They were driving to the hospital on one of the worst days of their lives. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, wife Margaret, and son Patrick, who had just found out he had thyroid cancer. They were headed to talk to the surgeon about what to do next, when the cell phone rang.
Indiana coach Tom Crean was on the line with one question. Any news on Patrick? “Malignant,” Fran said, uttering one of the worst words a father could ever have to use about his son.
“Then we’re going to pray, you and me, over the phone,” Crean said. So they did.
Seven months later, Patrick McCaffery is cancer-free. Seven months later, his father can look around at all the Big Ten coaches who get paid the big bucks to torment one another, and understand what it means not to be alone in the dark.
“The support was overwhelming,” he said. “It puts a little perspective to all of this.”
There was Crean.
“You want to compete, you want to win. But when you’re in the same line and you have the same feelings, when something like that happens … you have empathy,” he said of McCaffery.
“It probably helped to solidify our friendship. But it wouldn’t have mattered if we never talked again. That’s how I felt. I would hope somebody would do that for me.”
Or Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, who called so often.
“If you haven’t been through it yourself, you don’t get to say, ‘I know what you’re going through,’ because that’s a lie. Nobody can appreciate what he was going through.
“It helped bring perspective to a world that’s sometimes Disneyland. That wasn’t Disneyland.”
Or Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan.
“We all have families. We all have people near and dear to us, and our second families are our team. So when that happened, we reached out. People rallied around him and rightfully so. He’s one of us and we’re one with him, and that’s important.”
The last time most of us saw Fran McCaffery, he was in a hospital waiting room for his son’s surgery in the morning, and coaching the Hawkeyes in the NCAA tournament at night. A nightmare and a dream in the same day, as a television audience shared the pain of his dilemma.
“We lost in the tournament in overtime, which is normally the worst feeling in the world,” he said. “The worst feeling in the world was we had to wake up a 13-year-old boy and tell him he had cancer. That’s the worst.”
Which is why Sunday will mean so much.
It will be Iowa’s exhibition against Northwood. Nothing much memorable about exhibition games, except this one. There will be a moment when McCaffery thinks back to what was going on the last time he coached the Hawkeyes in a game. Then he will look over, and see Patrick in the stands.
“With cancer, you don’t just say it’s over, he’s fine,” Fran said. “But he’s as close to fine and as close to himself as he’s been. For our entire family, it’ll be a great feeling, just to see him there. He’ll be right there; he sits across from the bench. I’ll be able to look at him.”
“Your life’s changed forever. But what you strive for
is to make life as normal as it can be for him.”
There were so many tough days last spring.
There was the time they first learned Patrick might have cancer. McCaffery had to tell his team, but couldn’t get the words out before breaking down. So Margaret had to do it.
“He lost it right away,” guard Josh Oglesby said. “I’ve never seen Coach McCaffery like that. Obviously, it was killing him inside.”
There was the morning of surgery that began at 5 a.m. in the waiting room, as doctors operated on Patrick’s thyroid. The Hawkeyes were playing Tennessee in the first round that night in Dayton, and Fran was torn. Go or stay? A doctor friend told him it was OK to go.
“So I went,” McCaffery said, his voice wavering even now. “He watched the game with my wife and that doctor friend and his son, and he was more upset we lost. He wanted me to coach.”
And there was the awful day soon after when the diagnosis came, and the parents had to tell their son.
“I’ll never forget that,” Fran said. “He goes, ‘What?’ Then he burst into tears, then we burst into tears.”
And then they put together the plan on beating it. Seven months later, it seems to be working.
“Your life’s changed forever,” McCaffery said. “But what you strive for is to make life as normal as it can be for him. He’s going to get poked at for the rest of his life, which might not be a bad thing.
“Every day I get him up and give him his thyroid medicine, and then let him go back to sleep. That’s so when he wakes up, he can eat breakfast, because he can’t eat right after taking the medicine. So that’s how our day starts every day.”
Now Patrick is back at Hawkeye practices, joking with the players, same as he used to. “When you step back and watch my guys doing that,” his father said, “there’s no better feeling.”
How the McCafferys have handled it all, through the shock and the fear and the bright lights of the NCAA tournament left an impression on the men he tries to beat, and who must try to beat him.
“You put their family picture up when you start defining mental toughness,” Crean said.
“We all don’t give our families what they deserve,” Izzo said. “If I recruited a kid and told him I’m going to treat him like my own son, if he really knew, he probably wouldn’t come. Because I don’t spend as much time with my son as I do my team, and I’m not proud of that, I don’t feel great about that. It’s just a reality of my job.
“I’ve always liked Franny, but my respect tripled over that time. He helped me. Hopefully I’ll do things a little bit better. Never to the point that I feel like my son and daughter get what they deserve, but give them a little more than maybe I give them.”
Meanwhile, Fran McCaffery prepares for Sunday. How can he not reflect on the last time he stood at an Iowa bench, and all that has happened since? A coach would do that. A father would even more.