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Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / McCallie cross country and track and field coach Mike Wood

Sixteen months ago, no one was wondering if Mike Wood could guide McCallie School to its first state track championship since 1929 at this week's Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association's annual Spring Fling.

Instead, as he was confined to a Vanderbilt University hospital bed while attempting to recover from a massive heart attack suffered on December 29, 2019, his friends and family were just hoping he'd still be alive this spring.

"We prayed for the best, but we tried to prepare for the worst," said McCallie assistant coach Rodney Stoker on Monday. "They were talking about a heart transplant. At that moment, there's a realization that he might not make it. It was a very tough time for a lot of us."

But Wood rallied enough to avoid that transplant. Then the coronavirus canceled spring sports, which gave him even more time to heal without being tempted to wade back into track practice.

"I don't want this to sound the wrong way, but COVID was a great thing for me," Wood said. "I'd actually watched a couple of practices before the coronavirus ended spring sports. COVID gave me extra time to quarantine without missing anything. Kind of a miracle."

Everyone talks about life being a miracle. Wood has a far greater appreciation for that than most.

"I've talked to my cross country team about C.S. Lewis's book 'Surprised by Joy,'" Wood said Monday evening. "Coming back to coach is totally joyful. I've actually been a little surprised by how much fun it is every day going to practice. I'm so much more appreciative to just be out there with the kids and the coaches."

A single Lewis observation from the book: "One second of joy is worth 12 hours of pleasure."

Perhaps that's why Wood said of Wednesday's competition: "Listen, I want to win the state. Badly. But as long as I wake up Thursday morning, I'm good to go. I'm fine."

But can the Blue Tornado capture Wood his first TSSAA state track and field title in his 30th try? Can the track team match the cross country team's state title from the fall, which just also happens to be Wood's seventh such crown at McCallie?

"I think we've got a chance," he said. "I think it will come down to MBA (Montgomery Bell Academy), Christian Brothers and us. We've all got a chance. It's just who puts up the most points on that day."

(READ MORE: Your Spring Fling primer: What to watch for this week from Chattanooga area teams)

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Staff file photo / McCallie School cross country and track and field coach Mike Wood is shown in this December 2020 staff file photo.

When it comes to points, no McCallie athlete is more proficient at lighting up a scoreboard — be it football, basketball or track and field — than senior Eric Rivers, who placed fourth in last weekend's Division II-AA decathlon and will run numerous track and field events this week, including the long jump, high jump and triple jump and several races. Rivers has already been a big reason why the Blue Tornado won its region meet by a 141-49 total over runner-up Baylor and he'll need to have a big Spring Fling if McCallie hopes to add a third state title ring to the two already on Rivers' hand for football.

"Coach Wood always tells us, 'It's a great day to get a P.R. (personal record)," said Rivers. "I know that for all he's done for us, making us better athletes and better people, it would be tremendous if we could win this for him."

By finishing fourth behind teammate Michael May — who won the decathlon — and teammate Nick Robinson, who finished third, McCallie is already off to a tremendous start, those performances by May, Robinson and Rivers earning the Blue Tornado 21 early points in the state meet.

Wood cautions those points can be overcome in a hurry by either Christian Brothers, MBA, or both, but it's certainly a strong beginning.

Rivers' junior teammate Jack Sullivan has been a member of the track team the past three springs. He'll run on the 4x800 relay team in the Fling.

Of the return of Wood, Sullivan says, "Practice just flows better with him. He's committed so much of himself to us, so we commit to him. We would certainly like to win the state for him. But winning the state would also go beyond Coach Wood. It would be for every track and field team we've ever had at McCallie."

Stoker will tell you a lot has changed since Wood's heart attack. There are no more stops at Waffle House to celebrate big wins, a nod to a healthier diet. There is a greater sense of fun, if not outright joy in the daily practices. There's no mention of the eight times Wood has watched his track teams settle for second in the state.

Still, Stoker can't help but hope this year's Spring Fling ends for the Blue Tornado as last fall's cross country state competition did — with a state title.

"I remember walking down a hill after we won at Sanders Ferry (in Hendersonville), our arms around each other," said Stoker. "He's been like a father to me since my own father died. I couldn't believe that after almost losing him, we got to share that moment. I'll never forget that walk."

And should McCallie somehow win its first state track title in 92 years on Wednesday?

"After all Mike's been through, to see him finally win it, to see that big smile spread across his face," said Stoker, "would be everything our kids and coaches could ask for. We might even have to celebrate that one at Waffle House."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / Mike Wood coached McCallie's cross country team to the TSSAA Division II-AA state title in early November 2019, but in late December he found himself fighting for his life as he recovered from a cardiac arrest that was the result of a total blockage of his left anterior descending artery.

 

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