Carson-Newman coach eyes 300th win
Sparks enters 32nd season after winning battle with cancer
Carson-Newman head football coach Ken Sparks learned a very important lesson the hard way this summer.
After about six years of putting off getting a physical, Sparks finally went to see his doctor for a full workup in July. That evening, the 68-year-old coach received word that his Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) Test result was high and he needed to see an urologist as soon as possible.
With the help of a former player who is now a doctor, Sparks was scheduled for an appointment within a couple days for biopsies.
Sparks did not have any symptoms with the exception of fatigue after running and working out, which he just chalked up to getting older, but the tests revealed some shocking news. He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer with a rating of nine out of 10 on the Gleason Scale. The higher the score, the more likely the cancer is to spread.
"I immediately went and had bone scans and CAT scans," Sparks said. "The next day I was in surgery and they removed a bunch of stuff and the lymph nodes."
Three weeks after surgery, Sparks underwent another PSA Test and the results were much improved with a 0.56 score on the Gleason Scale. Sparks will also undergo six weeks of radiation treatment starting in December.
"We don't think it has spread," Sparks said. "You're never sure, but according to the bone scans and other tests they think they've contained it. All of that is good news. The radiation will put the kill shot in there if anything is left."
"It took us by surprise, but knowing who Coach Sparks is and how he is such a fighter, we just needed to trust in God and he would be good to go," C-N senior center Kevin Day said.
Sparks is thankful his wife was insistent on him going to the doctor for a routine physical.
"Us men, we think we are invincible," Sparks said. "We think we can handle anything and nothing is going to happen to us. I was pretty stupid at my age to not be getting a physical every year and not doing the PSA tests. That doesn't make sense at all for a guy my age."
Ten days following surgery, Sparks was back in staff meetings preparing for preseason camp. Four weeks after surgery, he was cleared to start running and lifting weights again. Sparks was up to four miles on the treadmill last week. Before preseason camp started he joined the team's leadership council for a community service trip to Virginia Beach during which he worked out with Navy SEALS.
"I wasn't near as spunky as I was before," Sparks said. "I'm trying to bounce back a little bit."
This bump in the road has not slowed the longtime coach down much as he heads into his 33rd season at the helm of the Eagles' program. Sparks is joyfully surviving three-a-day workouts with his team as they prepare for a season-opening contest against Glenville State on Aug. 30.
With the Eagles' next victory, Sparks will become the 11th football coach in collegiate history to reach the 300-win milestone. His record currently stands at 299-80-2. A win will tie him for 10th with Delaware's Tubby Raymond on the all-time wins list for all divisions. Sparks has led the Eagles to five NAIA national titles and two appearances in the NCAA Division II Championship game.
"All I know is there are only 299 -- there's not 300 yet," Sparks said. "It's this team's first game of the 2012 season and that is the part I want them to concentrate on. In those 299 wins, I haven't played one play. It's a great accomplishment for the kids and coaches who have been here during that time."
"It's cool, for me personally, to be a part of it," Day said. "I'm a history major, so I love anything that has to do with tradition or milestones I'm a huge fan of. Hopefully, next Thursday we can pull out the victory and give him something that is historic and a big deal."
And while victories are nice, Sparks is focused on the bigger picture in life.
"As a Christian, it's hard to believe the Lord would take something silly like football and open doors to encourage and influence people to live life a little fuller than they have otherwise," Sparks said.
According to the "On the Line Prostate Cancer Awareness Campaign", one in six men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in his lifetime. Former coach Bobby Bowden, one of only 10 men ahead of Sparks on the all-time victories list, is a spokesperson for the campaign and a prostate cancer survivor. Like Bowden, Sparks wants to publicize his story in hopes of helping other men.
"It's been good for me to encourage guys and ask them when the last time they've had a physical," Sparks said. "The old body is vulnerable sometimes. I've been able to share that with a lot of people and the response has been good."