High School Football

August 2, 2013

St. James coach fulfills promise to return to gridiron after battle with cancer

Mark Fischer described 12:01 a.m. Friday morning as “silly.”

Mark Fischer described 12:01 a.m. Friday morning as “silly.”

With his St. James football players ready to camp out in an auxiliary gym, the Sharks coach took advantage of the opening minute of the first practice day for South Carolina teams. It was the third time he’s organized his version of Midnight Madness.

He put his squad through minimal drills, in part because the practice had to be moved into the gym, and also because with players donning only shorts and helmets, there’s only so much he can do.

But while the actual session meant little in terms of turning around a football team with plenty more losses than wins in its brief history, the opening to the 2013 season was everything to Fischer.

Diagnosed last September with multiple myeloma, he underwent extensive treatments – including stem-cell replacement – at two hospitals. Fischer wasn’t always sure he would be back so soon. There were times when lifting his head off his hospital bed pillow was a chore. And there were others during portions of the spring when he stopped communicating regularly with those closest to him because looking at a phone to send a text made him queasy.

Needless to say, when Thursday night turned into Friday morning, the coach had a newfound appreciation for his professional passion.

“I know I’ve got a second chance,” Fischer said. “I’m very lucky. Prayers have worked miracles for me. I’m not going to squander it. I’m going to take advantage of the opportunity and enjoy every second.”

Even during Friday’s earliest hours, Fischer looked as strong as ever.

Only a few small patches of his hair have yet to return to the top of his head following radiation and chemotherapy. And with sore feet from neuropathy pain treatments, the school approved him to wear flip flops. Still, he bounced around with his assistant coaches and players inside the St. James gym.

He barked commands at linemen hurdling floor dummies, and he steered the offense through a mild selection of plays while approximately 130 fans sat in the bleachers.

Two of those onlookers were Fischer’s parents, Fred and Virginia. Like their son, they’ve become engrained in the area in a very short time. Virginia, herself a cancer survivor, credited both her new community and her old one of Louisa County, Va., in Mark’s recovery. Each held a number of fundraisers to support the mounting medical costs that piled up locally and at Duke University Medical Center.

Fred added that his son’s attitude was also huge.

“It doesn’t surprise us, because we knew he would [return],” Fred Fischer said. “You can’t be thankful enough. … I think he’s looking forward to life as usual. I never doubted it. Right from the beginning, his progress was so good. He was ahead of the schedule. And he’s in good physical condition anyway. That could have been wishful thinking.”

Mark Fischer has said that doctors have told him the myeloma could return. But even if it doesn’t, he still has a lifetime of treatments. He receives regular injections in the stomach, and he takes a form of at-home chemotherapy that must be secured away from his two children out of concerns for its toxicity.

For 90 minutes on Friday morning – hours after he was medically cleared to return to work full-time – he could ignore all of that and start being a football coach again.

“I set this as the date that I would be ready. In my own mind’s eye, I couldn’t allow myself to think otherwise, so I couldn’t be denied of it,” Fischer said. “We tried not to make a big deal of it. But it was made a big deal. It’s been a rallying cry and everything else. But these kids know I’m still me. I told them I’d be back.”

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