I usually get a full physical every year right when the season ends. It’s something I’ve made a high priority, especially as I get older in this profession.
But this year was different. This was a transitional year for me.
I left Fresno State for the chance to return home to Texas and become the new head coach at UTEP.
I got the job in mid-March and had to be prepared for the press conference and things of that nature. It was much more comfortable for me the second time around being named a head coach. There was a very good turnout at the press conference and everyone was excited about a new era of Miner basketball. I got the chance to meet a lot of donors and Mary, the wife of legendary coach Don Haskins. It is very important for me to get to know people in the community and meet as many boosters as possible.
You really have to have a plan and a vision when you take over a program, and obviously have your staff in place. That’s an important component because we had four scholarship players on the roster here and we had a lot of work to do in terms of going out and getting players. The roster management was a huge part of our first few months here, and we hit the recruiting trail as hard as we could in a short amount of time. We chose to go after more transfers and a blend of freshmen as opposed to grabbing junior college guys. We also are developing a preferred walk-on program. Every program I’ve been a part of has had a really good preferred walk-on program, which for us this year is going to be really big.
The relationship with your administration is really important when you take a new job. Getting a chance to interact with the president, the athletic director, the compliance director and your Supervisor of sport is essential. Then, you have to find a place to live. You need to find a great realtor to connect you with the community. I wanted to live close to campus and be able to fit and blend into the community.
It’s all part of the whirlwind. I’m telling you, if you don’t have a good vision and good direction behind what you are doing you can be spinning your wheels.
But in that whirlwind, I wasn’t able to have my annual physical.
As coaches, we need to listen to our body. We get so caught up in the hustle and bustle that sometimes we don’t take care of our body the way you need to.
The job is so stressful and such a grind that you need to get yourself completely checked out.
Toward the end of the season last year, I experienced a couple of health issues that I knew going into next season I would need to address – one of those being some lymph nodes on the side of my neck that were swollen.
In my seven years as a head coach, I was the most hoarse I’d ever been at the end of last season. That was something that never really happened to that extent before.
I realized I needed to address this before starting the first season at UTEP, my first order of business after three weeks on the job was visiting an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist.
My vocal cords checked out good, and then we ended up doing an ultrasound and CT scan on the lymph nodes to see if those were cancerous or non cancerous.
In between those two tests, I still had recruiting going on and I had to go to the FIBA Championships in Canada. I came back and got really sick. I thought I had the flu and was really fatigued with a fever and chills and all the symptoms. So I went to the doctor and he immediately wanted me to have a chest X-ray because I had a lot of coughing and congestion in my respiratory area. The chest X-ray came back OK, but I still had all the symptoms and he put me on antibiotics. I started feeling better in about two or three days, but the doctor was concerned a little bit and wanted to do a little more digging with an MRI.
A couple of days later, they find three different masses in my chest.
I went from thinking everything was OK with the medication kicking in to getting a call from the doctor that I need to come into his office.
I was about to get on a flight to Dallas at 6 o’clock to go recruiting. He said, ‘You have to come right now. It’s really important.’
As a coach, my first response was: “I need to go recruiting.”
His response to me was, “Rodney, you are not going recruiting tonight. We have to deal with this right now. It’s a serious matter.’
From that point on, he had my attention.
I go from having a 6 o’clock flight to recruit to having a 6 o’clock doctor’s appointment with a lung specialist in town.
They wanted to know where I wanted to have any procedures done. Did I want to have people speculating in El Paso about what is wrong with me or did I want to go to Houston or Dallas?
I wanted to meet with the specialist first and then make the decision after that.
I met with the lung specialist that night and he was giving me the harsh reality that there is a great chance I could have lung cancer. It came out of his mouth and hit me like a brick. I’m not a smoker, I’m not a drinker, so that came out of left field.
He told me they could take a biopsy and get a little bit of tissue right now, but it probably wouldn’t give them what they are looking for to really find out what the masses are. He recommended going to a surgeon the next day. He said the surgeon will tell you if it’s lung cancer or not by looking at it. But at this point, by looking at the MRI, it looks like lung cancer.
I met with my family that night and decided to go to Houston to get a second opinion.
The next day, I was on a flight to Houston and met with a lung specialist and they had a cancer doctor there as well to read my results. They wanted me to have a PET scan and bronchotomy, and I was still barking about trying to get out on the road recruiting for a few days.
I was able to squeeze in one day of recruiting in Dallas between those two procedures.
I had a couple of days back in El Paso to practice with my team while I was waiting for those results. The emotional roller coaster of the waiting period is the part that really gets to you. I am just waiting for them to call me and tell me what the results are. I was really kind of a wreck and really anxious.
They got back to me about three days later and said everything came back negative in regards to cancer. So I was thinking in my mind everything was OK. But I know at the same time we need to work on getting the masses out of my chest still.
They had me come back in a few days, and I went there thinking they would set up a procedure to take things out of my chest and it would be good.
I met with the surgeon and he says to me on three different occasions he really strongly thought I had Stage 3 lung cancer based on everything he saw from the PET scan. He said I have all the symptoms in place.
Wow! Now, I go from thinking I am good to thinking I may have cancer again. Here I am going on this emotional roller coaster again and feeling like I got hit with a brick again.
Driving from the hospital, I couldn’t even speak. I had my girlfriend there with me. She was my rock through this whole process along with my mom and family.
And you know what is the worst thing you can do on this emotional roller coaster? Read on the internet about Stage 3 cancer. Now I am not sleeping; I am a total wreck because I think I have lung cancer again after I thought I was OK.
I went in for surgery one more time to get a big piece of the tissue out to tell definitively if I have cancer or not. I tried to get my mind off the surgery all day by calling recruits and going about my business, otherwise I was going to make myself crazy thinking about it and wallowing around in it.
In the midst of all that, I get a call from the surgeon’s office saying they were looking at my new chest X-ray and they don’t see anything now and want to postpone the surgery.
They decide to do another CT scan to be safe, and I get a call from the doctor’s office saying they still see masses on that scan and they are going to do the surgery the next day.
The emotional roller coaster takes another dive down.
I told them I wanted a pathologist right there in the room for my surgery so they could get a definitive answer on whether this was cancer or not. They told me they were able to do that, and once I got out of surgery they told me everything went OK. They said they were almost 95 percent sure it wasn’t cancer.
Obviously, this is great news. God gave me a favor. I had so many prayer teams praying for me during all of this. I have strong faith to begin with, and my faith in God was only strengthened through this.
But now that cancer was ruled out, they still needed to find out what my health issue was. A couple of days go by when they finally come to the conclusion it’s Valley Fever, which is curable and something I have to treat for a year.
I am relieved the not knowing is finally over and I can stop worrying.
I am going to be fine and want people to know that.
But if I didn’t listen to my body and take the proper precautions, this could have turned out even worse and gone undetected for a long time.
I believe everything happens for a reason and this entire health scare put a lot of things into perspective. I talked to my team as I was going through this and told them they need to live every day to the fullest because tomorrow is never promised to you. That was definitely something that hit home with them and myself.
Any time you go through something like this, man it is quite an ordeal – not only for yourself, but for your loved ones and people close to you.
What I learned through this is the mind is a very powerful thing. Each time I thought I was out of the woods and healthy, my mind was great. When it wasn’t, you can easily put your mind into defeat mode. It’s powerful, very powerful.
I want to send the message to all coaches: Listen to your body and take care of yourself so you are able to give your student-athletes your maximum effort every day.
They deserve it and you deserve it.
Rodney Terry is the Head Men’s Basketball coach at UTEP. He arrived at UTEP after spending 7 seasons at Fresno State where led the Bulldogs to 3 post season appearances including the 2016 NCAA tournament and the 2017 NIT. Coach Terry earned his first head coaching experience at the high school level when he led Somerville HS (TX) and Angleton HS (TX) from 1993-96. He had Assistant coaching stints at St Edwards University, Bowie HS, Baylor, UNC Wilmington under Jerry Wainwright and Texas under Rick Barnes.