Lengthen your strides. Unclench your fists. Use your core. Monitor your breathing.
Ironically, none of these words came from my track coach. They came from my very own father sitting in the bleachers well over four hundred feet away. As to how he was able to see all of this without his glasses, and talk over a stadium packed with parents, I’ll never quite understand.
For as long as I can remember, my dad has been one of my greatest critics and biggest fans. I love him for so many reasons, including his unwavering support and iconic “expert” opinion. (Quotes intended.) Over the last two decades, our family has become known as one of the most close-knit units in our community. We vacation together, we worship together and we still find time to have dinners where phones aren’t allowed and laughs are always welcomed. Because of this bond, we’ve come to think of ourselves as somewhat of a team. Dad is the head coach and we are the players. And like any great team, when one member faces adversity, we take it upon ourselves to huddle, regroup and develop a game plan.
In July of 2015 my father was diagnosed with stage three colorectal cancer. Though the disease was largely localized, the outlook was grim and his chances of survival were slim. He would immediately undergo extensive radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. Undoubtedly, the suddenness of the report hit us like a Mayweather punch. It was completely out of left field. Sure, we had several friends and family members who had battled cancer before, but nothing really prepares you to receive that type of news for someone so close.
At the time of his diagnosis, I was out -of -state beginning my senior year of college, my sister was adjusting to a new job that required constant travel, and my mother had begun a new position at work, while managing the day-to-day affairs of our household. There was little time to feel much of anything as we rushed him right into cancer care. I had expected to be overcome with a waves of emotion. Sorrow, anger, concern, despair. But for some odd reason, the only thing that came to mind was guilt. I felt guilty that one of my greatest coaches was now running race he didn’t register for and all I could do was show support on the sidelines. However, I would later learn that the sideline position is one of the most crucial positions to play during a hectic season.
Though I wasn’t in-state, I took every opportunity there was to make that six-hour round trip to visit him during treatment and get him to and from appointments. My sister did the same when her work schedule allowed as we took turns helping him move about, prepare meals and run errands. Though it didn’t seem like much, he promised that the time and energy we put forth was all that he needed to stay positive on the road to recovery.
Nearly four years later, our coach is doing pretty well. We’ve seen him take the strides as he’s regained a good deal of mobility and independence with daily tasks. Though he’s suffered a great deal at the hands of severe neuropathy damaging most of his sensory nerves in his hands and feet, he has never lost sight of his faith or his family. Each day we see him growing in strength and stamina, as he integrates more physical activity and healthy food options into his diet. Not only has he begun to make his health more of a priority, he’s also begun to share with his friends the importance of getting screened and developing a good rapport with medical providers.
Ultimately, in those sideline moments, you realize that even the greatest coaches are faced with unforeseen obstacles and unexpected calls. But in those very moments, you also realize that a single injury doesn’t have to be the final call. It is simply an opportunity to huddle, regroup, and move forward with the game plan.
By Douglas M. LeBlanc, Jr., MPH