Chip Sherman is not a coach today. He’s not the face of the defending Sunflower League champion football team. He’s not leading ab exercise in weights classes. He’s not calling the shots from a sideline.
He’s a cancer patient today.He sits in a reclining chair at Kansas City Cancer Center. Silently. He tries to make his mind blank as he struggles not to think about the drugs and chemicals being pumped into his body. He’s nauseous. His nose bleeds.
His wife Angela visits him for two of the seven grueling hours of chemotherapy. He tries to take a nap. He works on football plays to show in practice the next day. But mostly, he sits. He waits.
As he peers down the aisle of 30 chairs in room 402, and sees patient after patient, he finds most of them to be mad at the world for cursing them with such a deadly disease. They are waiting to die. But Sherman is waiting to live.
Usually when Sherman gets out of the pool from a swim, or finishes lifting for the day, he has no troubles breathing. Usually nothing is physically wrong with him. Usually stopped last winter.
“I just got to the point that I was just exhausted all the time and I couldn’t figure out what’s going on,” Sherman said. “I thought maybe I was just getting old. And then I started having some problems breathing and I just couldn’t get a full breath.”
His doctor couldn’t figure out what the problem was initially, after an x-ray and CT-scan, but after they did blood work, they found it: Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. A type of cancer that takes a tumor form in the lymphatic system, where abnormal cells divide and grow without order or control and old cells don’t die normally. The best way to treat the cancer is through chemotherapy, an excruciatingly painful process in which a combination of drugs are injected into the blood stream to kill cells, and stop them from dividing.
But the chemo didn’t intimidate Sherman. He was ready to take the cancer head on.
“If I say I’m going to try and do something I’m gonna do it,” Sherman said. “I just went about it with the attitude that I was going to make every day count, and do something good every day.”
When good friend and Principal Dr. Karl Krawitz, who first met Sherman in the ‘80s, first heard the news, he was shaken up.
“Emotionally, it was real tough,” Krawitz said. “I kept thinking, ‘Oh God. Why this man? Of all the people.’ I think he, probably more than any other person, has been the major reason why we’ve seen such a phenomenal change in this building.”
Sherman began his chemo on June 10. It was the first day he had missed a football related activity that summer. While the football team was lifting and doing everything to get better, so was Sherman. But in a different way. Eight miles away, hooked up to a machine, chemicals pumping into his into his body.
Sherman endured the chemotherapy and still showed up to most all summer activities, even participating with the team in the “team bonding” exercise on Thursdays, the hardest workout of the week. Every player grabbed a 25 pound weight to do various lifts with. Sherman grabbed a 45 pound weight.
“He’s always told them, ‘I won’t ask you to do anything I can’t do,” Athletic Director and assistant coach Sam Brown said. “And that’s the way he still is. Even with this cancer.” Brown even recalls a particular practice when Sherman’s dedication took full force.
“We were doing a particularly hard running drill and a player came up to me and was like ‘coach, my knee’s hurt.’ And I just kinda pointed over at Coach Sherman who was running hard with the team and said, ‘what do you think he’s feelin’?’ And the kid said, ‘I think my knee’s are okay, coach.’”
Sherman has good days, where the pain is less, but he does have the inevitable bad days, when the ache all over his body is worse, and the headaches are more frequent.
Aug. 24 was a bad day.
It’s 7:12 a.m. on Aug. 25 when Sherman begins his last workout: chest
It’s the day after Sherman received news his chemo treatments weren’t working fully. That the dead cells around the tumor, once as big as a watermelon but now baseball sized, weren’t dying off naturally. The cancer wasn’t getting worse, but it wasn’t getting better. But here he is, working out like usual, like nothing happened.
Sweat drips from his bald scalp down onto his grey SME football shirt. His high white Nike socks and black Under Armour shoes cover up places on his legs and feet where hair used to be, but no longer exist. Half fingernails remain on the tips of the fingers from the dead cells as he reps his body weight. His eyes are clinched tight as he fights through the last few reps.
He’s been in the weight room since 5:30. Punching lymphoma in the teeth.
“Working out in the morning helps me start my day off right,” Sherman said. “It helps me go about my day with a clean mind and I get all of my stress or anxiety out in a positive way.”
Even through five chemo treatments, he still lifts for two hours every morning. When he finished his workout the morning of the 24th, Sherman made his way down the hall to the locker room. In that time, eight different players visit him before school starts, all asking the same question, “How are you feeling?” and all getting the same response: A smile and, “I’m doin’ fine. It’s a fight.”
On the night of the 24th, junior wide receiver David Sosna posted on twitter that the team had received unsettling news at practice, and to pray for Sherman. Within the next two hours, over 118 tweets from former and current students read the phrase: Prayers for Sherman.
The inspiration that Sherman gives others is widespread, affecting even coworkers like by Head Basketball Coach Shawn Hair.
“He’s attacked it like I hope I would attack it,” Hair said. “He’s an overwhelming inspiration for all of us to live your life the right way.”
But the group who has been inspired most are his players.
“Whenever I’m tired in practice and I look up and see him, its just a new burst of energy,” senior left tackle Dylan Brett said. “I always try and look for him because he always cheers me up when he’s there. Because I know if he were out there he would try his hardest.”
But the positive attitude is just second nature to Sherman. It’s the way he’s always been.
“On the days that are real bad, I always think how lucky I am to be married to who I’m married to, I have four healthy children, and I have healthy grandchildren, I’ve got two grandchildren on the way, so you know, I think about all those good things,” Sherman said. “You can look at things and feel sorry for yourself, feel how bad you feel and lay around all day, and do nothing good, or, you can go forward and try to make something good happen and have a positive attitude and remember good things.”
Krawitz compares Sherman’s internal drive to a motor.
“I mean, even though it’s broke, you’re just never gonna turn it off,” Krawitz said, “it’s that kind of will that if any one’s going to beat this disease, it’s gonna be him.”
Hair has noticed more of the same.
“He just doesn’t complain, it’s not who he is. He’s not carrying around a ‘poor pitiful me, I’ve got cancer’ cross,” Hair said. “Cancer can take everything but it can’t take your heart. That guy’s got a tremendous heart. He’s gonna keep on fighting.”
“You want a zero?” Senior center Sam Heneger asks Brett.
“Yeah, zero’s fine. Just don’t mess it up again”
Heneger adjusts the electric clippers, and begins buzzing Brett’s head.
Hilary Duff’s “Come Clean” fills the air on a sunny Friday afternoon before the football team’s Blue and Black scrimmage. Brett squints as light shines in his eyes as his light brown hair is flicked off the clippers on to the ground, fluttering onto the concrete near the corner under the drain, next to the brick wall in Heneger’s driveway.
“Gosh, the ears are the trickiest part,” Heneger says to himself, pulling back Brett’s ear.
The linemen sing along to Unwritten by Natasha Bedingfield, discuss The Hill’s, a show the team watches together on occasion, and experiment with what Brett would look like with a Mohawk. Finally, he’s finished. Fully buzzed. Practically bald.
Heneger has been shaving heads of the football team for two months now, a tribute to their coach, who in turn, has no hair due to chemo treatments.
“If he has no hair then we want no hair,” Heneger said. “We all did it to kinda make it not so awkward for him. I mean, I think he would probably feel a little self-conscious, like the theme for this year is “All In,” and we’re all in this together so we went all in.”
The players have noticed Sherman’s dedication to them: being with them every day, even when he’s noticeably tired, and realize they should give it their all like he does.
“Running 40 yard sprints is nothing compared to what he’s going through,” Heneger said.
After practices when Sherman isn’t there, or they are updated with news that the cancer isn’t progressing, the team prays together. Heneger leads it.
“I just kinda took it upon myself to like get things going and I don’t know, we all need to be praying for him,” Heneger said. “I don’t know where the whole team is religiously but its the only thing we can do to help. We can’t cure his cancer for him but praying will for sure help.”
The team plans on reciting psalm 18:32-42 before taking the field every game. A psalm dedicated to following your leader into battle, and fighting blindly for your team. All for Sherman.
“He’s going to beat the cancer,” Heneger said. “No doubt in my mind.”
The support from his players has not been overlooked by Sherman. The love is felt both ways. That’s why he changed his chemo a day earlier so could coach the first football game. It’s why he stays the night at school breaking down film, crashing on the couch, the day after games. For his team.
Sherman’s Lymphoma won’t ever deteriorate fully, since the tumor can’t be surgically removed because it’s weaved into his lymph-nodes and the cells won’t fully die off, but that doesn’t mean he won’t keep fighting.
“You can’t let this thing feel like its beatin’ you. You have to go forward and feel like you’re in charge, and if you’re in charge, you’re gonna dictate how it’s gonna act,” Sherman said.
But in his mind, the cancer isn’t entirely a bad thing.
“Y’know, there’s a reason why things happen and maybe I was given this as a challenge, and it may end up being a blessing. Who knows, maybe it will teach me to appreciate life more, who knows what it will do,” Sherman said. “But if you take something negative and learn something from it, then it becomes something positive.”