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TAMA — Tuesday’s was the 41st Tama County I-Club banquet. There is a rhythm to these events on the Hawkeyes’ athletic calendar every bit as much as a football tailgate outside Kinnick Stadium or a Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd hopped up for a contest against a basketball or wrestling rival.
Iowa’s coaches go to 25 or so Iowa towns in the spring, tell a few jokes and funny stories, relive high spots from the previous season, state their goals of becoming champions and doing things “the right way,” and pound the message that much goodness stems from their fans’ support, vocally and financially.
But this night at the Tama-Toledo Country Club was a little different. For five minutes out of the 15 when Iowa men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery closed the festivities with his talk, you didn’t hear a bit of conversation among the 100 or so attendees. There was no activity at the bar from the bartenders, no tinkling of silverware at the tables.
“I want to start on a more-serious note,” McCaffery told the audience, and their attention was rapt.
The subject was McCaffery’s 14-year-old son, Patrick, who has had two surgeries in the last two months for thyroid cancer.
“When you get a phone call that your son has cancer, that is a life-changing experience.”
When you coach men’s basketball at the University of Iowa, privacy is more a concept than a reality. We don’t have pro sports, we don’t have show business celebrities. If you are a high-profile Hawkeyes coach and your son is diagnosed with cancer, it becomes everyone’s business even if it shouldn’t be. Two months after this became public, McCaffery seems to have embraced the concern of strangers as well as friends.
“We talk often about how we appreciate you and what it’s like to be part of the Hawkeye family,” he told the crowd. “We have said, (wife) Marg and I, how overwhelming the support and how genuine the support has been for our family.
“Specifically, what does that mean? You hear that and it sounds like Coach is saying something nice. But when (Iowa wrestler) Tony Ramos wins a national-championship and he comes back to Iowa City and says ‘I need a hashtag ‘TeamPat’ jersey to wear at my press conference, and you tell that to a 14-year-old boy, that makes a difference. That puts a smile on his face.
“When we went to the first round of the NCAA tournament for our women’s team and every player on the team had the same thing on their shoes, and we go to a baseball game and it’s on everybody’s helmet ... and every member of our team came to visit him in the hospital, and members of the women’s team came to meet him in the hospital ...”
Many a coach regarded as a gameday enemy by Iowa fans were friends to McCaffery in March.
“Every coach in the Big Ten reached out to me,” he said. “One of the first people who reached out to me was Tom Izzo of Michigan State.
“I can remember the day that we had to wake Patrick up and tell him he had cancer. We’re driving to see the surgeon and the phone rings and it’s Tom Crean from Indiana. He said ‘How are you doing?’ I said ‘We’re doing OK.’ He said ‘Let’s pray.’ So we prayed together over the phone.
“These are some things that you don’t hear about and you don’t see, but it makes what we do so incredibly special.”
Then before he got back to one of those familiar rhythms and talked about this team, McCaffery shared one more personal story.
“Another friend of mine, he’s a women’s coach at Northeastern. He sent me a long letter. He said ‘My son was 14 years old. He had testicular cancer. He had to have one removed.’
“He talked about the journey and the treatment. One thing you’ll hear often if you’re involved with cancer in your family is ‘Welcome to the new normal’ because your life will not be as normal as it’s been. And he said ‘We were just trying to figure out when we were going to get back to something close to normal.’ ”
That moment arrived, McCaffery said, when his friend asked his son to do the dishes and the son gave this reply:
“C’mon, Dad, stop busting my ball.”
The crowd laughed heartily. McCaffery then talked about his team’s future for the rest of his address. Basketball can be a good diversion, even for a basketball coach.
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