Former Dupo football coach is in the fight of his life

News-DemocratDecember 7, 2013 

Tim Nelson headed into his first year of coaching football at Dupo High School with tons of optimism.

He was coming off a deep playoff run at Marquette the year before and married his wife Casey, last May. Just 38 years old, he was in a new coaching situation with a promising team that figured to battle for a playoff spot.

But eight weeks into the season in late October, Nelson got sick. When he was diagnosed as having rectal and colon cancer, football suddenly did not seem anywhere near as significant as it had a few hours earlier.

Dupo was 4-4 and needed to win its final game Oct. 25 at Pinckneyville to make the playoffs. Nelson left the coaching to his assistants and began his own battle.

"One minute you're preparing for a football game that seems like it's the most important thing in your life at that time," Nelson said. "The next thing you know, you're in a fight of your own for something far more valuable than a football game. We immediately got to work with radiation and chemotherapy."

Now 17 treatments into a 28-treatment schedule, Nelson has experienced all the usual symptoms that come with radiation and chemotherapy.

Surgery is planned for February.

He resigned his head football coaching position and for the first time in decades, is devoting more time to helping himself than helping others.

He also is pushing hard to make others more aware of cancer and its symptoms in the hopes it might help save someone's life or get someone treatment a little earlier.

"Every day I wake up and put my boots on ready to fight," said Nelson, an engineer at Thomson-Reuters news data agency in St. Louis. "I have not missed a day of work since I left the hospital. This has become a personal battle that I take very seriously.

"I'm 38. This could happen to anybody. There's also people a lot worse off than I am, so I haven't felt sorry for myself or asked why. I wake up every day ready to attack this."

Every weekday, Nelson commutes to work in St. Louis from his home in Carrollton, about 33 miles north of Alton. Five days a week, he uses his lunch hour to get chemotherapy treatments at the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital West in Creve Couer, Mo.

Scary time

On the Thursday before the Tigers' regular-season finale against Pinckneyville, Nelson experienced problems with cramping and bleeding.

He went to Alton Memorial Hospital and was admitted to the intensive care unit, then spent five days at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

"After they ran a lot of tests on me, they determined that I had colon and rectal cancer," Nelson said. "It was almost surreal. That's the only word I can use."

Dupo defensive coordinator Doug Duncan, a longtime friend of Nelson, helped coach the team during a 21-16 loss to Pinckneyville that prevented the Tigers from making the playoffs.

"It was scary and it was harder to concentrate on the game when you were wondering about your buddy," said Duncan, who also coached with Nelson at Marquette and teaches at Granite City. "Not only am I worrying about all the extra stuff they do pregame and thinking about how Nelson was doing, you want to win a game for him to make the playoffs. It was pretty nerve-wracking with all that was going on."

When the Tigers arrived in Pinckneyville, Duncan said that the school's athletic director asked about having a moment of silence for Nelson since word had gotten out to some about his condition.

"Both of us needed to win just to make the playoffs and they were concerned about our coach," Duncan said. "It was great."

While the players knew Nelson was sick enough to miss the game, most didn't know about the cancer diagnosis.

"We tried to keep as much away from them as possible," said Duncan, with the coaching staff waiting until after the game to give players the full story. "As far as they knew, he wasn't feeling well and we tried to keep it at that until afterwards.

"Some of them came to see him at the hospital and I think it made them feel better seeing that he was all right."

Nelson was a two-way starter on the 1992 Hardin Calhoun High School state championship team under longtime area coach Ric Johns. Nelson moved into the coaching ranks and found more success, going 33-19 in five seasons at Marquette before being hired at Dupo last February.

He did not step away from coaching easily. It had been part of his life far too long.

"I talked to my wife and my family and the No. 1 priority had to be my health," Nelson said. "If I'm going to do something, I have to do it 100 percent or I can't do it."

Dupo assistant principal Tim McChristian admired the job Nelson did with the program.

"He was a guy who wanted the best for his kids," McChristian said. "He was extremely passionate about his job and the game of football. He had high expectations for the kids and the program.

"He wanted them to think of getting to the state championship, not just getting through the year or getting to the playoffs."

Hopeful outlook

Nelson has chosen to view his situation in terms of a football game. He is facing a very tough opponent in a cruel disease, but the game isn't over and he has plenty of ammunition left in his playbook.

"They say the sicker you get, the more it's working," Nelson said of his chemotherapy treatments. "There's days when I don't feel well and I'm tired. Some days I'm walking around like an 80-year-old man.

"But my mind's 100 percent that I'm going to beat it and my heart's there."

Nelson has remained positive.

"I don't want to lose, the same as on the football field," he said. "You prepare yourself to win every week and the more you prepare, the better opportunity you have."

Nelson has received vast support from football coaches throughout the state. Many have called or visited or contacted him to wish him well. Some he knows, others he doesn't.

"I can honestly say it's been the most humbling thing that's happened to me personally," he said. "The outpouring of support from the communities like Bethalto, Calhoun, Carrollton ... the entire metro-east area and throughout the state, has been nothing short of amazing and uplifting."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, or on Twitter @NormSanders

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