- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2008

Like a lot of men at work, Joe Bugel called his wife yesterday to hear the latest about the kids. The specific topic of conversation was their middle daughter, Holly.

“I just talked to Brenda,” Bugel, the Washington Redskins’ assistant head coach-offense and offensive line coach, said before practice. “She said Holly’s cleaning her house, whistling, singing.

“She is so upbeat. And that’s why she’s going to get well.”

On and off the field, this has been a season like no other for the Redskins, who have won four straight games to lift themselves off the scrap pile and into the NFL playoffs.

In January, head coach Joe Gibbs’ 2-year-old grandson, Taylor Gibbs (now 3), was diagnosed with leukemia. In October, ex-NFL player Ron Springs, the father of Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs, fell into a coma and remains on life support. In late November, safety Sean Taylor was shot during a robbery attempt at his Florida home and died a day later.

And 2½ weeks before Christmas, Holly Bugel’s left arm was amputated at the shoulder. The 35-year-old has a rare form of osteosarcoma, or bone cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, about 1,000 cases of osteosarcoma were reported last year. For Miss Bugel’s type of cancer, “five or six cases” were reported, Brenda Bugel said.

The cancer was diagnosed in August 2006. Holly Bugel moved from Phoenix to the noted University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, but despite intense chemotherapy and other treatment, some of it radical, a large tumor continued to grow and eventually forced the amputation.

A CT scan later this month will reveal whether the cancer has spread or gone into remission, while helping determine the next course of action.

“You pray for a miracle,” Brenda Bugel said. “When she was diagnosed, like when Coach Gibbs found out that Taylor had leukemia, you know about cancer but you have no idea what it’s like till you go through it with a family member. And when it’s with a child, you feel helpless.

“When something like this happens, you can’t protect them. You can’t stop it. You do the best you can. You try to make every day important and happy, and you do the best you can.”

After the Redskins beat the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday to earn their way into the playoffs, Bugel planted a kiss on Gibbs’ cheek. The two are more than close. Bugel was right there during most of Gibbs’ first run as Redskins coach from 1981 through 1992, which produced four Super Bowl appearances. It was Bugel who nicknamed and developed his powerful offensive lines “The Hogs.”

But Gibbs said after the game that Bugel’s gesture was more about their shared experience of coping with a loved one’s illness. Today, 3-year-old Taylor Gibbs’ cancer is in remission. Holly Bugel faces an arduous recovery and a new way of living.

“I’ve had a grandchild who was sick,” Gibbs said. “But to realize what’s happened here. … For somebody to experience that and go through all of that, it’s hard for me to comprehend.”

Like so many coaches whose wives have tolerated their husbands’ crazy work hours and moves from job to job, Bugel says his wife has been the strong one. Holly’s surgery was on Dec. 7, one day after the Redskins beat Chicago to start their improbable run. The next day, after Bugel arrived in Houston to see his daughter for the first time without her arm, he recalled Brenda telling him: “Do not break down when you see her. No tears in your eyes. You’ve got to keep your composure” so that Holly would be encouraged.

As a coach, the 67-year-old Bugel is animated and intense. But it wasn’t difficult to heed Brenda’s advice when he saw his blonde daughter, a vivacious, energetic former cheerleader at Oakton High School in Vienna.

“I walked into her room, and she said, ‘Hi Dad. Great going,’” Bugel said. “I looked at her and I thought, ‘Holy smokes, if she’s upbeat, I’m going to be upbeat.’ We spent the whole day together. We kidded. I said, ‘Hey, you’re going to be able to pull those slot machines, huh? The one-armed bandit, you know what I mean?’ She got a kick out of that.”

Added Brenda: “She’s a beautiful girl, and she’s always been such an upbeat person. She still is. She always has a smile for people. She’s amazing. … If you saw her, you wouldn’t know she has cancer. Except that her arm’s missing now. She’s beautiful, she’s happy, but she’s fighting this terrible disease.”

The Bugels have three daughters, Angie, 37, Holly and Jennifer, 31. Along with Joe and Brenda and Holly’s boyfriend, K.C., who moved from Phoenix to be with Holly full time in Houston, the girls form the core of an iron-clad support system for Holly. It also allows Bugel the leeway he needs to do his job.

“My wife and kids have handled this in a great way,” he said. “They know I work. It’s been my whole life.”

Bugel said he makes up for the time during an annual monthlong family vacation at the home that he owns near San Diego. And there will be another get-together when the season ends, whenever that is.

“[Holly] knows my work schedule,” Bugel said. And when we get a little bit of a break, hopefully after the Super Bowl, I’ll meet up with them. She likes to spend four or five days with her dad.”

Bugel has remained low-key about his daughter and her condition. He told his fellow coaches but only one or two players. Veteran offensive tackle Chris Samuels, the Redskins’ best lineman and a favorite of Bugel’s, had no idea until a reporter mentioned it.

“This just shows the character and the toughness of that guy, to fight through this,” Samuels said.

“I think it’s killing him inside,” said center Casey Rabach, one player in whom Bugel has confided. “Being a father, to be in that situation … I don’t know how I would deal with it, and I think it’s amazing.”

But Joe and Brenda know who is truly the amazing one.

“When you see her, her face hasn’t changed, her personality hasn’t changed,” Bugel said of Holly. “She doesn’t want you to feel sorry for her. She wants to talk about football.”

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