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How a student's friendship with Auburn coach Bruce Pearl gave him the strength to beat leukemia

Student's friendship helped him beat leukemia
How a student's friendship with Auburn coach Bruce Pearl gave him the strength to beat leukemia 02:40

Auburn, Alabama — Auburn men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl often sneers and snarls his way through games. But off the court is a different matter.

"You see him on the court being tough and stuff to all the players, but there's a whole, totally different side of Bruce outside of basketball — which is a nice, loving and caring person," Auburn freshman Sam Cunningham told CBS News.

Cunningham's unique perspective comes from his greatest struggle. In 2017, he was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 12. Not long after, someone asked Pearl to record a video for him.

"You're going to beat this, son," Pearl said in the video. "Cancer picked the wrong hombre — picked the wrong dude to mess with, OK."

"Which was just real funny to me, 'Cancer picked the wrong hombre, it picked the wrong dude to mess with,'" Cunningham said. "And that quote is what I kept with me when I got in my darkest days in the hospital and stuff."

Through all his complications, through his relapse and through the days that felt like they would be his last, Sam kept watching that video, over and over.

Eventually, Pearl delivered the same lines in person, and they became friends. And then one day Pearl gave him another even more inspiring message.

"'I tell you what, you're going to get better, you'll come to Auburn, and you're going to be my assistant,'" Pearl said he told Cunningham. "And he takes me at my word."

Cunningham was declared cancer free in March 2022. And today, he is the team manager, and he's so happy to be here. In fact, Cunningham says Pearl's encouragement may have saved his life.

"That truly healed me," Cunningham said. "I didn't think I'd really get to this point from all the complications I had. So that was pretty amazing. I'm just a miracle to be here right now."

Come March Madness, college coaches across the country will be praying for a national championship. But at Auburn, Pearl will be asking for something far more consequential.

"In my prayers it's, 'God don't let this thing relapse, take me, let Sam live,'" Pearl said. 

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