Ryan Bartlett sits in the coaches’ office, looking out at the now-empty weight room at White Bear Lake High School’s south campus. He’s been in this office nearly every day over the spring and summer, seemingly no different from football coaches across the state, preparing for the upcoming season.
Things are different, however. Barely six months ago, Bartlett, 34, wasn’t sure he’d see the start of his seventh season as White Bear Lake head coach.
A fall and winter of feeling out of sorts, with a nagging cough, shortness of breath and recurring lightheadedness, required repeated trips to the doctor’s office.
The first two trips gave no answers. It was on his third examination, scheduled after feeling a lump in his chest, that a CT scan was ordered. A mass, 9 centimeters across, was found in his chest. Spots were detected on his lymph nodes, spleen, liver and stomach.
“That first night, I thought I had something beyond repair,” Bartlett recalled. “I was just so scared.
Suddenly, his tidy life, with a wife, three young sons and a promising career as a football coach and physical education teacher, got messy. Time, which always seemed so plentiful, was no longer such a sure thing. Things taken for granted became priorities, others once deemed essential became a little less so.
“Instantly, you think about what’s important,” he recalled. “Football had always been really important. I used to think about football every hour of the day. But after hearing that, all I wanted to do was go home, hang out with my wife and kids and order pizza on Friday night. I didn’t think about football for a long time.”
Then came the word that he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma that had progressed to the Stage IV level.
Among cancers, Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a cancer of the white blood cells, or lymphocytes, that spreads between lymph nodes — is one of the most curable. The five-year survival rate for Stage I Hodgkin’s is roughly 90 percent. At Stage IV, it remains high, about 65 percent.
Finding out, Bartlett let out a breath of relief.
“When I heard [the doctor] come in and say it was Hodgkin’s, my wife and I, for some reason, we were relieved,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘That isn’t a death sentence. I’ll beat that.’ ”
Two things needed to take place. Bartlett began a series of biweekly chemotherapy treatments in late April. And he needed to adjust his work schedule, to account for the toll the illness and its treatment had taken on his body.
“I never missed a day of summer [weightlifting] since I’ve been a head coach. Nine years,” Bartlett said. “I just didn’t do that. But I knew I had to get my rest.”
Enter the White Bear Lake coaches and players. The coaching staff filled in when Bartlett couldn’t be there. The team chipped in with whatever was needed — meals, lawn mowing, even taking over the organization of White Bear Lake’s Relay For Life cancer walk team.
“The coaches, they’ve been great. All have stepped up in different ways,” Bartlett said. “The team has been unbelievable. I can’t remember everything they’ve done. It’s been overwhelming. We don’t know how thank people.”
In mid-June, after four chemo treatments, Bartlett got the good news. The cancer was in remission. He still had four months of treatments to go to complete the therapy, along with two years of scans, but the worst appears to be over.
Teams begin official 2018 practices Monday. As has been his tradition since his first year as a head coach (at Armstrong in 2009), his team planned to kick off the season as soon as possible, with a Midnight Madness practice at 12:01 a.m.
And Bartlett planned to be there. Football still matters, but in different ways.
“When I’m here and working and coaching, it’s like the other thing is gone,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to the normal routine of what I always do. Being with the players, doing the meetings, doing what I feel I’ve always done.”
Bartlett believes this ordeal has been a learning experience, for the players and for himself.
“They see you in a different light,” he thought. “As coach, you have to be more guarded. With this, that goes away. You get closer to them. And I think that’s made me realize that maybe I should have been that way more: Be less guarded, be more open.”
He’s still mindful of his physical limitations. He gets tired easily, forcing more time to rest. He’ll likely be more hands-off than he has in the past. Most notably, he’s gained a new perspective.
“The little stuff? Already, it doesn’t get to me like it used to,” he said. “I don’t stress out about that stuff. I enjoy it so much more now. This is the least stressed out I’ve ever been going into a season.”