In January 2010, Darrell Mattison was in a hospital in San Bernardino, Calif., after being diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia, a very rare form of cancer. Being in a weakened state, he didn’t let his four sons visit at first because he figured he would get better soon.
Then one day, Mattison sent word that his kids should come to the hospital.
“To be honest, I thought I was going to die,” he said. “I wasn’t getting better, so I told my wife at the time, ‘You need to bring them up and let them see me in case I don’t make it out of here.’ ”
Mattison finally did show improvement, and was released from the hospital in February after what was nearly a two-month stay. The cancer was in remission by May 2010, and Mattison, 49, said he is now fully healthy.
Mattison’s children, though, have not forgotten about his ordeal. And one, Vikings running back Alexander Mattison, has taken a visible role in the fight against cancer.
Mattison is one of two Vikings ambassadors for the American Cancer Society, along with defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, who lost his father to cancer when he was just 5. In October, the American Cancer Society partnered with the NFL for Crucial Catch Month to help promote prevention and early detection of cancer, and to raise awareness for donations.
In the Vikings’ 19-17 victory over Detroit last Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, a game in which Crucial Catch was promoted, Mattison wore pink cleats that read “Crucial Catch” on them. Replacing injured Dalvin Cook in the lineup, he rushed for a career-high 113 yards.
It wasn’t the first time Mattison has given a nod to his father in an NFL game. As a rookie in 2019, during a December “My Cause, My Cleats” game, he wore cleats that read “City of Hope” for a cancer center in his hometown of San Bernardino that helped his father. And during a Crucial Catch Month game last October, he wore pink cleats adorned with a leukemia symbol.
“I want to use my platform to bring attention to cancer awareness,” said Mattison, whose Vikings play Sunday at Carolina. “It’s definitely something special for me, and I’m proud that the NFL is really making Crucial Catch a priority to make sure that we’re able to bring awareness. And I’m honoring my father, who fought leukemia for a while. He’s doing great now, but I’m just honoring his fight and all those who are going through that.”
Mattison, 23, remembers well what it was like when he was 11 and his father was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia. It’s a form of cancer that affects only about 800 people a year and results in one’s bone marrow making too many B cells, a type of white blood cells that fight infection. That leads to not enough healthy blood cells being produced.
“It was really scary,” Mattison said of his father’s battle, which began when he first entered the hospital on Dec. 31, 2009. “It was something that really affected me. I would kind of break down and be in a bad state of mind sometimes.”
It became especially difficult when Mattison first saw his father in the hospital after three weeks. He visited with his mother, Pearl, and brothers Trevon, now 26, and Darrell Jr. and Lamarr, twins who are now 24.
“It was really rough,” Mattison said. “During the time we’d go to the hospital, he’d just say he didn’t know if he was going to make it or how much longer he had. He had lost a lot of weight and just wasn’t looking like himself.”
Darrell Mattison lost nearly 50 pounds during his stay in the hospital, dropping from 220 to 171. He underwent chemotherapy, which was very difficult.
“I had aggressive chemo,” he said. “It was seven days, 24 hours a day, where they put a prickler in my arm. … It was so bad that after the first day of chemo, I called my sister (Angel) and told her, ‘I’m not going to be able to do this. Take this out tomorrow. It’s so painful.’ She said, ‘You’ve got your sons looking up to you and they’re expecting you to come out of here and you need to fight,’ and so that changed my mindset.”
Mattison’s father also had four bone marrow biopsies. Even after he got out of the hospital, he was in a weakened state at his San Bernardino home until the cancer went into remission.
Darrell and Pearl Mattison divorced in 2019. She now lives in Eagan with Alexander, and is a manager at a local Walmart. Darrell now lives in Dallas, where he is an account manager for an energy management system company.
Darrell Mattison attended four Vikings games when Mattison was a rookie in 2019 and one last year. He has been to three games this season: the Sept. 12 opener at Cincinnati, and home games on Sept. 26 against Seattle and Oct. 3 against Cleveland.
With Cook sidelined due to a sprained right ankle suffered Sept. 19 at Arizona, Mattison stepped in and tied his career high with 112 yards rushing in a 30-17 win over the Seahawks. Cook also sat out last week’s game against the Lions, and Mattison topped his career high by one yard. His father was thrilled to see him have a big game while helping bring awareness to cancer with his pink cleats.
“I love his spirit, I love his determination, and when he believes in something, he gives back,” he said. “Everybody doesn’t get this chance, and he’s taking full advantage of using his platform to help others.”
Mattison wasn’t perfect against the Lions. He lost a fumble at the Vikings 20 with 1:56 left that could have cost them the game. The Lions scored with 37 seconds left to take a 17-16 lead, but Greg Joseph kicked a 54-yard field goal on the final play to give Minnesota the win.
Mattison was obviously down after the fumble, but said Cook helped him keep his head up.
“I give a lot of credit to him in helping me get over that real fast because he said it happens to the best of us,” Mattison said. “So I’m understanding that I know I’ve got to do a better job of holding onto the ball.”
Cook went immediately over to Mattison after the fumble.
“I was just making sure (Mattison) was all right,” Cook said. “Being in a situation like that, having the ball slip away from you, when you’re trying to do so much to take care of the football, it just happens. … I was just making sure his mentals were good, and once he saw the field goal go in, he gave me a big hug.”
Cook, 26, and Mattison, 23, have developed a close relationship, and Mattison said he’s like a “big brother.” Cook, who is expected to play against the Panthers, has been thankful with how Mattison has “been answering that call every time” he has been out.
Cook also is impressed to see the work Mattison is doing with the American Cancer Society.
“Him being a part of that is obviously big and is big in his life because he experienced it first hand, so I’m proud of him for stepping in and stepping out of his comfort zone to be a part of that,” Cook said. “That’s bigger than football, that’s bigger than anything we’ve got going on right now.”