ELIZABETHTOWN — Robby Priest is a fighter. That’s been evident for most of his 43 years with any challenge put before him. Whether it’s been on the athletic field, in the classroom, throughout his personal and professional life, Priest has developed a never-give-up attitude.
But now, Priest is facing the toughest challenge of his life — for his life.
“I’ve always had a drive to win,” Priest said this week. “I’m a competitor, and I think that’s helping me right now.”
About six months ago, Priest said he started feeling a pain behind his belly-button, but passed it off as stress. After all, as head coach of the East Bladen Eagles football team, stress was as much a part of the job as Xs and Os. The season was already a couple of games old, and Priest was looking ahead to important Three Rivers Conference games.
The pain, however, got worse.
“It got to be too much,” Priest said. “So I went to the doctor, and at first they thought it might be a hernia or my appendix.”
A CT scan was scheduled and the results showed there was a mass in Priest’s colon. He was referred to a physician in Lumberton for a colonoscopy.
“I had to miss practice — the first time in 21 years I’ve missed football practice,” Priest said.
When the results came back, the news wasn’t good.
“I’ll never forget it — Nov. 22 at 10:37 a.m.,” Priest said. “The doctor said he had bad news.”
Priest was told he had colon cancer.
“I just put my head down; I was scared to death,” he said. “Not so much for me, but I have a wife, kids, mom and dad …
“I’d been living the dream, and then …” he added. “I didn’t know how to tell my kids. Tori, my oldest, was the easiest to talk with; my 10-year-old daughter Cara figured it out; but my 7-year-old Ryne just thinks daddy is sick. He doesn’t know the C word.”
Since getting the news
Priest was scheduled for surgery to remove the golf-ball-sized mass from his colon on Dec. 5 and he spent the next six days in the hospital — all the while hoping he’d still be able to attend the annual Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. After all, he’d been named an assistant coach for the North Carolina team — a real honor for high-school coaches.
“Plus, I wanted to be there for Caleb (Strait),” Priest said about his two-way lineman who had been named to the Tar Heel team.
He didn’t make it.
Instead, Priest kept tabs on the game and Strait’s playing time from home, texting updates to family, friends and the local media. He also began making trips to the Gibson Cancer Center in Lumberton for treatments that currently have him on a regimented schedule.
“I go for a four-hour treatment every three weeks, and there will be eight treatments total,” Priest explained. “So far, I’ve had two, and they really knock me down hard for a few days.”
Robby and Carla spent Valentine’s Day with him getting has latest chemo treatment.
After each treatment, Priest goes on a two-week pill plan — morning and night — during which he must stay away from anything cold. No cold drinks. No cold weather. Even reaching into a cold refrigerator must be avoided. And during that time, Priest can often be seen wearing gloves, because the chilly weather gives him a tingling in his hands.
He does, however have something to look forward to along the way.
“Warm weather is a real treat for me,” Priest said. “And at the end of those 14 days, I get six days off — six sweet days. I get to have cold drinks, ice cream … whatever.
“But as soon as you start feeling pretty good, they knock you down again,” he added.
Priest found out quickly that staying home in a recliner wasn’t going to work out for him. For two weeks after the surgery, Priest felt himself going stir crazy with a growing case of cabin fever. Something had to change.
“I can’t just sit at home and not be doing something,” he said. “I knew I needed to stay busy doing whatever I could to keep my life as normal as possible.”
Despite the cloud hovering over the holidays, Priest said his family managed to put the circumstances on the back burner and celebrate like always. And soon after, he made his return to school.
“I really wanted to get back as soon as I could,” Priest said. “I just wanted my mind focused on something else to regain some normalcy.”
During that time, Priest could be seen supervising his usual physical education classes, weight-room sessions or busy in his office. On many evenings at East Bladen, Priest would often attend the Eagles’ basketball games.
With warmer weather starting to slip into the Carolinas, it recently gave Priest a chance to wander out to the baseball field at East Bladen to see the Eagles play a scrimmage game against Fairmont.
“I can’t get out there much,” Priest said, “and that’s a big change for me, because I’ve helped my dad coach the team for so many years now.”
Still, Priest said the things he’s been able to do over the past six months since “The News” have been “a real blessing.”
A higher power
“I’m not a religious person to the point of pushing it on someone else, but I do have a relationship with God,” Priest said. “It didn’t take long to see His hand in all this.”
Priest said one of the first things he wanted to do was talk with someone about what to expect.
“I was at school one day and went outside to call the doctor,” he said. “I knew he couldn’t give me a name and phone number for someone who had been through something similar, but I told him if there was anyone who might be able to call me and talk, answer questions, that would be great.”
When Priest walked back into the school, there was someone waiting for him.
“He said to me, ‘I hear you have a problem with your health,’” Priest said. “We talked for an hour and I had a better idea what I may be facing. But try to tell me that wasn’t God.”
There have been other moments for Priest where he has felt God’s hand and made him think about specific Scriptures from the Bible.
“Spiritually, I think I’ve gotten closer with the big man upstairs,” he said. “It’s been a real blessing to know people are praying for me.”
Along with the blessings from above, Priest said he’s been amazed at the outpouring of support from family, friends, his community and church.
“First and foremost, there’s my wife, who has been next to me through every bit of this,” he said. “She’s been a real trooper through this. Good or bad days, I really don’t know what I’d do without her.”
Priest said there have been so many people who have come forward to offer support and prayers — including his high-school buddy Davis Allen, who had 300 bracelets with the words “RobbyStrong” on them sent to Priest to give away. The 300 went quickly, so 300 more were ordered — and they, too, went fast, so another 300 are on the way.
Elizabethtown Presbyterian Church, where Priest is a member of the congregation, recently announced a plate sale and silent auction fundraiser for Priest on April 7. The effort is to help Priest with any expenses necessary.
He has also received support from the coaching fraternity, reaching up to N.C. State, where head football coach Dave Doeren reached out to offer Priest support. He’s also gotten a lot of support from a couple of guys locally who he calls his “spiritual buddies” — East Bladen coach Kenzil McCall and West Bladen coach Travis Pait.
“I didn’t know that many people cared about me,” Priest said. “I’d never ask for all this support; it’s been overwhelming.”
At the beginning, Priest was told he had Stage Three cancer, which the doctor told him was “treatable and beatable.” He was told it looked like they had gotten to the cancer early, so things appeared positive.
That was all Priest wanted to hear, and it gave him plenty of hope to hang on to throughout the process.
“The doctor said they wanted to be aggressive in attacking this, which sounded good to me,” he said.
So for about 24 weeks, Priest will undergo the eight chemotherapy treatments and, when they are finished, there will be continued trips to the Gibson Cancer Center for what he says will be “scans, blood work and lots of prodding.”
“It’s a long process, but everything points to coming through it OK,” he said. “We’ve had to learn a lot of this on the fly, and I know a lot of this is still in His hands.”
If there is a Scripture that Priest can hold tight to along the way, it very well may be Isaiah 40:31 … “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles …”
At the other end
There is already a long list of things that Priest is looking forward to once the cancer is defeated, but one thing stands far and away at the top of his list.
“There are a lot of small things, but the one thing I look forward to most is sitting with my kids in my recliner watching TV,” he said. “I haven’t been able to do that in a while.”
The list also includes things like enjoying cold drinks, diving back into coaching and just getting back to a regular, normal routine. He’s already started overseeing things in the weight room with his football players, and can’t wait for official practices and the 2018 season to begin.
“My head tells me let’s go, but my body isn’t there yet,” he said. “But when it does get there, I don’t think I’ll holler as much as I used to. I’m sure this has changed me a little.
“I think I’ve learned I can trust more people than I used to let inside my circle,” Priest concluded.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached at 910-862-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.