BALDWIN CITY, Kan. (AP) - There’s a stigma attached to football coaches that says tough guys aren’t supposed to cry.
The Lawrence Journal-World (https://bit.ly/1S9jDON ) reports that Baker University football coach Mike Grossner, who has completed his 12th season leading the Wildcats, knows that unwritten rule well, but was not about to sweat it when he was diagnosed with stage 4 head and neck cancer in August 2014.
A few weeks after discovering a lump on his neck that he irritated every time he shaved - a nurse at Baker dubbed his lump “The Thing” - the BU football coach shared with his team the hell he was about to embark upon.
“It was pretty emotional,” recalls Grossner, 50, of the preseason meeting. “I just told them, ‘Here’s what’s going on, I’m not planning on missing any time and this is the last we’re going to talk about it.’”
Just like that, another season of Baker football was underway.
Sure, this season was different. Not just because of the 13 starters lost to injury or the 7-0 start that fell short of being special because of those injuries - but because their coach was fighting for his life and his battle touched the program every day.
“If I didn’t have football and I actually had time to worry, I’m not sure what it would’ve been like,” Grossner says.
Game prep and game days were pretty normal. It was the time around them when things were different.
For eight weeks, Meatloaf Monday also was chemotherapy day for Grossner, who dined on meatloaf, mashed potatoes, veggies, Boston cream pie and chocolate shakes. It didn’t always taste as good as it sounded. The radiation and chemotherapy treatments zapped Grossner’s taste buds and turned even the richest flavors into bland helpings.
“Everything was salt water,” Grossner says of the nutrition plan that took him from 225 pounds to 178. “It was a heck of a diet, but I don’t wish it upon anybody.”
As he dealt with bigger problems than blitzing linebackers, Grossner found comfort in the game he loved. He never considered taking a break and said support from his team, colleagues and the Baldwin City community kept him going.
In all, Grossner missed just two days of football. Several Sundays - the day after Grossner said he always “let it go” - featured meetings where he used hand signals or assistant coaches to deliver his messages.
“I’ve got a great staff,” he says. “I wasn’t worried about this program taking a dip for one second.”
Grossner uttered similar sentiments about the staff at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
“When you hear stage 4, you start thinking, ‘Where am I headed, am I out of town?’” Grossner remembers. “But I’m telling you, those people who took care of me are the best.”
While football served as Grossner’s greatest distraction, stress on the gridiron never entered the equation.
Fighting cancer helped Grossner learn to fully appreciate the little things - the smell of the locker room, interactions with his players, the joy of victory, lessons learned in defeat. With or without him, he knew Baker football was in good hands.
During one 2014 game at Evangel University in Springfield, Mo., on a night when nothing seemed to go right, Grossner drew on his battle with cancer and encouraged his guys to dig a little deeper. It was his version of the old “win one for the Gipper” speech. And it paid off.
“Later that season, some of the kids came up to me and said, ‘Hey, we did think about you out there on the field,’” Grossner recalls. “That was incredible. You just don’t know if what you say has that much of an impact.”
Today, more than a year after his diagnosis and surgery, Grossner is better than ever. With his wife, Karen, and children, Emma, 19, Jake, 14, and Ryker, 10, hugging him every step of the way, Grossner’s taste buds are starting to come back, he’s a fit, strong and healthy 202 pounds, and his Wildcats ended their 2015 11-2 season with a loss to the Southern Oregon Raiders.
Asked how much longer he wanted to coach, Grossner says simply: “Oh, forever.”
“Football trains you in the area of mental toughness,” he adds. “And I really had to hone in on that to get through this. There was a reason I got cancer. It opened my eyes. I think we’re put on the Earth to serve, and I’ve still got some people to influence.”
Information from: Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, https://www.ljworld.com
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