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"A Chance to Compete"
This is the story of how head coach Brandon Staley has given a Chargers fan "the light to keep surviving."
By Hayley Elwood Sep 29, 2021

This story was originally published in June 2021, but it has been updated in advance of the NFL's Crucial Catch month and Monday, October 4, being the Los Angeles Chargers' Crucial Catch game.

"I have that picture on my background of my computer. I have it everywhere. Any time there's any slight doubt or some type of questioning thought, I look at the photo and think, dude, that guy right there did it and he's doing the dang thing. You can do it too, so just get up. Get up and go."

John Gillett is a Chargers fanatic and season ticket member from Long Beach who this past spring, received news he never anticipated hearing.

He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Shortly after his diagnosis, Gillett learned about Brandon Staley's prior battle with cancer and at a season ticket member event this past April, Gillett had a life-changing meeting with the Chargers head coach.

This is the story of trust, hope, football, and "familia."


Gillett is in his early 30s and never had any health issues in his life.

Heck, he's never even broken a bone.

As rough as 2020 was for most, Gillett had some bright spots. He was a year into his marriage with his wife, Dakota, and had recently started a business with his best friend.

Yet like everyone else, he couldn't wait to turn the page and "tackle the world" in 2021.

But quickly into January, he felt something unusual.

"I was brushing my teeth and I'm standing there and all of a sudden, I had an itch on the back of my neck," Gillett reflected. "I felt a ball, a lump, and went to my wife and asked if she felt it. She did, but we decided to give it a month. A month goes by and it was still there."

It lingered.

His doctor then suggested Gillett visit an ears, nose, and throat doctor. The doctor immediately sent him for a biopsy the following Monday.

It was then he received the news that it was time to tackle a new challenge.

"They told me that unfortunately it was grade 3a follicular lymphoma. Obviously, you hear that news and your jaw drops. But it is what it is, it's one of those things where all the doctors said it was the best-worst news I could get. You never want to hear you have cancer. When you hear it, you think instant death. What's good with the final diagnosis being non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is it's one of the most treatable (forms.)"


As Gillett was going through his appointments, his favorite team hired a new head coach, Brandon Staley.

A new era of Chargers football had begun headed by a leader whose life has been defined by perseverance.

Staley is a survivor of Hodgkin's lymphoma and was diagnosed when he was 24.

Cancer has also affected the Staley family. His mother passed away from breast cancer in 2004 and his father completed treatment for prostate cancer in the fall of 2020.

But his mindset through his own fight never wavered.

"When I went through my own cancer journey, through six months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation, I looked at it as a chance to compete," Staley said at his introductory press conference in January. "I thought that it was a chance to really bring out all of the best in me."

Shortly after Gillett's diagnosis, Dakota asked John's friends and family to write letters to him.

One of the letters Gillett received was written by his younger sister's best friend, Lydia, who connected the dots between Staley and Gillett.


Gillett didn't know of Staley's personal battle until the letter.

"She talked a lot about the 'mamba mentality' with Kobe. But then, she (wrote) about Brandon Staley. I was shocked. She wrote how he had (cancer) at 24. And the craziest part is right as I was reading that, I got an email about the select-a-seat event on Apr. 24."


With fans absent from the stands at SoFi Stadium last season, April 24 was the very first opportunity for season ticket members to view their seats and step foot inside the new home of the Chargers. Players like Justin Herbert, Austin Ekeler, and Joshua Kelley were on-hand as well.

So too was Staley.

As soon as Gillett got the email, he knew he had to be there and decided to pick the time slot that featured the head coach.

"I was just about to start my treatment, (so knowing Staley was) someone who has gone through it and someone who was so young and is still able to accomplish everything and get to the highest feat as he did, I was like, I have to pick his brain. I would love to feel his vibe and confidence."

However, Gillett admits he didn't quite read the email and got a little ahead of himself in the moment.

"Me being dumb, I didn't look at the notes! I thought it was I was going to meet him, take a photo and talk to him. Heck yeah! This is gonna be awesome!"

Though as Gillett puts it, he probably shouldn't have gone since his first R-CHOP chemotherapy treatment was earlier in the week.

But he was determined.

"I told myself there was no way I'm missing – thinking – I'm gonna meet Brandon Staley."

Gillett and his wife arrived at SoFi Stadium that Saturday and got their first chance to tour the incredible venue and check out their seats. They also watched Staley speak.

"They then told us we had to leave."

Now what?

As the couple was walking out, Gillett paused and decided to shoot his shot.

Being on the lower level, he asked a security guard if it was possible to hang out a little longer in hopes of being able to seek Staley out. He told the woman his personal story, and she let him and his wife stay as long as they hustled.

But at that point, they were on Staley time.

Staley was still on the field doing media. The first interview turned into a second which turned into a third. Gillett knew this wait wasn't going to be quick. But then, he noticed a Chargers rep with Staley and decided to reach out.

"I said, 'I hate to ask, but I have lymphoma and I know Coach Staley had cancer, so I just wanted to ask him one question,' and she told me she'd go get him right away."

The moment he anticipated, the moment he actually thought was going to happen, all of a sudden became real.


When they finally met, the pair dove right in.

Sure, being at SoFi and surrounded by all things Chargers, you'd think they'd talk football. Gillett said as a fan he could have asked about the team, or slyly tried to get a feel for who'd they draft in the first round, but he recognized this was something bigger.

Something personal.

They exchanged stories about their symptoms and how Staley got through his cancer battle.

While questions about a coach's mindset amongst the backdrop of SoFi might pertain to a game on Sundays in the fall, Gillett wanted to know what Staley's mindset was going through cancer and what his outlook was like once he got through it.

Staley delivered.

"He told me, 'You're there for a mission, you're there to take care of a task and you're there to get out of there as quickly as possible because you have things to do,'" Gillett recounted. "He told me how he used his time back then to really focus on football (instead of cancer.) So as I'm going through this new business with my best friend, I'm trying to figure out how this can be advantageous and what else we can do. Staley was just a great communicator and that's exactly what a leader needs to do."


"It was awesome to meet him," Staley said. "That's why I love it so much, you get to meet people like John. Hearing his story and where he's at with his journey (and) getting to meet his wife. Hopefully my experiences personally and with my family, my mom and dad, hopefully it's one of those experiences that can impact him and his family in a special way."

Staley said back in January that the platform that comes with being an NFL head coach is one he doesn't take lightly.

His conversation with Gillett was a reminder of the purpose the platform presents.

"You have a real responsibility as a cancer patient and somebody who's been on the other side of it to live as an example for others," he mentioned. "To be a light. To be something that people can truly hold onto as something that can help them go through their journey. It can be in big ways or small ways. Sometimes it's the smallest things that can help you get through it.

"But I think the more you can connect with people and truly empathize with them, so much of the journey is believing you can do it. Once you've been through it and you've been able to make it, you've gotta be able to give people that same belief, that same confidence, that same light that allowed you to make it."

Gillett admits the experience was more than he could have imagined and didn't even come close to what he might have thought would unfold when he signed up to attend the event. He left with guidance that will remain with him the rest of his life.

"I'm just thankful," Gillett said. "It's the gratitude. And it's something I'll look back and be like, I can't believe it actually happened, but I'm really thankful that it did."

Trust + Hope + "Familia"

Even before his battle with lymphoma, Gillett has worn a wristband adorned with the words "trust" and "hope," but now, it means something more.

Wearing a Chargers shirt and socks, he finished his final chemotherapy appointment this past June, and in late September said he "couldn't be any better both mentally and physically."

"My hair has grown back, my weight is back to normal, and my blood work reports are coming back perfect," he said.

Through the whole process, Gillett has been guided by those two words of trust and hope.

One of them, exemplifies Staley.

"He showed what hope can be, and the path to it. I know that he's not any different from me, and I can do what he can do. That's hope. But also, it's trusting the process. Trust the doctors, trust the people who are close to you, trust yourself, trust how your body's feeling.

"I want to thank Brandon again for not only giving me the light to keep surviving, but [for] the opportunity to pass it along to those who need it the most."

Gillett, who's been given this chance to compete, said he also feels more connected to the Chargers than ever before.

Though he's a member of the Bolt Fam, this is bigger.

"It's familia. This is beyond me just being a fan. There was the connection with my first roommate in college being a Chargers fan and me being a Chargers fan and getting to do things together and build the long friendship. Then the Chargers were able to inspire moments with my dad and my family to talk about football. Then some of my best memories were made at tailgates. But now, you have a coach who's inspired me personally in a different battle. It's Chargers for life."


Per the NFL, the mission of Crucial Catch is to fight and "intercept" cancer through early detection and risk reduction. The league, its clubs, players, the NFL Player Association, and the American Cancer Society are committed to providing individuals with the tools they need to help them better understand early detection and ways to reduce their cancer risk.

For more information, visit

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