High school football

St. James’ Fischer catches up with old friend, Dallas’ Garrett, amid cancer treatments

For The Sun NewsJanuary 3, 2013 

Mark Fischer watched his son fidget with the gloves.

In the back seat of the St. James coach’s family car, Troy did everything he could to line up his palms so one of the most recognizable symbols in all of sports – the Dallas Cowboys star – came together just right.

It was a meticulous task, one that the eight-year-old Troy didn’t take lightly. After three hours or so, he finally nailed it.

“I don’t think Troy’s taken his gloves off yet,” Fischer said. “He’s down there playing the Wii, and his fingers are two inches too long.”

It was one of those rare times the Sharks coach said he was able to forget about his cancer and what is going to be a trying few months in the hopeful quest to get his multiple myeloma to go into remission.

For that, Mark Fischer could thank Dallas Cowboys assistant John Garrett. The two became acquainted while Garrett was an assistant at the University of Virginia and Fischer was making waves at Louisa County.

They stayed in touch periodically after Garrett left to join his brother, Dallas head coach Jason Garrett.

In December, John Garrett and Fischer caught up again, and this time, the Cowboys’ assistant heard what Fischer discovered in September.

Like many in and around the St. James community, he was moved by Fischer’s approach to a cancer that doctors may only be able to treat for a decade, if that long.

“He has been an inspiration to me because of his perspective,” Garrett said by phone Thursday. “He’s not bitter at all. He’s actually grateful and thankful. He talks about bringing his family closer together.”

Garrett provided the Fischers with four tickets to the Dallas game at Washington last Sunday. The package included sideline passes, photos with players and coaches on the field and an autographed picture from tight end Jason Witten with a note of encouragement.

As for the gloves, that was much more coincidental than the fact that Fischer’s son is named after one of the all-time great Cowboy quarterbacks. While on the sideline, Dallas safety Gerald Sensabaugh ran up to Troy, exchanged a few brief words and then gave the gloves to his new biggest fan.

Garrett’s gesture came at the start of what will be an especially difficult 8-10 weeks for Fischer.

At the end of this month, he will be heading to Duke University Medical Center to commence a radical dual chemotherapy schedule and stem-cell replacement regimen. The goal is to eliminate the cancer cells in his bone marrow and replace them with harvested healthy cells.

The extreme chemotherapy will cause the coach to lose his hair and weight at a rapid pace. He’s been on steroids to prepare for the weight loss, but soon, even that won’t matter much.

He’ll have a port blood catheter inserted into his chest, and then a massive dose of medicines injected to fight off the cancer.

“They’ll take me right up to the ledge,” Fischer said. “When they get you as close to la-la land as they can, they’ll insert the stem cells back in. If it works, I’ll be close to remission.”

Fischer said he set up the treatment schedule the way he did in order to be back for the 15-practice spring drills in May. The way he’s approaching it – despite the less-than-optimal prognosis – is in line with how he’s coached the game.

Garrett said he noticed during his days at Virginia recruiting Louisa County that Fischer was different. The coach led his team to the 2006 state title game and was twice named the Associated Press Virginia Coach of the Year.

“I was immediately impressed with him because he runs the single wing,” Garrett said. “Here is this small high school that would go into the second and third round of the playoffs with offensive guards who are 165 pounds because he out-schemes [opponents].

“I was always impressed. The sign of a great coach is that he would adjust and do that.”

Like his early days at Louisa County, victories at St. James have not come easy. Fischer is 6-14 in two seasons. However, the feel of the football program is dramatically different than it was before he took over.

The fan base rallied around the coach, before and after his diagnosis. Since his September announcement, boosters and administrators have organized several fundraisers, and attendance at games was strong throughout the season.

While St. James assistant Ricky Cox is the de facto interim coach, Fischer did not miss a single game this fall during the early stages of his treatment.

He was at work this week as school started back up, and he intends to continue to be there until he leaves for Durham.

At that point, Fischer will have Garrett’s gift as another boost.

“The thing I say is ‘Wow.’ This guy is happy; he’s grateful, even though he’s battling this thing,” Garrett said. “I wanted to make this special for him.”

Contact IAN GUERIN at ian@ianguerin.com.

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