LOVELAND, Ohio — Loveland High School girls basketball coach Darnell Parker will celebrate his 43rd year of life on Thanksgiving Day with a grateful heart.
"For me, it will be exceptionally special because I have so much to be thankful," Parker said. "Thankful to be here to see another year. Thankful that we were able to catch this cancer."
Parker was diagnosed with colon and liver cancer on Oct. 25. His outlook on life hasn't been the same since.
"It's really kind of driven me," he said.
Prior to the diagnosis, he had just had a physical and felt fine earlier this fall as he prepared for his fourth season at Loveland.
Then, he experienced some abnormal stomach pains and noticed blood while using the restroom.
Parker underwent three biopsies, three CT scans, a colonoscopy and an MRI over just a few days. Doctors told him the colon cancer had spread to his liver.
Parker felt like it was a punch to his gut.
"All I'm hearing is cancer, spread, Stage 4," Parker said. "I don't hear anything else."
Samantha McElfresh, Parker's fiancee, froze when she heard from the doctors. Her first instinct was to make sure Parker was OK after hearing the news.
The diagnosis came 11 months to the day that McElfresh and Parker are to be married in September 2021.
But the couple knew from that late October day forward they were going to win. The doctors are optimistic.
Parker's megawatt smile hasn't dimmed.
"He just has a very positive outlook on life," McElfresh said. "And his positive outlook on life is something that you truly can't find in a lot of people."
The couple formulated a game plan with a team of doctors from two hospitals. Parker had his second round of chemotherapy last week.
There are months ahead in the battle. It will take time, patience and resolve.
Parker is using basketball as an analogy for his playbook.
"I spent the better part of almost 20-plus years in coaching at different levels of encouraging young people and kids to persevere, push through and control what you can control," Parker said.
"And that's one of the things I cannot control -- the fact that I have cancer. It's happened. It's here. Now what I can control is how I attack my treatments, how my attitude is on the days that I'm feeling really well. And once this is all over how I can affect others that are going to go through my similar situation."
Parker lists "future cancer survivor" on his Twitter bio. He wakes up on Monday mornings ready to tackle the week. He often has been the source of strength for his family and friends over the past month.
"That's a guy who always has a smile on," Loveland athletic director Brian Conatser said. "Always in a great, positive mood. Always talks to everyone and includes their first name in every conversation. So that's kind of what you get out of Darnell Parker."
Parker's inspiration includes his fiancee, his daughters, Alexis and Madison, and the game he so dearly enjoys.
Parker flipped open his laptop analyzing basketball film from his hospital bed. He never has wavered from coaching this season.
The Loveland girls basketball team dedicated the season to their beloved coach.
"I feel like we are more united than ever because we all have this common goal of helping him," Loveland senior point guard Tess Broermann said.
Parker also discovered in recent weeks that his friends around Greater Cincinnati are too numerous to count.
Besides Loveland High School and the community, other Greater Cincinnati girls basketball teams have provided an assist.
"It's been a ton of people here supporting him and he knows that," senior wing/guard Jenna Batsch said. "He knows that we're all in this together and we all got his back."
Whether it has been T-shirts, wristbands, bumper stickers, dinners brought to his Loveland home, donations to his GoFundMe page or texts, phone calls or emails, Parker's spirits have been lifted early in this journey.
"There is probably not a school in the Greater Cincinnati area that hasn't reached out in some form or fashion," Parker said.
"These are schools that all winter we're trying to beat each other up and we just put all of that aside and it's like, look, this is a real human, this is a real life and it chokes me up sometimes just thinking about it, that strangers for the most part are really taking time out of their day to reach out and actually care. That's big time."
That support has propelled Parker to a greater appreciation for his birthday this Thanksgiving.
"At 42 years old I realize how short life really can be," he said. "Nothing is promised. Tomorrow is not promised. And I'm not going to spend it upset at anyone. I'm not going to spend it arguing with anyone. I just want to be a positive person. I know if someone needs my help going forward they're going to get it, that's for sure."