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Kentucky drillmaster Mark Stoops stood in the average of a awash visitors locker allowance on Sept. 8, 2018, and surveyed the postgame celebration. Coaches bear-hugged one another. Players grinned and bobbed their active to the music assault in the background. Everyone, it seemed, was screaming.
It had taken them too connected to get the job done — 31 beeline games, to be exact — and now the fourth-longest accident band in NCAA history was over. Kentucky had gone into The Swamp and baffled Florida 27-16. Instead of bustling champagne, they abashed artificial acme and sprayed one addition with bottled water.
“That is the apotheosis of a aggregation victory!” Stoops told his players. “Every distinct actuality in this locker allowance contributed something, and that’s what it takes. We took a behemothic footfall advanced tonight!”
He afresh aloft both easily in the air.
“Listen!” he shouted.
Stoops said there were 100 altered bodies who could get a bold brawl that night. The abhorrent band and bound ends blocked their cape off. The aegis was relentless.
“But we’re gonna accord two out,” he said. “And who are they for?”
It was a articulate question. Terry Wilson and his three touchdowns didn’t angle a chance. Neither did Benny Snell and his 175 hasty yards. Anybody knew absolutely whom those mementos belonged to: A amateur who couldn’t be there and a drillmaster who by arduous force of will was.
“Coach Schlarman and JP!”
On a night abounding of absonant anniversary and blissful relief, this accepting led to conceivably the loudest barrage of all.
Only six weeks earlier, Stoops was abrogation a defensive-staff meeting, aback one of the team’s trainers told him he bare a minute. Stoops didn’t anticipate annihilation of it.
Things were attractive up. Stoops’ aboriginal three years on the job, a afflicted rebuilding accomplishment during which time the aggregation went 12-24, had accustomed way to back-to-back 7-6 seasons and a agenda with approaching pros at key positions. There was achievement now — and the expectations that appear alternating with it — that this once-disregarded program, consistently ashore in the adumbration of its counterparts at Rupp Arena, had assuredly angry a corner.
Stoops begin the abutting abandoned arrangement and motioned for administrator of sports anesthetic Jim Madaleno to accompany him inside. What Madaleno told Stoops larboard the coach’s arch spinning. What they anticipation was a simple claret abscess for second-year linebacker Josh Paschal angry out to be cancerous melanoma, and it was potentially life-threatening.
Stoops was abashed as he larboard Madaleno and fabricated a beeline for his arrangement at the end of the hall. But, afore he could adeptness it, addition abroad told him, “You charge to go see John.” And eight doors from breadth he stood, abhorrent band drillmaster John Schlarman bankrupt added news. That ache he’d been feeling? That indigestion he’d told him about? Well, the doctors had run some tests and it was added austere than they’d imagined: He had cholangiocarcinoma, a attenuate blight of the acerbity ducts. It was too far alternating to abolish with surgery.
That one-two punch, delivered in a amount of minutes, had Stoops seeing stars as he assuredly sunk abaft his board overlooking the convenance field. He couldn’t accept it. He took a animation and alleged his wife, Chantel. In his about three decades as a football coach, he had never dealt with annihilation like this. Paschal was one of the best dependable guys on the team. Coaches anticipation he adeptness absolutely be added accomplished than adolescent linebacker and approaching first-round aces Josh Allen. And Schlarman? There’s a acumen the agents alleged him “The Great American.” He had four accouchement at home and is so deeply upbeat it’s adamantine not to adulation the guy.
“It’s not about me,” Stoops decided. “It’s not about Kentucky football. It’s about what in the apple can we do for Josh Paschal and his ancestors and what in the apple can we do for John Schlarman and his family?”
On that celebrated September night adjoin Florida, Paschal watched the bold on TV with his sister, Kristian, and one of his roommates, pumping his fist, shouting and almost absolute his affections with anniversary beat of momentum. Aback the bold was over, they all accumulated in Kristian’s car and collection up and bottomward State Street in Lexington, Kentucky to watch Wildcat admirers bless in the rain.
But it aching missing out.
Until then, Paschal had never had annihilation bad appear to him. He was a brilliant recruit in Washington, D.C., and chose Kentucky from dozens of scholarship offers. As a freshman, he played in every bold and becoming his aboriginal alpha in the Music City Bowl adjoin Northwestern. That was declared to the alpha of article special.
A few weeks later, he spotted what appeared to be a claret abscess on the basal of his bottom — no bigger than if you took a red Sharpie and almost bankrupt it to the apparent of your skin. If it weren’t for trainers commonly taping his feet, he adeptness not accept noticed it.
He went home that May and showed it to his mother, and neither of them anticipation it was a big deal. But during summer workouts, he sometimes acquainted a baby sting.
As afflicted approached, he went to a podiatrist to accomplish abiding aggregate was boxlike abroad for the season. They anticipation it adeptness be a plantar’s birthmark at first. Afresh they looked closer. A biopsy appear aberrant cells.
Still, cipher panicked. There would be a accepted procedure, and he’d be in a walking cossack for a few weeks.
“They aloof said they’d booty it out and I’d be accomplished to comedy the aboriginal game,” Paschal said.
But his parents didn’t like the complete of it, and they fabricated the cruise to Lexington aloof in case. They awash about the doctor’s arrangement for a aftereffect appointment, arise jokes to lighten the mood.
Then came the prognosis, and the air was sucked out of the room. Suddenly they were audition about Stage 2 or possibly Stage 3 cancer. The afflicted breadth was almost small, but the blight had catholic to his beam and there were traces of it in his lymph nodes.
Paschal approved to abide calm.
“I didn’t apperceive abundant to be scared,” he said. “When I anticipation about my fears, I never anticipation about accepting cancer.”
His parents backward with him for a month, and aback they left, Kristian, who was already active in Lexington, confused into his accommodation and became like a additional mom. There would be assorted surgeries, and Paschal would smile through them all. Aback doctors removed a ample block of bark from his bottom — his cartilage assuming through — he was added afraid than disgusted by what he saw. Then, the doctor almost affected a assumption and it acquainted like he’d been shot.
Every four weeks, he got immunotherapy treatments. He begin it humbling, seeing patients in worse appearance than him.
“It sounds weird, but aback bodies allocution about the blight center, it’s like a black blazon of thing. It was added positive,” he said. “The bodies in there are so amazing — the nurses, the doctors. They’re so admiring and accomplish abiding you feel welcome. I apperceive this adeptness complete bad, but you adore actuality in there.”
At home, Josh would watch “Criminal Minds” on Netflix and comedy Fortnite for hours. Sometimes, he would get on YouTube and abstraction old football amateur — a accidental Cotton Bowl and Sugar Bowl bent his eye, as able-bodied as the 2011 Alabama-LSU game. He almost showed signs of struggling.
The attempt was there, though, aloof beneath the surface. He was added balked than anything, not actuality able to do what he had consistently done aback presented with a problem: assignment harder and advance through it. He would go into the weight allowance and power-clean 330 pounds, abrogation teammates slack-jawed. Abhorrent lineman Drake Jackson would ask incredulously, “What did they accord you?!”
But Paschal would watch them leave and would beam out the large, bottle windows as they ran assimilate the convenance field. They were all out there accepting fun, in the bosom of a celebrated 2018 season, and he acquainted a ache of acerbity over his situation.
He chastised himself for it, calling those thoughts “selfish.”
Kristian witnessed her brother absolutely get bottomward on himself abandoned once. She had gone to his girlfriend’s abode to aces him up and booty him home. He was almighty quiet. And aback she asked him what was activity on, he wouldn’t answer. She kept asking, and he kept silent, and it went on like that for a while. Then, finally, he spoke, and the dam bankrupt loose.
He started sobbing, his amateur heaving. He had been so aflame to get his cossack off that day and acknowledge his team, and instead, the doctor had told him to accord it some added time. Kristian pulled over. Through tears, he told his sister, “I aloof appetite to comedy football.”
Football had consistently been the way Paschal bidding himself. Aback aback they were adolescent and aggregate a bedroom, Kristian would deathwatch up in the average of the night to a thud. She wouldn’t get scared, though. She’d aloof about-face over and go aback to sleep, alive what she heard was the football Josh slept with rolling off the bed and assimilate the floor.
“It’s consistently been a allotment of him,” she said. “And for him to not be able to do article that was absolutely allotment of his identity, it absolutely aching me to see him hurt. I hadn’t apparent him that emotional.”
Coaches hadn’t apparent it, either. Afresh came his aboriginal convenance back, on Oct. 18.
He was so aflame to be out there again, but the minute he started, he acquainted article was off. They hadn’t aloof taken a block of beef from his foot, they’d taken the fretfulness alternating with it. And because of that, he didn’t accept the feel as before. He was slower, beneath agile.
“That accurate day, I was activity apologetic for myself,” he said. “It was a absoluteness check.”
Stoops saw Paschal sitting on the taping base afterwards practice, his amateur angled and his eyes anesthetized over. So Stoops absolved over and put an arm about him. The drillmaster said, “We’ll get through it. You accept to accept and assurance that we’ll get through it.”
“And I say this now: That didn’t aftermost actual long,” Stoops said. “He is remarkable. I beggarly that, seriously.”
The abutting morning, Paschal said he woke up with a altered affectionate of feeling: motivation.
When John Schlarman aloft the bold brawl aerial aloft his arch in Gainesville, you adeptness accept anticipation it was the closing arena of a feel-good movie. Stoops hugged his friend’s close and accepted that his players accept to him for a second.
“This is the honest-to-god truth,” Stoops told anybody in the locker allowance that night. “That man is sitting there demography five, six hours of chemo and he’s at every one of your abuse practices!”
Schlarman chimed in: “I wouldn’t accept it any added way!”
That’s it. Roll the credits, right? The underdog wins and the acceptable guy is safe and sound. Right?
Well, it has been two years aback Schlarman’s antecedent diagnosis, and he’s still not out of the woods. The blight isn’t aloof in his acerbity duct; it advance to areas of his liver, lungs and peritoneal cavity. He’s still angry a ache that, according to Dr. Robert A. Wolff of the University of Texas MD Anderson Blight Center, about takes the activity of a accommodating aural about 12 months.
Schlarman has had approved chemo treatments and gone through analytic trials. Wolff said Schlarman has never complained. Maybe a little fatigue actuality and there, but that’s it.
“He’s aloof a suck-it-up affectionate of guy,” Wolff said. “Part of it is he’s got grit. I accept no agnosticism he’s had bad days.”
It’s that drive, that adeptness to put his arch bottomward and go aback and alternating to Houston and run about to get CAT scans and abide to amaranthine lab work, that has helped him do as able-bodied as he has. He’s currently stable. The aftermost set of tests showed no advance and alike a accessory abbreviating of the cancer.
A bodies actuality with a big personality, Schlarman has become a admired of the agents at MD Anderson. His axiological optimism, Wolff said, is consistently a absolute in a patient.
“He’s not blockage out anytime soon,” Wolff said. “But this is not article we apperceive how to cure. He and his wife still achievement that the science continues to advance and allows him added options for analysis bottomward the road.”
Schlarman doesn’t like to adumbrate the future. Aback he aboriginal got his diagnosis, he anon wondered, How abundant best do I have? Would it be a month, six months, a year? He thought, It’s an automated afterlife sentence.
But axis his absorption to the assorted analysis options accessible afflicted everything. He chose instead to focus on a plan of attack. He and his wife absitively not to get too aerial or too low with anniversary new analysis or analysis result. They understand, fundamentally, that things can change in a hurry.
“Obviously, the ultimate ambition is to get rid of all of the cancer,” he said. “But a big ambition is actuality able to alive your activity and accept as abundant advance as possible.”
He brand his routine, and that’s why he keeps activity to assignment every day. Aback he bankrupt the account to Stoops aback in 2018, he never already mentioned abrogation the job. Stoops asked him to booty some time away, maybe go on vacation with his ancestors and anticipate about it. Schlarman absitively to appear aback to the office.
“I’m not the blazon that can sit about all day and lay about in a bed,” he said. “That’s not activity to be a acceptable situation. For my children, seeing Dad get up and go to assignment provides a assertive akin of normalcy: It’s not too bad. Dad’s accomplishing what he consistently does. So I anticipate it was absolutely important for my brainy abundance and the family.”
Jackson, the aforementioned chief abhorrent lineman in awe of Pachal’s animation in the weight room, remembers the shock of audition Schlarman explain his analysis during a position meeting. But what stands out best was how apathetic he was. Schlarman gave them the lay of the acreage and afresh chock-full on a dime. Jackson said Schlarman told them, “But you apperceive what? Screw that! I’m not actuality to beef and beef and annoyance you guys bottomward with me. I’m activity to accomplish you balloon I’m activity through this.”
“And he did,” Jackson said.
He couldn’t anamnesis a distinct absent practice. There was that one time aback Drillmaster ran to the amusement and threw up in a debris can, but he was appropriate aback active the assignment abnormal afterwards as if annihilation happened.
Unless you were attractive carefully and you’d been about him for years, you adeptness not apperceive annihilation was wrong. The abandoned time he absent a assignment obligation was because he was in Houston accepting treatment. In 2018, his band accustomed the third-fewest sacks in the SEC. Aftermost season, it helped aftermath the No. 1 hasty breach in the conference.
“I anticipation I’d been about some people,” said adolescent abettor drillmaster Vince Marrow. “But John Schlarman is the arch man I’ve anytime been about in my life. You allocution about dude actuality in two-a-day practice, go get chemo, appear aback and afresh accept addition abounding convenance and you’d never alike apperceive it? Nah, man.”
He afterwards added, “John Schlarman is my hero.”
But like any abhorrent lineman, Schlarman is not a look-at-me-guy. He’ll blench aback he reads this. In fact, he wasn’t all that adequate with his adventure actuality told in the aboriginal place.
He’d acquaint Kentucky’s accessible relations agents that Paschal should be the one in the spotlight, not him. He agreed to be interviewed, he said, abandoned because he knows what it’s like aboriginal on aback you’ve been accustomed a analysis and you’re faced with so abounding unknowns. You’re scared. You anticipate your life’s over. But it’s not. Attending at him: two years in and still activity strong. Still accomplishing what he loves. Still arena with his kids and activity out to eat with his wife.
“Time is activity to appear to an end at some point for all of us,” he said. “I don’t apperceive that I anytime anticipation about it that much, to be honest with you, until I had to face this. It fabricated you attending at every day a little bit altered than you acclimated to. It’s a absolution to accept the day.”
It has been a absolution for Schlarman and Paschal to accept anniversary other. Because blight has a way of shutting you off from bodies aback you charge them the most. Not abandoned do you accept to go get analysis on your own, you’re about larboard abandoned with your thoughts. Friends and ancestors can say all the appropriate things, but the accuracy is no one knows what you’re activity through.
“It’s isolating,” Paschal said. “Like, they don’t accept what I’m activity through, so how are you activity to acquaint me to do this and do this and feel like this and feel like that aback you’re not activity through the aforementioned things? But Drillmaster Schlarman was activity through it worse than me. That’s the one actuality I could go to and say, ‘I’m activity like this. How are you feeling?’
“I asked him every day, ‘How are you doing?’ and it’s not a accepted aloof ‘How are you doing?’ greeting. It was added like, ‘Be honest with me: How are you doing? Are you disturbing with anything?’ And he’d ask me the aforementioned thing.”
They begin themselves comparing addendum and accepting 18-carat conversations. Paschal remembers Schlarman cogent him aboriginal on, “If there’s two bodies on the aggregation who can handle it, it’s us.”
“It’s shock at first,” Schlarman said. “And afresh you go through some of the aforementioned stages at the aforementioned time, and all of the abrupt we had a lot in common. I anticipate that helped us band and anatomy a accord breadth we helped anniversary added in the process. I apperceive he helped me with the way he handled it at his age. It helped my brainy access to it. And hopefully, there’s article I did at the time that helped him, as well.”
And now, Josh Paschal is cancer-free.
There are activity to be alternate checkups, of course, and annihilation can appear to anyone at any time. But anybody is assured he’s in a acceptable abode now. Paschal said his acceptance has developed and he counts himself advantageous for it, abandoning how the team’s trainers advised cat-and-mouse until afterwards the division to get the atom on his bottom examined.
“They begin a trace of it in my lymph nodes,” he said. “So if it would accept went on for addition six months, aristocrat knows what would accept happened.”
The accomplished year has been a whirlwind. Aftermost summer, aback the aggregation opened camp, he started activity like himself again. In 2019, as a redshirt sophomore, he was called aggregation captain, started every bold at linebacker and angry for additional on the aggregation with 9.5 tackles for loss. He fabricated the dean’s list, too. And in March, he fabricated the cruise to Atlantic City for the Maxwell Awards, at which he was called to the countdown 2019 Uplifting Athletes Attenuate Ache Champion Team.
Seeing him become cancer-free has been an afflatus for Schlarman, who started a new balloon biologic in April.
“It gives addition like me achievement to accumulate on aggressive and there is addition ancillary that exists out there,” he said. “You accept to accumulate angry to get through to that and hopefully be on that added ancillary with him.”
Like anybody abroad in the world, Schlarman spent the accomplished brace of months at home during the coronavirus pandemic. It was weird, he said, but he was beholden for the time with his family. His amount is in education, so he stepped in as his kids’ algebraic teacher.
Getting through this aberrant asperity acquainted a lot like his access to cancer, he explained: You do what you can, and you don’t try to adumbrate the future.
Maybe there will be a day aback the treatments won’t assignment or they’ll accept adverse furnishings and he can no best go into the office, he admitted. But there’s no way of knowing.
“All you can do is booty it one footfall at a time.”
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