Friday was Jeremy Maclin's 24th birthday. It didn't have to include anything special to mark a huge improvement over his 23rd.
May 11, 2011, was when Maclin learned the results of tests done after the Eagles wideout couldn't quite shake an undetermined illness earlier in the spring. The tests showed inflamed lymph nodes. Doctors thought Maclin might have lymphoma. He had been unable to eat, just wanted to sleep, he said.
It took more than 3 months from Maclin's birthday for everything to look normal again and for everyone to conclude that whatever illness Maclin had suffered, he had come out of it OK, didn't have any kind of cancer. In the interim, the NFL lockout finally ended and players reported to training camp. Maclin stood on the sideline, awaiting clearance to participate, looking gaunt. At his request, the Eagles wouldn't say what might be wrong. Rumors raged.
Maclin finally explained the situation when he was cleared to practice Aug. 17. He seemed to get back to full speed quickly. In the second game of the season, an excruciating fourth-quarter foldup loss at Atlanta that proved to be season-defining, Maclin caught 13 passes for 171 yards, both career highs, though his fourth-down drop late was crucial. Two of the catches went for touchdowns. But between that game and the season finale against Dallas, in which Maclin caught eight passes for 105 yards, he had a subpar season. Maclin missed three games with shoulder and hamstring injuries. He finished with 63 catches for 859 yards and five TDs - failing to match his 2010 totals of 70 catches, 964 yards and 10 TDs.
"He probably had too many reps early," Eagles coach Andy Reid said recently. "He's a convincing guy. I think, looking back on it, we probably should have backed off on him a little bit, which is my responsibility. . .I can see that he's much stronger right now."
Maclin, who looks more muscular, said he is up to 205 pounds, at 6-feet, from his normal playing weight of 198. He said he was down around 180 during his illness.
"Some days, I sit back and think about it," Maclin said when asked to compare this offseason with last year. "I'm blessed to have everything be OK with me. I'm just ready to look forward, get things rolling."
Dr. Jeff Parres, the suburban St. Louis physician who took Maclin into his family after coaching him in youth football, said "life is back to normal" for Maclin. "He's back to being a happy, carefree kid. He looks great."
Parres said Maclin has spent much more time in Philadelphia and much less time in the St. Louis area this offseason. Last year, he stayed more around his old friends and family, as he tried to get answers. For 3 or 4 months last year, Parres said, Maclin wasn't violently ill, but he couldn't seem to feel good for very long.
"It really wasn't apparent that he wasn't eating, and was losing weight. It transpired over a couple months," Parres said. "There were days he'd go out and play basketball, but then he'd just lie around and be listless for days. . .This was emotionally tough on him. He was tearful at times, and scared. He struggled with it. He's a pretty stoic guy. . .but it was tough for him."
Parres acknowledges now that he thought Maclin had lymphoma, "that it was just a matter of getting to the right test that was going to prove that he did."
A dozen pathologists looked at the biopsy slides from the inflamed lymph nodes, Parres said, but "no one ever put diagnosis on it. They all just said 'abnormal but indeterminate.'"
Maclin went on a regimen of anti-inflammatories, Parres said, and "got better every month." After Maclin was allowed to return to football, "through the course of the season, he just got better and better and better," Parres said. "He got over his anemia, his inflammatory markers gradually normalized. It wasn't until November or December that everything was totally back to normal."
Maclin said he doesn't know how much his strange 2011 offseason affected his season.
"It is what it is," he said. "Luckily, I'm healthy now. Hopefully, I can get stronger, faster, bigger, to prevent those things from happening this year. . .up until last year, wasn't a problem."
Reid said: "He looks great. He's been here every day working out. He feels good. I think he's strong right now. He's got his weight back."
Partly because of Maclin's touchdown drop-off, fans and analysts wondered whether the team would add a big red-zone target this offseason. The Eagles took 6-2, 216-pound wideout Marvin McNutt, from Iowa, in the sixth round, but arriving at that point in the draft, he would seem to be more of a threat to Riley Cooper's reps than Maclin's. The first-round draftee at WR or the high-profile free-agent signing some people advocated never materialized.
"Anything you can get to help the team, that's fine by me," Maclin said. "Whether y'all think that's going to help or not, who knows? At the end of the day, we have to be more efficient in the red zone, period."