TRENTON, Ohio -- Rocky Breedlove, scheduled to begin chemotherapy for an inoperable case of late-stage esophageal cancer on Thursday, spent Wednesday night celebrating the Edgewood High School football team's undefeated season.
"It's kind of surreal," he said. "You start the season in July, practicing in the hot days of summer, and you get to know these kids and you get to know their character."
Periodic chest pains marred those early summer practices for Breedlove, who coaches the team and teaches special education, but his doctor told him they were likely symptoms of acid reflux. It wasn't until September, when he began to have trouble swallowing, that he decided to have another check-up.
A CT scan found a mass on his esophagus. A week later, after he dropped off his children at their own football practice, doctors called to tell him it was cancerous.
"Everything changed," he said. "Everything just feels different. To feel the breeze on your face, the leaves changing … things don't bother you as much because they don't mean as much."
Breedlove said his diagnosis compelled him to focus more sharply on the things that are meaningful to him, including his family, faith and his leadership of the Edgewood football team. He hopes he can set a positive example for the players with whom he spent the summer and fall bonding.
"I try to teach these guys you are going to deal with hardships in your life," he said. "It's how you handle adversity in your life is going to show what type of character you have."
According to 12-year-old Mason, a player on the Edgewood team, Breedlove pushes all of his players and encourages them never to give up. When they learned about his diagnosis, they and their families decided to do the same for him. By Wednesday night, T-shirts had been made; bracelets had been sold; and a GoFundMe campaign had raised over $4,000 to help with Breedlove's medical expenses.
"I have never been more proud of a team in my entire life," Breedlove said.
With the end of the season, the team dynamic is about to be reversed: Breedlove will face a new challenge, and students such as 12-year-old Damario will be the ones cheering him on.
"I hope he keeps fighting strong and doesn't give up," Damario said.