the team and strive to be the best like everyone else does.”

Marinko dedicated himself to the sport. He trained on the court for three days a week and off the court the remainder of the week. He balanced that with a 3:30 p.m. to midnight job at the U.S. Department of Defense.

Marinko became good enough that he was asked to join the residential program. He was given a Team USA uniform and sat on the bench during the world championships in Oklahoma in 2010. The following year he finally got comfortable on the court after playing for Team USA in a tournament in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Since then, Marinko, an outside hitter, has developed into a key player for the U.S. Men’s Sitting Volleyball Team. He was named the 2015 USA Volleyball Male Sitting Player of the Year. He had 67 points in seven matches to help Team USA earn the silver medal in the 2015 Parapan American Games and qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, where Marinko is hopeful his team can medal.

It’s just one more experience Marinko never dreamed of ever happening.

“Being a small-town kid I wanted to just get a job, coach high school football and teach and look at where I’m at,” he said. “It was an amazing transformation. I went from being on the verge of losing my life to being on a team that represents the United States that will play in the Paralympics. Never did I think I would don a uniform with a United States flag on it. I’m one of 12 who get to wear that.

“At the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade it in for the world. It meant me meeting a lot of great people and doing a lot of great things in my life. I’m really excited for what the future holds.”

Scott Powers is a sportswriter based in in Chicago. He previously worked at ESPN, where he covered the Chicago Blackhawks. Powers is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.