Gordon Lee coach Ed Clendenen is at home recovering from recent surgery in which he had a brain tumor removed.
Clendenen, who coaches volleyball and boys' basketball and golf, was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia two summers ago. In the process of going through scans, doctors discovered the tumor and have been monitoring it the last year and a half.
Clendenen said it finally grew to a point where it was putting pressure on his brain and causing extreme headaches. He said his reports have been good, but he's not expected to return to school for a few weeks.
Janet O'Neal came from a basketball background but is in her fifth year as Clendenen's assistant in volleyball. She's coaching the team this season.
"He and I work great together," O'Neal said. "Actually he's been my mentor in volleyball. He's really taught me the game."
Brad Gray is one of Clendenen's assistant coaches in basketball and is temporarily in charge of that program.
"He's taught me more about coaching, and life in general, than I could ever explain," the 28-year-old Gray said. "I am the coach I am because of him. He's been a mentor, a friend and a father figure."
O'Neal and Gray were among the few Clendenen told at the time when he was diagnosed with CLL. He told the athletes shortly before taking his leave of absence from school.
"The girls did not take it well when they heard about it," O'Neal said. "They love him and respect him. Nobody wanted to hear that. They were kind of nervous about things at first and it showed in their play, but they've kind of picked it up lately. They want to finish out well, especially under the circumstances.
"The seniors have been big with their leadership. I'm really proud of my association with this group of girls."
Gray is expecting Clendenen to be on the bench this winter but is ready if that doesn't work out.
"We will go on with our system," Gray said. "I know it well."
Clendenen hopes to be back at school Oct. 15. But he had planned some golf and some trips to Knoxville for University of Tennessee football games after he was released from the hospital. His wife squelched the golf outing, and his son ended up with his UT season tickets.
Clendenen getting back to work may be best for a few people's mental health.
"He is stubborn," Gray said, "but he's stubborn because he wants to be here, doing what he loves to do."
Clendenen said CLL is generally slow developing and he believes his prognosis is good. The disease is treatable with chemotherapy, but he hasn't started that yet.
Clendenen said he's heard from many well-wishers in the last few weeks and was particularly touched by the efforts of the volleyball teams at the other high schools in Walker County, LaFayette and Ridgeland. He's just ready to get back to his players.
"I think the good Lord has gotten tired of hearing me get on them to bow that back and fight through everything and play their hardest no matter what," Clendenen wrote in an email to the Times Free Press. "Now it's my turn."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.