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Black and Gold Heroes

Teaming Up Against Cancer while Honoring a Friend

Turner Cockrell left an impression, even in his absence. And so on Christmas Day 2018, when the Vanderbilt football team should have been celebrating Christmas, or preparing for the upcoming Texas Bowl, it was still mourning Cockrell’s death 27 days earlier. The team was visiting Houston’s Anderson Cancer center—where Cockrell was treated for melanoma—and talking with his former doctor, Amy Hassan, and that’s when Cody Markel an idea.

“When I was there, I was was thinking, ‘Oh my, it would be so cool to do something along the lines of cancer research and honor Turner,” Markel says.

Out of that thought came Turner’s Heroes, a non-profit foundation that helps children with cancer. Markel is the foundation’s executive director. 

He and Cockrell played the same position (tight end) at VU. They were roommates and close friends. Markel is brilliant—he made the Southeastern Conference’s Academic Honor Roll, and plans to attend law school—but that’s not what why he runs the foundation. It’s Markel’s spirit—the senior positively lights up the second he talks about Turner’s Heroes, a transcendent enthusiasm that never wavers for a millisecond—that makes him uniquely qualified.

To understand Turner’s Heroes, and why Markel does this, it helps to understand Cockrell. 

Like Markel, Cockrell was bright, understated, humble, and effused positive energy. He his life was going places. 

And then late in 2017, cancer struck. 

Surgery and radiation treatments followed. Still, Cockrell rarely missed class the next semester and remained engaged with his teammates. He fought the disease with a disarming sense of humor, posting a selfie of himself in the bathroom at Anderson, to which Cockrell, a fan of superhero-themed movies, captioned, “No need to fear, Cancer Man is here!”

“He was trying to give us energy, and that type of thing,” Markel says. “And I’m like, ‘What are you doing, man? Shouldn’t we be the ones supporting you, and you’re always the one supporting us?”

Turner’s Heroes embodies the spirit of how Cockrell fought the disease. Elements of its mission include “to provide patients at children’s hospitals a means of escape and enjoyment,” “to provide unique and special superhero-themed opportunities for patients and their communities,” and “to raise funds for pediatric cancer research.”

Markel spearheaded a $50,000 fundraising drive for Turner’s Heroes that started at kickoff of Vanderbilt’s September 21 game with LSU. Afterwards, Cockrell’s parents, Randy and Noel, waited for Markel near the Vanderbilt locker room with a surprise.

“And they just told me ‘Hey, we hit [the goal] within the game,’” he says. “And that was not something I wasn't expecting.”

The foundation’s impact is felt in other ways.

“I think my favorite story is still from our first event,” Markel says. “One of the moms of one of the patients came up to me and she said, ‘We’ve been here for 18 days. And this is one of the first times I’ve seen my daughter truly happy, smiling and giggling.

“To take them away from everything that’s going on and being able to hang out with us… even something as simple as designing capes with us, that was something that filled them with so much joy. … That made seven months of work completely worth it, just that small conversation."

The healing works both ways. Cockrell is never far from the minds of his former teammates, several of whom volunteer for events.

“It’s hard not to think about him and kind of sad because it is what it is,” Markel says. “But being able to do good out of that tragedy, it just makes you feel like you’re honoring him and makes you feel like you’re connecting with him and something that’s really special.”

So, what would Cockrell think if he could see this?

“I think honestly, the first thing he'd say is,’ Why are you doing this for me?’” Markel says.  “This is kind of who he was. He probably wouldn't think that. I mean, he did deserve something like like this after after he passed. But he would love it and he would really enjoy volunteering with us, especially with the cape events.

“And I think this is exactly what he would want in the end.”