Summer 2013 was already shaping up as a busy time for new Goshen College men’s basketball coach Neal Young.
Young, in his post less than two months, was in the midst of moving to the Maple City with his wife Maggie the first week of June when he got a phone call from his doctor that changed his life forever.
Young had cancer — specifically, lymphoblastic lymphoma.
The disease is an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which often occurs in young patients, but not exclusively. Lymphoblastic lymphoma is “commonly associated with large mediastinal masses and has a high predilection for disseminating to bone marrow and the central nervous system, much like acute lymphocytic leukemia,” according to an article on webmd.com.
Young went to his doctor after not feeling well and having a persistent cough for a few weeks. The doctor, on a hunch, ordered a chest X-ray, which revealed a mass about the size of a baseball.
A biopsy conducted the same day Young and his wife moved to Goshen — May 31 — confirmed the diagnosis. Young began treatment June 4.
“It was a crazy week,” Young said. “We bought our first house, moved and were out furniture shopping when we got the call.”
Young said he’d been emotionally preparing himself for the possibility that it might be something pretty bad.
“When you hear that you have a big mass in your chest, those next couple of days are pretty nerve-wracking,” Young said. “You just want to know. … I was never worried about dying, but I wanted to know what I had in front of me.”
Being a former athlete, Young said he carried a bit of an air of invincibility.
“Most athletes feel that kind of stuff happens to other people,” Young said. “When you’re young and healthy, you never stop to think something like that could happen to you.”
His first thought, Young said, was that the cancer was going to get in the way of coaching
I was pretty frustrated that this came up right after I’d just gotten my first head coaching job,” Young said. “I’m someone who enjoys working, has a lot of energy and has things he wants to do. This was going to put a pretty big dent in those plans.”
‘I’m going to be OK’
Much of those early days after the diagnosis, and after treatment began, were spent trying to assure others in Young’s life that he was going to be okay.
“You feel bad for the people around you,” Young said. “I knew I was going to be OK. “
So far, Young has not missed a practice or game due to his illness.
“There’s never a good time to find out you have cancer,” Young conceded. “But you want that to be as far away from the season as possible.”
The Maple Leafs are a few weeks into the 2013-14 season, and a second, more intense round of chemotherapy started for Young last week and will continue through mid-January — the heart of the season. He travels to Chicago for his treatments.
Truth be told, Young has missed a game this season: He was not on the bench for Goshen’s 83-80 loss to Judson College last Saturday.
But, Young said with a sheepish smile, that was due to more conventional reasons: He was suspended for a game after getting ejected from last Tuesday night’s 84-80 win over IU-South Bend for getting two technical fouls.
Support from the college
One of the “crazy” things about the experience so far, Young said, has been how he views the cancer journey now, as opposed to how he looked at it in the beginning.
“At first, I thought it was going to be a huge burden,” Young said. “It’s turned out to be more of a blessing. Everything happens for a reason. So much good has come out of this and will continue to come out of it.”
Goshen College athletic director Tim Demant said college officials were surprised to hear of Young’s diagnosis.
“I was walking back across the street from Yoder-Culp after a funeral for the father of one of our basketball players,” Demant said. “When he called me that day, his first words were, ‘I’ve got a problem.’ I’m thinking he’s lost a recruit.”
That, Demant was soon to find out, was not the problem.
“His very next words were, ‘I’ve got cancer,’ “ Demant said. “It was shocking, to say the least.”
Demant said he and college officials have been highly impressed with how Young has handled the situation.
“He was very positive throughout it,” Demant said. “Part of me didn’t know if that was naivete, or the infallibility of youth. But it’s been very sobering.”
Demant has known Young since July 1, 2008, when both men started work at Goshen College on the same day: Demant as athletic director, and Young as an assistant men’s basketball coach.
Over the years, Demant kept his eye on the young assistant, knowing that a coaching change could happen at any time.
“You want to have a short list of potential candidates that you can call on,” Chupp said.
And when former coach Gary Chupp notified Demant that he wasn’t returning for 2013-14, Young was at the top of Demant’s list.
The flexibility offered by a college basketball coaching position — especially during the out-of-season months — helped Young work through the early phase of his treatments, Demant said.
“You can get a lot done these days with an iPad and a cell phone,” Demant said. “Even from a hospital bed in Chicago.”
For a young coach like Young, Demant said, the key to dealing with a serious illness and all the ancillary issues that come with it is knowing one’s limitations.
College officials have stressed to Young, Demant said, that he has the flexibility to put his treatments first, and work remotely when possible, or leave practices in the hands of capable assistants.
“Neal’s been doing a great job of delegating, not trying to do it all,” Demant said. “He’s got a couple of very good assistants, and he’s not shy about letting them do stuff.”
Young’s players have taken notice of their coach’s cancer battle.
And they’ve got his back.
“He’s an inspiration to us,” said senior forward Kyle Capps of Mount Clemens, Mich. “Even with what he’s going through, he’s out here coaching us. That makes us want to win for him that much more.”
One of the Maple Leafs’ on-court leaders is senior guard/forward Jerron Jamerson, a South Bend Washington product. Jamerson said his coach’s situation helps him and his teammates keep their own daily struggles in perspective.
“It’s pretty hard for us to complain about anything going on in our lives, when you see what Coach is dealing with,” Jamerson said. “Even when he doesn’t feel good, he’s out here with us. That means a lot to us.”
Follow sports editor David Vantress on Twitter at dvantress_tgn.