published Friday, August 22nd, 2014

In the hospital, on the field, East Ridge coach shows his players what it really means to compete

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    Austin eats a chicken burrito in the cafeteria before he undergoes chemotherapy treatment at Erlanger Hospital. He hadn't eaten since midnight the night before because he underwent surgery that morning to have a port placed in his chest, and he said that even though he would regret eating it later he wanted to live in the now.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
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A coach's whistle chirps and six rows of players, each row 10 players deep, begin pumping their legs forward, one after the other high-stepping in quick motion.

A young assistant, his cheeks dusted with just enough freckles that he blends more with the fresh-faced teenagers than the scruffy-bearded coaches, spins a football in his hand as he walks between the rows. Adjusting his straw hat so the players can see the intensity in his pale blue eyes, Austin Roden raises his voice until it's heard above the others.

"Get those knees up," Austin instructs before turning to stare at one of the lanky East Ridge High School players he will work with as the receivers coach. "We're here to get better, so let's be ready to go to work. We gotta catch everything in the air today, guys. No drops!"

Here on this field is where Austin feels most alive. It's a place brimming with energy and excitement and anticipation. It's a place forever full of youth, where a young man is tested and learns his worth.

For the next two hours, Austin immerses himself in the noise and excitement. He soaks up all the life he can because next week, instead of the crashing of pads and the buzz of activity, he will be surrounded by a sobering silence.

Alternating weeks find him in starkly different worlds. In those weeks away from the football field, the quiet immediately brings into focus the fear and gloominess of Erlanger hospital's seventh floor. For all the smiles, congratulatory hugs and promise of the fifth-floor nursery, the seventh floor is where hope is challenged daily by cancer.

"Nobody wants to come to the seventh floor," Austin said, looking out at the downtown skyline from his hospital window. "Up here, I'm surrounded by death every day.

"I don't want to die. I'm only 24 years old, man, and I have a lot of things I want to do. But that's out of my control."

Every other Sunday evening Austin packs a suitcase at home and begins to mentally prepare himself for what's to come. His girlfriend, Leslie Hixson, a former Miss East Ridge High School, and his mother, Stephanie Bradford, will accompany him to the hospital.

Once he's in his room and been given two IV bags of fluids to help keep him hydrated, what follows is a six-hour process designed to shrink the six inoperable tumors in Austin's brain. A cocktail of anticancer drugs is pumped from IVs through the port that was inserted just below his right shoulder and into Austin's 160-pound body.

The chemotherapy is so poisonous that within 24 hours of the treatment he must go through another process to flush it from his system.

His mother calls it all a bad dream, imagining she will wake up one day and Austin will be fine.

"From the time he was nine months old Austin was like a gremlin, always into something, always active," she said. "He's just got this big, loud personality that draws people to him. He's the one that holds our family together. Austin is a 24-year-old man, but he's still my baby and nobody gives you what to say or how to deal with it when you see your baby have to fight for their life."

•••

A month ago the future had never held so much promise for Austin. He was living his dream, working with young people and coaching football. He enjoyed the tiring hours, staying late after practice to talk about techniques with Pioneers coach Tracy Malone or making sure players had a ride home and something to eat. He wanted to be a positive force in the lives of students, especially those who are inundated with gangs and poverty.

"The most satisfying thing in the world is working with kids, especially kids who come from nothing," said Austin, who realized just how much coaching was in his blood after working with the East Lake Middle School team last year. "They have so much negativity around them, but if we can make them better, we can make the whole place better."

But then came the numbness in his right hand and face, followed by dizziness and headaches so severe that he had to pull his car off the road on his way to practice one day to throw up. Austin knew what the symptoms meant; he had experienced them before. Three years ago he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and had to undergo an operation to remove a tumor from the left side of his brain, followed by four excruciating months of chemotherapy.

He was less than a year from being proclaimed cancer-free when, just as football practice was beginning in late July, he felt his knees buckle when told that an MRI confirmed the worst fears -- his cancer had returned, only this time it was more aggressive.

"The first thought in my mind was that I may die," Austin said. "I could be gone before next football season. That's real."

•••

As the chemotherapy begins to enter his body, drip by drip, Austin will sometimes preoccupy his mind by watching video from East Ridge football practice on his smartphone.

Or he will simply close his eyes and let his mind take him where he wishes he were, standing in ankle-deep grass, ignoring the late summer humidity and mosquitoes to coach receivers on the importance of downfield blocking on a running play or how to put a defender on their hip, creating space that makes them an easier target to throw to.

"That's my escape right there," said Austin, who played receiver and defensive back at East Ridge for three years. "I can't wait for the season to start and be out on the field with the kids and coaches. It's what gets me through some of the bad days, thinking about being back out there watching the kids play and hearing the fans cheer and just that adrenaline rush from the game."

A former three-sport athlete at East Ridge, Austin has always thrived on competition, and now, he says, he's competing against cancer.

Part of Austin's game plan is to bring the optimism he soaks in from the kids on the football field inside the hospital. He is by far the youngest cancer patient on the floor, and like a candy striper handing out encouragement. He makes daily rounds up and down the hallway, calling each doctor, nurse or janitor by name and stopping outside other patients' doorways to offer support.

"Being positive is all about having faith," Austin said. "It's all about handling what I'm going through in a way that will help other people. Cancer is a scary thing to have to go through for anybody, no matter your age.

"There are people up here who don't get many visitors at all. Nobody should have to go through a day alone. Nobody should have to fight cancer by themselves. A lot of them are losing faith, so if I can help one person before I die, then I did something."

Austin will have another MRI this afternoon to determine whether the chemo is shrinking the tumors as doctors hope. If not, he will likely have to be admitted to Vanderbilt Hospital to undergo a stem cell transplant.

Earlier this week his mother woke up on the couch inside Austin's room to see him standing over her. It was around 6 a.m. and Austin was already dressed and had an idea.

"Hey mom, let's get a cup of coffee and go up and watch the sunrise together," Austin said with a smile.

"We sat there on the roof area and watched the sun come up and talked," she said, pausing to wipe the tears from her eyes. "A few minutes into it, he talked about death and he said he knew this had to be hard on me, seeing my son go through this. He said that he wasn't afraid to die, if that's what God had planned for him and that he knew where he was going if he did.

"He's been so positive through all of this, but it was like he was preparing me, just in case."

•••

The scene will be similar for high school football teams across the area as the season is set to kick off tonight. Whether the speech comes inside a crowded locker room -- amid the smell of sweat and grass -- or with players taking a knee on a muggy field to listen intently, most every high school coach will compare the journey of the coming season with life.

Men of experience will look in the anxious eyes of teenage boys who feel invincible and describe how football is more than a game, it's a metaphor for picking themselves up when the struggles of life knock them down.

They will explain that regardless of the specifics, each of them will face trials -- job loss, divorce or sickness. Life can be chaotic but the game teaches them toughness and resilience.

But East Ridge coach Tracy Malone won't have to deliver any such speech this year. His receivers coach is a living example of how to handle adversity.

"I asked him last week how he was feeling after the first round of chemo and he said, 'Coach, I'm great. I'm getting up every day and doing what I love and no man could ask for anything more than that.' It stopped me in my tracks," Malone said. "Here he is fighting for his life and this kid gives me a life perspective I never had before."

The Pioneers open their season tonight at Walker Valley. For Austin the first game also falls on a week that he didn't have to go through chemo, and despite feeling tired he made it through every practice this week, arriving early and staying late to help put the game plan together.

This is the week he's waited for since Malone hired him to join the staff in February and he admits to being just as excited and anxious for kickoff as the players he works with.

"We're all real close to him, he's like an older brother that we can relate to since he's younger and played here," said senior receiver Quasey Vinson. "He's so tough. He's not worried about what he's going through when he's out here with us. He's trying to make us better. That shows a lot of character and courage.

"How can we feel down about anything in our life when he's out here? Just seeing him here fighting makes all of us want to go out and push ourselves to be better every single day."

When the game is over, win or lose, Austin will go over the film with the rest of the coaching staff and discuss what the players need to work on and ways they can improve as a team before next week's game.

Then Austin will once again pack a bag and prepare himself for the challenge of another wearisome round of chemotherapy. Once he's back in his quiet hospital room next week he will continue to watch film of each afternoon's practice, texting his receivers encouragement and letting them know he's still keeping an eye on them.

And he will often close his eyes and look forward to being back on the practice field the following week.

"It's so important for me to get back on the field as much as possible because it's about setting an example," Austin said. "Imagine if I said I've got cancer so I just give up. What's that going to show the kids? If they see me out there with brain cancer coming back and being responsible, then they should be able to get their homework in on time or stay up late to spend extra time studying for that test."

His experience from football helped get him through cancer once and he said he's hoping it helps him fight through the disease again this time.

"I'm 24 years old and my goal is I want to see 25. No matter what, I want the kids to see that I don't give up," Austin said. "I might be on my deathbed, but I'm not going to give up.

"That's what some of the kids I work with need to know. Life can knock you down a hundred times, but the only way you get anywhere is if you get back up every time."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293.

about Stephen Hargis...

Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...

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