Brookstone football coach Blair Harrison gathers his players around him at the end of each practice, and as they take a knee he goes over a few things.
Usually he offers up a little motivation, some pointers on how to improve or what to expect the next day.
But one afternoon early this fall, the message was much more difficult to deliver.
Harrison had to tell his players he has cancer.
“Nobody said a word on the walk back to the locker room after that,” Brookstone senior linebacker and fullback Bretwon McCluskey said. “It really hurt us to think about it. We were just kind of stunned.”
The months leading up to that announcement had been a hurricane of emotions for the 38-year-old.
In June, he married Krissy Harvey, a teacher at Midland Middle. In August, the couple found out they were expecting their first child. And later that month Harrison was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“There have been a lot of things going on for us,” Harrison said. “It has definitely been intense.”
Harrison discovered a lump on the back of his head last spring. By the end of the summer, a routine procedure to remove what his doctor believed to be a cyst turned into a 45-minute operation. Doctors later said it was a malignant cancer and eventually told Harrison they think he has a specific kind of the cancer called primary cutaneous follicular center lymphoma.
Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which drains fluid and waste from the body’s organ systems, according to webmd.com. Primary cutaneous follicular center lymphoma often presents itself on the skin as a tumor or noduals and is considered one of the slowest growing and treatable forms of lymphoma.
Doctors are still in the discovery stage of the diagnosis and have yet to give Harrison’s cancer a stage. But preliminary blood and bone marrow tests have come back with encouraging results, and Harrison said he is otherwise healthy.
“The doctors have said everything looks pretty good right now,” he said. “Everybody has been taking my blood and looking at it, and they all say it looks great.”
Harrison will learn what’s next later this month when he visits his doctor and said he has been told to expect to undergo chemotherapy, radiation treatment or a combination of the two.
Support from community
Getting the results and breaking the news to his parents and players have been the most difficult parts of the process for Harrison. Since taking those steps, understanding his role as a coach has kept his mind from drifting and spirits from sagging.
“The first couple weeks, I couldn’t really think about it,” Harrison said. “But the best thing for me was realizing that I’m around young people who are impressionable. These kids look to me to see how to handle certain situations, and I want them to see how something like this should be dealt with. I’m trying to stay positive and not dwell on it.”
Harrison’s initial concern was that his illness would take up too much of his team’s attention or affect its ability to focus. But the athletes appeared to take a cue from their coach and stayed upbeat and focused on the football.
“It was a distraction early,” Harrison said. “The kids were all dealing with it in their own way. But we have a saying here that we’re a family. A lot of the kids had questions and I wanted to be as honest with them as I could. Once we talked about everything, we could get back to football.”
When Harrison broke the news, the response was immediate. The Brookstone community and his coaching friends have reached out to him in throngs, he said.
When they found out Harrison would have to visit specialists in Nebraska on Wednesday, they chipped in to purchase him and his wife tickets on a more expensive flight, so they could leave and return on the same day. Harrison has not missed a day of practice in his seven previous seasons with Brookstone and said he was thankful for the gift.
“The community here has just been great to me,” Harrison said. “There has been so much support from everyone. I really just can’t say enough about how much me and my wife appreciate it right now.”