A Lesson in Winning from a Cancer Survivor

Used by permission from "Gfree."
Used by permission from "Gfree." | Source

At first glance Mike struck me as just another average high school student. He did alright in school, he liked to “hang out” with his friends, and he was a big-time Steelers fan. But Mike wasn’t just a typical high-school student. You see, earlier in his life, Mike had beaten cancer; and, through it, he taught me quite a lesson about winning.

I first met Mike through a basketball program while teaching at a small private school. During the day I worked in the elementary and had little chance to interact with older students. Basketball gave me the chance to do that.

Mike came to junior varsity tryouts and sat with the rest of the guys. He couldn’t play, however, because of physical problems as a result of his sickness. Bone cancer had riddled his leg with weaknesses, making it necessary for Mike to have his hip replaced.

The result? He was left with a leg strong enough to walk but not strong enough to play sports. An injury to that area of his body could have been devastating, and his mother just didn’t want to take that chance. She did agree to let him practice with the team, on occasion, running laps, shooting around and participating in many of the drills. He just wasn’t allowed to compete.

It seemed Mike would forever be a spectator of the game he loved so much. But it wasn’t good enough for Mike to just sit in the stands or only “practice” with the team. He wanted to be involved on much higher level. So we bestowed upon Mike the position of “Junior Assistant Coach” so that he would feel like he was a part of the team during the actual games, a task he performed without complaint – until the first game.

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“Let me go in, coach,” Mike begged. Our guys looked terrible. As a second year coach, I had pretty much started over with the team. Almost no one from the previous year had come back, and most of those I had playing had never participated in organized ball. Those who did have experience had only played one or two years. Mike had competed some years back, before his fight with cancer, and he was ready to jump in and give some veteran leadership.

“I can’t let you do that, Mike,” I said. “You know why.” He slumped to the bench, shaking his head.

Our next game proved to be even more of a fiasco. “Please, coach, I want to do something,” he cried. Mike already knew the answer.

“The only way you can play is if you get permission from your mother.” Once again he slumped to the pine, looking defeated. Mike and I both knew there was no way his mother would ever agree to him playing ball. But miracles do still happen.

This particular one occurred at our school Christmas pageant. After the program, Mike introduced me to his mother, then announced, “My mom said I could play.” She was hesitant, but she agreed since it was only junior varsity ball, and the competition wasn’t quite as fierce as it was at the varsity level.

At last Mike had hurdled the final obstacle in his path to playing ball again. His patience paid off, not just for him, but for the whole team. The rest of the guys liked and respected Mike. When they found out he could play, they shared his excitement.

Although Mike wasn’t there for our next game, we won it, making it the first of four victories in a row we experienced with Mike on the team. It almost seemed like Mike’s victory over his physical disability to play basketball again energized our team. We all felt his victory as ours, and it translated to our court play.


Later in the season, I had an opportunity to take Mike home after practice. I had taken him and his sister home on other occasions, but, this time, it was just Mike and me. There were many things we talked about on that short car ride home. However, the one thing I really wanted to know about, Mike’s battle with cancer, I was too afraid to mention. But I had no reason to worry. Mike brought it up himself.

Many of the details of his story have escaped me so many years since, but one thing he said to me I'll never forget. Mike told me, “It was God. I could never have made it through without Him.”

What made Mike a winner? It wasn’t his gutsy fortitude. It wasn’t his family or friends (although he would agree they helped a lot). It wasn’t even the doctors who pulled him through. Very simply, it was God who made Mike a winner in his struggle against cancer.

I ponder his statement now, and I reflect on my life in light of what he said. So many times I try to do things on my own in my own strength. But what would happen if some tragedy should strike me? It’s easy to trust God in good times, but would I stay faithful to Him when the storms of life threaten to swallow me up?

Mike’s statement and life forced me to reevaluate my relationship with God. I saw my life, not through my own eyes, but through the eyes of Someone greater, One who can calm even the most difficult storms. He is the One who gives me true strength to overcome, to win.

Mike and I have long since parted company, but I occasionally communicate with him now and then. He's doing very well now. The cancer seems to be in remission. When I spoke to him last, he was going to college.

My memories of Mike are pleasant. He was a solid player and a great leader. But when I think of Mike, I remember him, not by the great plays he made or the terrific leadership he showed. I remember Mike by that one conversation we had together on that short trip home. I remember how a “typical” high school guy showed his team and, yes, even his coach, the true meaning of winning.

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