Four years after being drafted by the Texans in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, David Quessenberry had never played a snap. The offensive lineman was expected to eventually compete for playing time in Houston, but it never came to fruition.
Quessenberry missed his first NFL season with a foot injury before getting the shock of his life during the summer of 2014. He had an aggressive form of cancer, and he would need to indefinitely put his NFL career on hold to battle it. Following the diagnosis, Quessenberry wondered whether he would be able to return to the NFL.
"There were doubts every step along the way," Quessenberry told Sporting News in a phone interview. "It's a long, tough battle. And to play in this league — the most competitive league in the world — it’s not easy to get back here to play."
And one question echoed over and over again for Quessenberry.
"How are you going to come back after taking three years off? Just if you took three years off to come back and play in the NFL is like crazy," he said. "But to take three years off, and not just three years off of not playing, I was getting three years off and getting chemotherapy and radiation. It was a mountain to climb when I got back, but I believed in the process."
That process guided Quessenberry through three years of cancer treatments and four years of battling for spots on NFL rosters and practice squads. Now in his ninth year at age 31, he has finally realized one of his biggest NFL dreams with the Titans. He is a full-time starter.
David Quessenberry's battle with cancer
Quessenberry first started to feel sick during June of 2014. He was preparing for his second NFL season after missing his first due to a foot injury when he started to deal with fatigue and a persistent cough. The symptoms lasted about a week before he sought out a medical evaluation.
The subsequent tests revealed that Quessenberry had an aggressive form of cancer called non-Hodgkin's T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma. That type of cancer attacks the body's lymphatic system, which controls the body's fluid levels in tissues and is a key part of immune responses.
The news was shocking to Quessenberry, who was 23 at the time of his diagnosis.
"I was like, no way. This doesn’t happen. It’s not a thing," Quessenberry said of his reaction to the news. "And once that passed and reality set in it was like, oh, this is real. This is it. I'm in the fight of my life right now."
The fight began right away, as the doctors told Quessenberry that they needed to act fast to address the cancer. While aggressive cancers tend to respond well to chemotherapy, the type of cancer that Quessenberry had is much harder to cure if it reaches the bone marrow. As such, he began treatment almost immediately and spent more than a week in the hospital.
That began a three-year cycle of chemotherapy treatments. The first year consisted of intensive chemo and radiation treatments. Quessenberry would go to the hospital every 21 days for a week of intensive chemotherapy that would be "12 hours on, 12 hours off," as he described it.
The second and third years were more about maintenance and keeping the cancer at bay. Quessenberry took a daily chemo pill during that time but still had to go to the hospital and get a chemo bag every 21 days. However, he no longer had week-long treatment cycles in the hospital.
The treatments worked and Quessenberry responded well. He finished his chemotherapy treatments in the spring of 2017 and emphatically "rang the bell" to announce to the world that he had won the battle after three years of treatment.
Throughout his fight, Quessenberry "leaned on everything and everyone he had" as he looked for support. That included his mother, who stayed with him while he was getting treatment, other members of his families, his Texans teammates, his relationship with God and his then-friend and now wife, Maegan.
But Quessenberry also looked toward other survivors for support. Seeing others accomplish their goals after winning their battles with cancer gave him hope that he could do the same.
"The doubt creeps into your mind when you're looking in the mirror and you got no hair, no eyebrows and your eyes are sunken in," Quessenberry said. "You don't feel like yourself, you don't look like yourself and you’re like, ‘How am I ever going to get back to being a professional [athlete]? How am I ever going to get back to this life that I had worked and trained for and kind of envisioned? Those stories really gave me hope and that's kind of got to be the most important thing through the whole process. The hope for better days ahead and everything kind of happens for a reason."
Quessenberry pointed toward the late, great ESPN anchor Stuart Scott as an "absolute stud" for the way he battled appendiceal cancer over four years from 2011 to 2015. He also looked to former Giants linebacker Mark Herlich, who had a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing's Sarcoma in college but managed to beat it, carve out a seven-year NFL career and win a Super Bowl.
"It was those stories and the ways guys handle that made me be like, hey, that's the way I want to handle it," Quessenberry said. "That’s what I wanna do. This ain’t gonna stop me. This ain’t gonna stop what I dreamed of. This ain’t gonna stop my dreams or kill my hope. I ain't gonna let that happen."
How Texans owner Bob McNair inspired Quessenberry
One of Quessenberry's biggest inspirations was right in front of him. It was Texans owner Bob McNair.
McNair battled cancer frequently during the last 25 years of his life. He was first diagnosed with skin cancer in 1994 and fought various forms of the disease up until his death in 2018. He was treated for cancer at the same time as Quessenberry, and he gave Quessenberry access to a reserved room at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center where they would occasionally meet during their treatments.
"There'd be multiple times where me and Mr. McNair and his wife, Janice — a lot of waiting goes on in the hospital. We were just in there waiting, hanging out and just talking about life," Quessenberry said. "Not football. Religion, cancer and all that stuff. He was somebody that I leaned on in the way he faced it."
He also appreciated that McNair and the Texans stood by him while he was battling cancer. The Texans kept Quessenberry on their roster for the duration of his treatment. He spent a combined three years on Non-Football Illness and Non-Football Injury list before he was deemed healthy enough to compete for a roster spot.
And that was something that McNair always believed would happen, as Quessenberry explained.
"I remember when I first got diagnosed, Mr. McNair, he came to my hospital room and he said, ‘You know, I've been praying a lot about your situation and about you and where we're at,' " he said, "And he goes, ‘You know, I believe you're gonna beat this and you're gonna wear Texans jersey on game day. You're gonna go play a game for us. So I just want you to know we're gonna stick by you. We believe in you. And we're gonna see this thing through.’"
Houston did. Quessenberry didn't make the Texans' 53-man roster in 2017, but he signed with the practice squad after final cuts. He was called up to the active roster in late December and played his first career NFL snaps on Christmas Day against the Steelers. He played 10 total (nine on offense and one on special teams) in the Texans' 34-6 loss, but that was one of the few times the result of the game didn't matter to Quessenberry.
"To be able to suit up, go out and see that thing through, for me and for him and for everybody that stuck by me, that was that was a big deal," Quessenberry said. "That’s something that I'll never forget, and I know they won't either."
Mike Vrabel, Titans take a chance on Quessenberry
Quessenberry would play one more game for the Texans in 2017. He competed for a roster spot in 2018 but wasn't able to win one. At that point, he wondered if another NFL team would take a chance on him or if his career would soon be over.
"I wasn't a real hot commodity when the Texans released me," Quessenberry said. "You know, cancer survivor coming back, no tape, my fifth year, just trying to get a shot anywhere I could."
Then, a familiar face came calling: Mike Vrabel. The new Titans coach had spent the previous four years with the Texans before taking the Tennessee head coaching job. He knew Quessenberry well and the veteran lineman — who affectionately calls Vrabel "Vrabes" — decided to sign with the Titans because of that connection.
"Vrabes had seen me, seen what I've been through. He knew what I was about. Nobody else did," Quessenberry said. "That’s something I’ll always be grateful for. He’s a good man. He's looking for ballplayers. He's looking for guys that wanna work and love the game and wanna play hard and play football a certain style. He knew that that's what I was about."
"I think Vrabes, he believed in me," Quessenberry added. "And when I signed here, I think he knew he brought me in here not just to be a good locker room guy, or a good team guy, but I think he believed that, hey, this guy could be a starter for me one day, and I’m just proud that I am."
Quessenberry worked hard to prove Vrabel right. He spent most of his first two-and-a-half seasons with the Titans on their practice squad fighting to earn a roster spot and playing time. It didn't come right away, as he was never activated to play in 2018, but Quessenberry was on a mission.
He wanted everyone to know that he was more than a good story. He wanted everyone to know that he could play in the NFL. How did he show that to Vrabel and the Titans' coaching staff?
"You show it every day when you show up to work and try to get better at one thing; get better at another thing; get better at another thing," he said. "Just kind of keep taking a step every single day. Showing up with a good attitude. Bust your ass. Be a good teammate. Play with a certain style, a certain edge, and eventually, you're going to get to where you want to go."
Quessenberry did just that. He made the Titans' opening day roster in 2019 as a backup offensive lineman. In Week 2, he played just his second offensive snap of the year and caught a one-yard touchdown from Marcus Mariota.
The score is one of Quessenberry's fondest NFL memories to date, and he described it as "awesome."
"Just to be the guy that the offense calls on in that moment was good," Quessenberry said. "Anything I can do to help this team get the ball in the end-zone and win games, that’s what I’m gonna do. It wasn't anything outrageous or spectacular right there on that play. I just did my job."
However, despite his score, Quessenberry couldn't stick around on the active roster. He was dropped back to the Titans' practice squad after five games, and just seven offensive snaps, with the team. He didn't play again in 2019.
How Quessenberry rose to the top of the depth chart
But again, Quessenberry didn't give up on his NFL dream. He continued to put in the work needed to rise in the ranks. Slowly but steadily he continued to establish himself and in 2020, he made it back to the 53-man roster about a year after he was waived.
That roster spot became permanent. Shortly thereafter, his starting job followed.
Beginning in Week 12 of the 2020 season against the Colts, Quessenberry became the starter at right tackle for the Titans. He replaced Ty Sambrailo and played every offensive snap for the team the rest of the year, which ended with a playoff loss against the Ravens.
Even still, entering the 2021 NFL season, Quessenberry had to fight for a starting job. Sambrailo was still around and both Kendall Lamm and second-round rookie Dillon Radunz were expected to push for the right tackle spot.
Quessenberry managed to hold them off. That guaranteed he would be the Week 1 starter for the first time in his nine-year NFL career, which he felt was a testament to two things: the hard work he put in to return to the league and the faith that others like McNair and Vrabel had in him to complete the comeback.
"I always believed I could be a starter — a Week 1 starter — and play throughout the whole year," Quessenberry said. "Sometimes guys get opportunities earlier, sometimes it's later. Mine happened to come when it came."
Quessenberry started all 17 of the Titans' regular-season games during his breakout year. He played a team-high 1,184 offensive snaps and, while he allowed a league-high 11 sacks during the regular season, he also graded out as the fifth-best run-blocking tackle in the NFL, per PFF. That helped the Titans boast a strong running game even when bell-cow back Derrick Henry missed the second half of the regular season due to a foot injury.
That said, Quessenberry has relished his contribution to the Titans' team culture, which he described as a "winning" one under Vrabel.
"You bust your ass, find a way to get better at this, find a way to get better at that, work on technique, work your craft, take pride in it, play hard," Quessenberry said. "That's what we want. We want guys who play like that. That kind of style, that kind of mentality, that's Tennessee Titans football."
And that type of attitude is why Quessenberry has meshed so well with Vrabel's Titans and defied all expectations during his late-career renaissance in Tennessee.
"That’s the kind of football player I always will be and I've always been," he said. "That's what I'm going to bring when I lace ‘em up."