Former Player Helps Coach Through Difficult Time

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More than 37 years in public education and coaching has taught me that some of the finest friendships are made on the playing field.

Countless times over the years, I've witnessed former athletes rush to the aid of former teammates in need.

Often, the former teammates had not seen each other in years. But, once they realized a former colleague was in dire straits, they were on the scene to rally in support.

About 5:30 a.m. March 6 in the parking lot of Mayo Hospital in North Phoenix, a perfect example of that camaraderie unfolded.

I was on my way to the hospital to undergo surgery for the colon cancer I've been battling for the past six months.

As my wife Kay and I anxiously walked toward the hospital entrance, my cell phone rang.

I answered and recognized the caller as Mark Velasco -- a former Longhorn football player I had the privilege of coaching in the mid-1980s.

Mark was a team leader, legitimate tough guy and starring member of the Payson High School team that advanced to the 1986 state championship.

I remember Mark as a player who had a will to win as great as any athlete I've coached.

Holding the cell phone to my ear, I heard Mark ask, "Coach, where are you? I'm waiting in the hospital lobby for you and Mrs. Coach."

As usual, the former Longhorn all-star lineman couldn't pass up the opportunity to toss a barb.

"It's past 5:30 a.m. (the time I was to report). Are you on Foster standard time?" he asked.

Mark's call caught me totally off-guard because I hadn't told him I had been diagnosed with cancer.

I knew if I had of told him of the disease, he'd be at my side taking valuable time from his duties as a husband, father of two sons and the owner of his rapidly-growing, Flagstaff-based environmental engineering company.

Since Mark graduated from PHS in 1987, we've remained close, but usually only see each other once a year -- most often while participating in the Jack Morris Invitational Golf Tournament.

I was prepared to call Mark after the surgery, but didn't want him to know beforehand. But sure enough, there was Mark waiting for us, coffee in hand, as we entered the hospital waiting room.

Throughout the ensuing six hours of surgery and more than a week's stay in Mayo, Mark was with my family, lending much-needed support.

From recent family conversations, I know that Mark's daily presence meant a great deal to my wife, sons and friends.

When the moment finally arrived for my discharge from Mayo, I opened the hospital room door, only to see a smiling Mark waiting to escort us away.

Now that we've returned to Payson and are trying to resume life as we once knew it, I realize it might be a while before we see Mark. But, should a need arise, I'm sure Mark will be there with his unwavering support. After all, like many other old coaches and athletes, we have a friendship formed two decades ago on the hash marks of a football field.

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