Coaches vs. Cancer expands in all the right ways
Despite having been a coach and physical education teacher during her impactful 22-year career at Cloquet Middle School, recently retired Nancy McConachie was quick to admit a weakness. "I'm not good at speaking in front of people," said the 61-y...
Despite having been a coach and physical education teacher during her impactful 22-year career at Cloquet Middle School, recently retired Nancy McConachie was quick to admit a weakness.
"I'm not good at speaking in front of people," said the 61-year-old, always so good with children, but one to get nervous as crowds grow.
But it was a crowd on a January night at Cloquet High School - like many others around the country - that was brought to tears when hearing stories like McConachie's.
Back in April 2010, McConachie was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"It knocked me to the ground when they told me," said McConachie. "It was like a bad dream.
"The first thing I wanted to do was run and not come back," she continued. "But I said I was going to fight this with everything I got."
And that she did, battling through six months of chemotherapy, followed by 30 straight days of radiation. Days were tough, but she noted the loss of her hair was even tougher.
Yet, with the support of her family and friends - including close friends Nancy Cooper, Mary Jane Lundberg and Heather Young - McConachie completed her treatment in January 2011. She explained she never says she's cancer-free, but in a Tuesday night interview, it didn't take long to tell McConachie was upbeat living her now-retirement life, alongside her longtime husband, Jim.
"He was my rock - my strength," McConachie said. "He was there for every minute of it."
Jim was one of the many in attendance in January, listening to his wife's story as the keynote speaker for Cloquet's Coaches vs. Cancer basketball event with Hermantown that evening. The girls and boys hoops doubleheader was the furthest thing from people's minds during a night that included plenty of blue Coaches vs. Cancer shirts, the "Wall of Hope" and, of course, McConachie's touching story at halftime of the girls game.
"It's all around us and something we don't like to bring up and talk about a lot, but it's there," McConachie said of cancer. "We see it more and more and everybody needs support."
That's where Esko's Todd Rengo comes in. The 47-year-old lifelong Eskomo has dealt with cancer through family, friends and colleagues.
Rengo's father, Jim, survived prostate cancer and his mother, LaVerne, overcame colon cancer. Rengo lost a co-worker to pancreatic cancer this past summer and another to a rare vascular sarcoma.
So Rengo decided to recently do something to fight the disease. Several years ago, he created a Coaches vs. Cancer event in his hometown. But rather than keeping things in Esko, Rengo - the co-chairman of the Northern Lights organization and "Give an Assist" non-profit foundation - combined with friends Steve Kidd and Sharon Lahti to expand things.
Together, they contacted communities, schools and created the framework to efficiently run the event all over the Northland. Donations and silent auctions were common, while "Wall of Hope" cards - sold in honor of survivors and those in memory - were colorfully decorated. At Cloquet, purchasable hacky-sacks were available for a halftime toss much like "chuck-a-puck" at hockey games. The winner even got an XBox.
In all, Rengo said 30 events were hosted around the area this year, from Cloquet to Esko, Cromwell to Carlton and Floodwood to Moose Lake-Willow River. Duluth East and Denfeld, along with Lakeview Christian Academy, Proctor and Hermantown also welcomed events. Superior did too, and so did Park Falls, Wis. - 140 miles west of here.
According to Rengo, Coaches vs. Cancer originated in collegiate basketball in 1985. He said their high school's organization of the event is now the largest of its kind in the entire country. That's pretty cool.
"It really took off," Rengo said.
Rengo even noted while at a recent NBA game he attended, the Minnesota Timberwolves showed interest and will be involved next winter.
"I imagine it doubling or tripling in size," said Rengo.
According to Matt Carlson, Cloquet finance and activities assistant, Cloquet raised $3,200 for Northern Lights, which forwarded all of the donations to the American Cancer Society. Carlson said the student council spearheaded the event, leading homeroom donation competitions and even large bracket boards to determine a winner.
"It's a great cause," said Carlson, also a Cloquet boys basketball coach and one who participated in that January event in Cloquet. "Everybody has a family member or friend impacted by [cancer]."
Carlson expects Cloquet will continue to be part of the special night, estimating there were about 200 warm-up shirts worn by players, coaches and staff of both teams with Cloquet and Hermantown on Jan. 12. He still sees many worn around the Cloquet hallways today.
"It's a reminder of just a great event," Carlson said.
Rengo added that several of the major sponsors included Thrivent Financial, St. Luke's and Screen Graphics, which created the warm-ups.
However, in describing Esko's crowded event - against Duluth East this past February - along with a hallway streamed with "Wall of Hope" cards, Rengo said it's not all about the money, but the awareness and the stories.
"You just sit back and look at all of the people, kids and the impact it makes," Rengo said. "It's been everything we've hoped it to be - just fantastic. It's even better than I envisioned."
That relates back to McConachie, one bold enough, brave enough and willing enough to speak of her fight. She was asked by Young, who also happens to be the Cloquet girls basketball coach. They worked together 11 years at Cloquet Middle School, and have been tightly-knit for almost 20 years.
So when McConahie was on the mic, Young didn't have her team leave the gym. For those brief five minutes, basketball didn't matter anymore. But her friend sure did.
"She's been a mentor, a friend, a role model, a mother figure, someone I strive to be like," Young said. "She's one of the most consistent people in my life who I have been blessed to call my friend.
"The game that night wasn't about winning or losing, it was about helping to beat cancer," continued Young. "I wanted our players to understand that at the end of the day, wins are nice, but there are bigger opponents out there."
Opponents that McConachie, and thousands and thousands of others, have beaten with a backbone of support and events such as Coaches vs. Cancer that raise money for research and more.
"Knowledge is power and they're finding out more things every single day," McConachie said.
"And I've definitely come back stronger," she chimed.
Even if she was a little nervous to speak that January evening.
"I was like a basket case that whole first half," she said with a laugh. "I made it though."
Just like she did against cancer.