Feb. 26, 2010
By Kevin Scheitrum
It’s hard to tell at first glance. For a 60-year-old, he looks strong. Even healthy. But the truth is that the cells inside Jack McGetrick’s bones are dying.
On Feb. 25, the Bellarmine head coach began his third and most severe run at chemotherapy. He was injected with a solution that, like the two before it, doesn’t just kill cancer cells – it kills everything. Healthy bone cells, too. It cuts through good and bad indiscriminately, in the hopes of hedging back the mutated cells that long ago metastasized out of his prostate gland and charged, deeper and ever more, into his bones.
“I feel like I’m in a boxing ring,” McGetrick, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer a little over a year ago, said about the damage that the chemo and hormone therapy have wrought on his body. “I’m hoping for better progress, in that I’m gonna beat this thing. That hasn’t happened yet. It’s still advancing in the bones. They don’t deal with it as prostate cancer anymore, because it’s out of the prostate.”
Now, at 60, coaching has never meant more for McGetrick, who started the Bellarmine program six years ago. The longtime Hartford coach and former USILA National Coach of the Year has a job to do: get the program he founded recognized as a Top-20 team. And he intends on seeing it through.
And when you talk to McGetrick, you start to realize that he’s not fighting cancer. He’s fighting through cancer, acknowledging it as little as he can and plowing through it to keep his life unchanged as much as possible. So what coaching allows him to do is to temporarily erase the disease and his escalating dosage of chemo and focus on what he says he now knows he was meant to do: teach lacrosse. To teach men.
“[Lacrosse] is my life,” he said. “It’s trite saying it, but I don’t know what I’d do without it. It’s better than sitting at home feeling sorry for yourself because you’re sick.
“[Doctors] say ‘Keep doing what you’re doing – stay active,’” he said. “I think cancer beats people because people just give up. I can say, though, that I have a lot of respect for the disease. I can’t believe I got it, because I never had a sick day in my life. Then once you get it, it seems there are an awful lot of other people that have it.”
It isn’t that McGetrick’s confident that he’ll beat this cancer just because he is who he is: a former marathoner and fitness guru that’s found success wherever he’s gone, and now has the entire lacrosse community wrapped around him in the IMLCA ‘Everybody Works for Jack’ campaign, in which teams across the country hosted clinics to help McGetrick pay his medical bills. [Read more at Inside Lacrosse]. He’s confident because losing, well, that just doesn’t fit into his plans. He has a disease to beat, a life to live and a program to see into the future, and he’ll beat cancer because it’s standing in the way and Jack McGetrick does. not. fail.
“I can’t give up, I have too much to live for,” McGetrick said. “I have four kids, a beautiful wife who loves me, and I just think – God, I have to beat this.”
By now, the cancer’s spread to his pelvis. It’s in his spine. It’s tucked into his ribs and his femur and it’s not stopping. He has to use a catheter to urinate. His weight is dropping, although it’s stabilized for now at 170.
As the chemo and hormone therapy drain him of testosterone, he feels his muscles getting weaker, his endurance-runner’s body fraying into threads despite the daily, often-hour-long workouts he still puts it through.
“I was always this tough guy,” McGetrick said. “And it’s put me to my limits. I’ve had days where I’ve literally thrown up, and then I go and do my workout.”
He goes to bed hurting most every night. Sometimes he can’t sleep because of the pain. So, as he would have done before he got sick, he does something about it.
“He told us stories about how times he can’t even fall asleep because he’s in so much pain,” said Bellarmine sophomore midfielder Sean Blue. “So he’ll get up. He told us he got up in the middle of the night and did four-hundred pushups because he had to fight through it. You hear stuff like that and you’re like ‘this guy is a freakin’ rock.’ He’s a 60-year-old man.”
Working out his weary body is one thing. But nothing so channels Jack McGetrick as the game of lacrosse. It always has. But now, it’s more than a chance to mold young men and teach the game he’s loved: it’s a chance to escape.
He’s yet to miss any of the team’s 6:45 a.m. practices, let alone a game since he’s been undergoing treatment. Sometimes, he’ll have to double-over on the sidelines because he just can’t stand upright anymore. But he’ll do his job, better than most anybody else. Because he has to.
“When I get there for those two hours, I better be ready to coach, or I’d be doing myself a disservice,” McGetrick said. “I don’t let it affect me. I’ll find time to do what I gotta do. When I’m on the field, I don’t want these kids to see anything but my old self. Completely – nothing but.”
But they see it. And they know what he’s going through just to be there. And even though McGetrick says he doesn’t ever want his illness to take center stage, the team’s come together over it. They were close before, they say, but nothing like this.
“There’s something in the air here,” said sophomore middie Austin Powell. “It’s like no other year before or in any other team I’ve played on. Everyone is just a close as can be, especially with what we’ve been dealing with.”
“We’re all pretty heartbroken to see the guy going through all this stuff because you see the guy and what it all means to him,” Blue said. “But seeing the transformation from last year to this year, the team’s so inspired. We’re rallying around him. I’ve never played on a team like this where we have so much heart and we’re all on the same page. To have an outlet like us, it’s a good way to forget all the crap he’s going through.”
So the Knights take heart from their coach. McGetrick’s always led through example – he used to race his Hartford teams in a 3 mile race every year, and won for a dozen years in a row – but never like this.
So two weeks ago, when Bellarmine had fallen behind Jacksonville, 10-4, McGetrick spoke to his team at the half and said, simply, “We have to win this game. We’ve worked too hard not to,” they understood. He was living that statement.
And they won.
Rallying back to down the Dolphins, who beat formerly ranked Denver a week later, the Knights improved to 2-0 after beating Detroit a week prior. And last week, despite a 12-7 loss against No. 6 Maryland, they battled and kept it within a few missed opportunities from being a real game.
This is a team that didn’t win a game last year in the now-defunct GWLL, finishing the year at 6-8. But it’s a team that’s got a new mission – a team that wants to build a foundation around the same things its coach has built his life: Work. Energy. Passion. Life.
“It’ll be midweek before a game, and we’re doing sprints, and we’ll be thinking about how much it stinks,” Blue said. “Then we start comparing it to what [McGetrick's] going through, and we’re like, ‘it’s nothing – we can’t say anything.’”
It’s not that the team wants to win for McGetrick. They want to win with McGetrick, and they want future generations to win with McGetrick, too, because they know that this program exists in his image, and that it’s still got a long way to go before he feels satisfied.
“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had the privilege of working with,” said attackman Liam Kelly.
And when you ask his players, the ones that see him in the raw light of morning every day, if that’s a possibility – if he’ll be there coaching next year and far into the future – the answers come quick.
“I’m absolutely confident – one-hundred percent,” Powell said. “No doubt about it. He’s the one that started this program, and he’s never quit anything in his life. He’s gonna see it through.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind [that he has another decade of coaching],” Blue said. “He’s not going anywhere. No doubt in my mind.”
When Maryland came to Louisville last weekend, the stadium was filled with Blackjack t-shirts – an Elevation Lacrosse fundraiser to benefit McGetrick – as thousands came to witness the unveiling of the Jack McGetrick Plaza and Locker Room, dedicated by the school to the coach.
McGetrick smiled and turned to athletic director Scott Wiegandt.
“I hope you don’t think I’m going anywhere.”