DETROIT -- Despite experiencing some of the most difficult days of their lives within the last year, this Thanksgiving is extra special for Mark Mullins and his daughter, Mandie.
Football fans might not know them by name but chances are they have seen them on television during the annual Detroit Lions Thanksgiving Day game.
Since 2002, the pair from Fenton have made multiple television cameos for the unusual game attire as pilgrims.
Last year, however, the two were unsure how many Thanksgiving games they would have left with one another.
Cancer won't keep famous 'Pilgrim' fans from Lions Thanksgiving game
Through thick and thin, Detroit Lions football and Thanksgiving define the love between father and daughter.
Mark, 58, has endured a long battle with Stage II kidney cancer. After getting one of his kidney’s removed in January 2018, Mark hoped he was done with the disease. Instead, the same cancer appeared on his remaining kidney in a spot the doctors considered inoperable. His type of cancer is a reoccurring type that doctors said would give Mark maybe five or so years left to live.
Instead of using traditional radiation treatments, doctors recommended Mark try an oral chemotherapy treatment plan. As Mark put it, he was swallowing "800 milligrams of poison" every day to try and kill the cancer, hoping his body could endure.
"This last year, it's been tough," Mark said. "The first two or three months of the medication, there was a lot of unknown and wondering. We didn't know what was going to happen."
But this Thanksgiving, Mark is beaming more than usual at his Eastern Market tailgate spot.
This year, the cancer is gone.
"We're more thankful this year than we've ever been," Mark said. "We didn't know what the future was going to bring, but now we have a lot of positive outlooks toward the future.
"I'll be around for a while."
Mark posted a video on Facebook in August after finishing an appointment where doctors said they could no longer see the tumor on his kidney. The tears of joy flowed.
"I was just bawling," Mark said. "I got to the car and I had to do a post for everybody because I just couldn't take it. I couldn't believe that was happening. A year ago, I thought I probably had just a couple of years to live."
For Mandie, 28, the news was as much a joy as it was a relief.
After worrying about Mark’s health so much over the years -- even giving up a job in Houston to move back to Michigan to be with her father -- Mandie could finally look to the future with hope. It was a future with her father in it, which is all she could have hoped for.
"We're really happy," Mandie said. "We're in a much better place this year. Last year, I feel like everyone was kind of prepping, like, 'Oh, is this the Pilgrim's last Thanksgiving?' Everyone was trying to make it really special year for us last year.
"It's just nice to not have that much fear, if that makes sense."
For Mark, the fear of the unknown was the toughest thing to deal with while going through his treatment. Despite various other health problems that include arthritis in his hips, bone spurs in his shoulder, a hernia, and atrial fibrillation, Mark was never going to let the cancer get the best of him.
Kidney cancer did its best to take him out, but Mark was willing to go the distance.
"I'm such a positive guy," Mark said. "My cup's half full. Even when I first was told I had cancer the very first time, my first reaction was 'alright, we've got some work to do.' I was never 'oh my gosh, I'm going to die.'"
When it was revealed that the cancer was still in his body after the kidney removal, Mark admitted that was the lowest point in his long battle. It was the first time he thought he might not beat it.
The oral medication began to have some side effects too. Initially, the medication would make Mark sick and unable to find the energy to make it to tailgates and games. Mark brags that he has only missed five games in the last four years, two of which were last December when he couldn't find the strength to handle the whole tailgating process.
Although fatigue and weakness endured, Mark's body was able to adapt to the medication. The sickness caused by the pills left and Mark never lost any hair during the treatment.
His hope was growing while, unknowingly, his tumor was shrinking.
When it comes to rooting for the Lions, Mark is not an average fan. He is so enthusiastic and unwavering in his supports that he is in the Hall of Fans, a special group of fans that have even earned recognition inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He's also a part of the Lions tailgate group known as the Blue Crew, famously known for having a hot tub set up at every tailgate.
With the entirety of the Blue Crew tailgaters behind him and support flowing in from fellow superfans of NFL teams across the nation, Mark has never walked along in his battle with cancer.
"He's the core of this group," said Blue Crew tailgater Robert Gonzales. "He's from the Hall of Fans ... He's an inspiration to all of us. I don't know what we'd do without him, man. He's a great guy and he is definitely the core of this group."
His supporters even started the #PILGRIMSTRONG campaign. Bracelets with the hashtag can be found on wristbands of many people at the tailgate. Each week, Mark felt the love.
"I've got friends all over the United States that have prayed for me and supported me," Mark said. "They all wear their #PILGRIMSTRONG wristbands and take pictures at the games and show them to me. That's priceless. Whenever I'm down, I just think about my friends, and that lifts me right back up."
Special inspiration came from Ezra Castro, a superfan of the Buffalo Bills known to fans as Pancho Billa. Like Mark, Castro had a long battle with cancer. Unfortunately, Castro passed away in May at the age of 39. Before he died, he gave Mark simple advice that continues to resonate.
"The last thing he ever said to me, he whispered in my ear and he said, 'Pilgrim, never give up.' I never will," Mark said. "That's my message to all of you other people out there: Don't ever give up. Stay positive and you can beat it."
Of all the love and support that Mark has received, no one measures up to his daughter. Raising Mandie as a single parent since she was four years old, Mark can't help but beam whenever he talks about her.
"Yeah, I couldn't do it without her," he said.
With his various health problems over the years, including battling issues with his weight, Mandie has been a rock for Mark to lean on. For Mandie, her dad's persistent positivity has been a source of strength.
"My dad is a super fun-loving guy," Mandie said. "He's always appreciated his friends and family. But I think now, you can just see in his face, he is thinking about stuff more. You can just tell he's so happy and thankful just to be there and in the moment.
Helping make this Thanksgiving even better, Mark is looking forward to Mandie's wedding, as she got engaged to her fiance, Nick Kane, in July. The two intend to get married next October.
As happy as Mark was to learn that his tumor had disappeared, being able to walk his daughter down the aisle might even top that.
"There was a point I didn't know if I was ever going to do that," Mark said. "To know that my daughter is getting married and that I've beat the cancer -- and that I'm going to be able to walk her down the aisle -- is priceless."
Mandie can't wait for the special moment too.
"I worried that he might not be at my wedding one day," Mandie said. "Now, it's amazing. We're getting married next October. Eleven more months and my dad seems like he's going to be there and be healthy this time, you know?"
Before the wedding, however, there is Thanksgiving. Dressed in their pilgrim outfits once again, the father and daughter plan to carry on the tradition for years to come.
"I'm so excited for Thanksgiving," Mandie said. "It's our favorite day of the year. It never gets old. Every year, I'm looking forward to it. It's just sort of a 'bigger and better' type of feeling. I'm really excited to cook my share of the Thanksgiving dinner.
“Just really happy to have another Thanksgiving together.”
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