Serving the High Plains

THS boys hoops coach sitting out a season

Longtime Tucumcari High School boys basketball coach John Span is temporarily stepping down from his post this coming season because he's recovering from major cancer surgery in August.

During a school board meeting Oct. 16, athletic director Wayne Ferguson said Span would not coach the team this season because he is not yet able to handle the rigors of those duties. It would have been Span's 21st season.

Span had been listed as the Rattlers' head coach on their schedule just a few weeks ago.

Span said the surgery on Aug. 15 to remove cancer from his liver and bile ducts was successful, though he'll have to undergo preventative chemotherapy later this month.

"The doctor says there's no reason I can't make a full recovery," he said in an interview Wednesday in his wife Sundra's classroom. "So that was good to hear."

Span returned last week to Tucumcari High School for the first time since March.

"Everyone was excited to see him, lots of big smiles," high school principal Nicole Bright-Lesly said. "We're just glad he's back."

He also attended a football Homecoming pep rally and parade last month.

"The kids were there, and it was great to see them," Span said of the rally. "They were chanting my name. It was good to be back. I was debating whether to go or not, but I was glad I did."

Span said he decided in early October to sit out this season because he's too weak. He admitted to mixed feelings about that.

"With my health and with me getting ready to start chemo again, it wouldn't be fair for the kids for me to be missing (practices and games) until I can get myself back there regularly," he said.

"This will be a good group of kids," he said about a young team that was 9-17 last season but came close to a district title. "They're young, mostly sophomores with a junior or two. These kids don't mind being in the gym when you open up the gym. I was looking forward to coaching them, but I don't feel like I can give them what they deserve."

Span said he's made no recommendation on who should coach the team this season.

Span said he's lost 60 pounds since being diagnosed with cancer in late January. His once-robust voice sounds weak, and he says he has trouble staying warm. During his first day back at school last week, he stayed only two hours before he became weary and returned home.

He has stayed semi-isolated from other people to keep him from contracting illnesses. He has received a flu shot and a COVID-19 booster.

But he said he's feeling better, and Sundra said her husband's return to THS last week gave him a boost.

"Him coming to school this week, I can see he's getting a spiritual lifting, being around people again, getting out again," she said.

Sundra said her husband's illness began in early December, when he began to hiccup incessantly and became jaundiced. He admitted put off going to a doctor until a daughter persuaded him. A CAT scan found a mass on his liver.

He then found out he had cancer on Jan. 22.

"It's the last thing you want to hear when you go to the doctor," he said. "I've questioned why I caught it, but it could have been worse, I guess. I didn't drink, I didn't smoke. I didn't do any of that stuff. (The diagnosis) was the hardest thing for me."

Span was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, or bile duct cancer. Sundra said doctors told them his cancer is rare and probably hereditary. One of Span's aunts died of liver cancer in July.

Span said he asked the doctor what would happen if he didn't have the surgery.

"You won't be around very long" was the doctor's response, Span recalled. "He didn't hesitate with me at all on that.

"Whenever they saw the mass, they didn't mess around. I figured it must have been pretty serious, they way they really were pushing me to go do this or do that."

Sundra recalled: "They said it was the kind of cancer that will take you out in a year if you don't get treated. It's aggressive."

Span missed numerous games during the last half of basketball season, and assistant coach Gary Hittson took over those duties.

Sundra said her husband had to go through chemotherapy to keep the cancer from spreading further, plus he had to be treated for kidney problems and a blood clot in one lung.

Through it all, Span said he never lost hope.

"I didn't think I wasn't going to make it. (The doctor) told me he could get it all," he said.

Dr. Adam Yopp, who specializes in gallbladder and bile duct cancer surgery at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, performed the operation.

Sundra said a procedure that was expected to take four to five hours required seven.

She said it was "the biggest surgery you can ever have" in severity and risk, and that it was more extensive than an organ transplant.

Sundra said she found out later that Yopp is one of the premier doctors in that field.

"God has put the right people in our path," she said.

He returned home to Tucumcari about two weeks after the surgery.

Sundra said faith carried them through a difficult time.

"I thank all of you for your prayers," she said. "I could feel God moving through this whole process. I know there were a lot of prayers with me. God got us through it."

Span echoed his wife's comments.

"I got a lot of prayers, and I appreciate it," he said. "Continue to pray for me, and hopefully I'll get strong enough to do what I need to do. I'm hoping I can get back in the swing and be full-time."

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