ELIZABETHTOWN — Two to three hours each day, Robby Priest escapes.
Football season is here. Whatever thoughts about life a coach has, there is a window of time when he’s with his players and staff that gives definition to routine and comfort.
He can teach, craft strategy, motivate — and he can escape the rest of the world.
Practices started July 30, and for the East Bladen High School coach battling colon cancer, going from a November playoff loss to Friday’s season opener with Clinton has been an offseason unlike any he has or will ever again experience.
One question prevails: How’s Robby?
“I feel good, about 75 percent,” he says.
He’s completed eight chemotherapy treatments that went about four hours each. Those began in January and stretched to the second week of August. The port placed in his chest so he doesn’t have to be stuck with IV needles gets changed every four weeks. The next is before Labor Day, then a colonoscopy in October and a CT scan in either October or November.
“Cancer free” is a possibility in late fall and would be a welcomed answer to the prayers of thousands.
“My hands and feet are numb,” he says before his final treatment. “As long as I get a nap during the day, or rest for about an hour, I’m good to go for the rest of the day. Energy level … it sucks.”
Beating colon cancer is as tough an opponent as the coach of more than two decades has faced. The day before Thanksgiving, he found out what was causing the discomfort he’d felt most of last season. The Eagles bowed from the state playoffs two days later, and he was on an operating table Dec. 5.
The last of the eight treatments was twice delayed by a low platelet count.
“I just want it done and over with and gone,” Priest said before practice one day last week. “It gets on your nerves.
“I don’t wish it on not nary a person.”
In sickness and in health …
Coaches teach their players how to handle adversity regularly. Teens hear cliches, but there is truth imparted.
Sports and life’s lessons — they’re as intertwined as ever at East Bladen. Players can readily see the value of teamwork, in this case a community that has sacrificed for the good of one of its own, that has poured out its heart to help pick up a family in need.
“It’s been unreal,” Priest was saying while waiting out the delays of that last treatment. “I didn’t know that many people cared or gave a damn, but they do. I get texts, emails, letters, and that stuff helps along the way.”
As overwhelming and impressive as that has been, another element doesn’t escape him.
“My wife,” he says of Carla, his bride of 13 years. “She’s been to every treatment.”
He thinks about it, shakes his head in awe, and a smile begins to cross his face. She assures there was never another alternative.
“The show stopped, but the music kept playing,” Carla says. “And I was controlling the music. I was the one trying to keep everything going, keeping it as normal and consistent as possible, and still being with him. After 13 years of marriage, he still makes my heart skip a beat. He really does. I could be with him 24/7.”
She chuckles at the literal thought, and adds, “He would not be with me 24/7, but I could latch on to him like a mosquito.”
She doesn’t exaggerate on this, says her sister, Sabrina Ward. She’s seen the poetry he’s written to her, the harmony their life has grown to be.
In sickness and in health, Carla and Robby.
“Both of them tried to be, I guess like in their own bubble,” Sabrina said. “Robby was like, ‘I got to be strong for Carla and the kids.’ And Carla was like, ‘I got to be strong for Robby.’ ”
Robby, 43, and Carla, 39, are parents of 11-year-old Cara and 8-year-old Ryne. Tori, 21, is Carla’s daughter from the marriage of her late first husband. Together they are a bundle of smiles, laughs and good times, with a fondness for White Lake.
Carla and Sabrina, 51, each describe an unbreakable bond of sisters defined by experiences and bound in part through daily conversation.
“Our mother passed away two years ago,” Carla said. “We were always really close, but I think moving from that, she’s just taken on a greater role in making sure that we’re still there for birthdays, and Christmas and holidays. I guess, it’s just, unconditional love.
“She could read my mind before I could say anything. If anybody could put me in check or make me walk that line, it’s her. When we found out, I was so mad. And she looked at me and said, ‘This is not your ballgame. This is his. You’re going to stand on the sideline. He makes the decisions.’ And I thought, that’s not good. And that was hard.
“With everything spiraling for him, when I would try to do that, he felt like I was taking away his position of control. And so I tried very, very hard not to do that.”
Sabrina describes Robby and Carla as more private than not. First choice for this battle would have been together and not in the public eye. They accepted that it would be, and felt a warm community embrace the likes of which they never have before.
Carla is Robby’s rock. Sabrina is Carla’s rock, that place where a sister whose husband and father of their children fighting for his life could just be who and what she needed in order to get to another day, another moment to be there for Robby.
“The unconditional love that I could be me,” Carla says. “I put all guards down, and knew that I would not be judged on what I said, or what I did. I could just vent for that one moment, and then it would be over. And to keep me grounded. Everyone has a large circle, but you always need that small circle.
“You listen to everybody, but it’s the inner small, small circle that you listen to. They’re the ones that will tell you, and they’ll have your best interests at heart and are not looking for anything in return. And she loves Robby.”
For all of the hurt and emotional turmoil it can cause, cancer is a love story.
“Neither of them let a lot of people in,” Sabrina says. “They’re private, to themselves. They loved the community coming together, and doing all that they did. It was amazing. But it was hard, because some of the things, you want for yourself. You don’t want people to feel sorry for you.”
And so the sisters talk each day. Some calls are for listening, others for crying. There’s usually a Bible verse.
Sabrina understands how Carla internalized.
“She tried to be so strong for Robby that she’d forget about herself,” Sabrina said. “We may not do nothing but cry, or sit there, and I’d tell her, ‘Carla you’ll have to let people say and think what they want. Let it go, and let God take over.’ As hard as it was on him, I don’t think the public realizes what it does to the rest of the family. It’s inside of him, but it covers the whole family. She’s stronger than she gives herself credit for.”
Sonya Hyatt, Carla’s other sister, and Sabrina came to some of Robby’s treatments. So did Carla’s first principal, Debra Bill. And the fourth-grade teacher can describe her current Elizabethtown Primary administrators, principal Priscilla Brayboy and assistant principal Renee Inman, and the school staff in a single word: “Phenomenal!”
“I didn’t miss a doctor’s appointment, and we’d make those as late as possible, which is 2 p.m.,” she says. “I’d go to her and she’d say do what you’ve got to do. My job was important, but my family was more important. They would text me, and ask how’s he doing.
“It’s great to work for people, that when you have something like this occur, of just being able to talk and know it wouldn’t go anywhere. She knew the importance. You go take care of your family. This will be here. Those are people you want to work for.”
Bear in mind, this is her third time back at the school. She feels God’s hand in that placement.
“We’ve been blessed, very blessed, with the resources, the family and the friends,” Carla said. “The amount of support people poured out, was … I can’t comprehend. After the fundraiser, I know two straight weeks, every single day we checked the mail, there was something in there.
“God has given us a testimony, so hopefully we can fulfill the purpose of what we’re supposed to do with it.”
Time to play
As unique as the offseason has been, so too will be this season of Eagles football.
The coach doesn’t want his plight spoiling the team’s focus. Just as he and Carla wanted things as normal as possible for their children, so too is the goal for a football program long on tradition.
How’s Robby? His weight is back up to about 185 pounds, a good 20 or so heavier than after surgery. He’s proud that no practices have been missed with this team, not even on the final treatment day.
Does it help to have the season here?
“Kind of,” he says. “It helps you block it out for two to three hours.”
His worries are not for himself; rather, they are for his wife and kids. She’s a wife who would tag along to practices like a mosquito, and who, like Robby, has enough strength if needed to move mountains for the children.
“We kind of shielded them as much as possible, and I guess that’s what all parents do,” Carla said. “We protect as much as possible. When it got a little larger, they knew it was a hospital, and that Daddy was sick, and they were taking care of it. We didn’t lie to them, but we were vague in details.
“Like I say, the show stopped, but the music played. We kept it as normal as possible, and the family helped there. I think the family and the friends really, that’s where they pitched in. To them, we just try to keep it rolling for them.”
She added, “We never turned it into a pity party. This is the deck we were given, and guess what? We’re going to keep playing.
“And we thank God every day. Regardless, He’s in the business of goodness. There’s goodness in this. Even though it’s tough, it’s still good.”
Keep playing indeed.
Robby will be on the sideline Friday when Clinton comes to town. So will his younger brother Ritchie, coaching the secondary. Carla will be in the stands, where normal is a bit more to herself than in the middle of everything.
Much has changed since that last November playoff game.
How’s Robby doing? He’s beating colon cancer one day at a time, strengthened by family love, encouraged by community support, and finding comfort where only a coach can.
Carla Priest has chronicled Robby’s journey to defeating colon cancer, putting together a PowerPoint presentation for him. This was the day of the final treatment, on Aug. 10.
Robby Priest, watching his team scrimmage earlier this month, gets well-wishes from throughout the coaching fraternity at every stop. Referees check in with him, too. When the whistle blows, he’s focused as ever and expects the same of his team.
The window sill of head coach Robby Priest’s office is crowded with trophies, the best of which is from his son.
Family vacation wasn’t stopped this summer, much to the delight of dad and Cara.
White Lake and the Fourth of July was spent with family, this moment to include Robby, Tori and Carla.
Sabrina Ward, with Ryne on his birthday, marvels at the resolve of her younger sister Carla.
Robby Priest, a former East Bladen player, has been on the sidelines coaching since 1997, including since 2012 as the head coach. His seventh season leading the Eagles starts Friday when Clinton visits.
Ryne is a regular around his dad’s football program.
Alan Wooten can be reached at 910-247-9132 or email@example.com.