TERRE HAUTE —
When I learned in February 2009 that a rare form of appendix cancer would devastate my life and cause me to miss work for several months, Mike Saylor was among the first to offer assistance.
A friend since the mid-1970s, when we attended Terre Haute South High School together, Saylor said he was willing to provide rides to the treatment center of my choice. Family members and another friend ended up driving me to the University of Cincinnati Hospital in 2009 and early 2010, but I appreciated Saylor’s thoughtfulness nonetheless.
Then Jim Bogle, another longtime friend and a South basketball standout in 1978-79 when the Braves reached the state finals for a third straight year, was diagnosed with major salivary gland cancer in December 2011.
Again, Saylor was among the first to show sincere concern.
Now, it is Saylor’s turn to fight that cruelest of foes — cancer. In his case, it’s a form of melanoma. He first noticed a problem in his rib area in 2011.
“The cancer was underneath the ribs and pushing upward,” he told me last week. “Doctors first thought it was broken ribs that had been fused together and stuck out oddly.”
As the months crawled by, Saylor noticed the pain increasing. A CAT scan and biopsy revealed he had cancer.
Soon, he will travel to Houston to undergo treatments at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. Married with three daughters and employed as a teacher of physical education at South, Saylor must make major adjustments in his life, which won’t be easy or inexpensive.
Learning to battle adversity
If the name “Mike Saylor” sounds familiar, it should.
As a dedicated young athlete, Saylor got cut from the high school basketball team at South, only to earn a spot on an NCAA Division I roster at Indiana State as a 6-foot-3 walkon in the early 1980s.
He later served as an assistant coach for the ISU men’s team (1985-89) and Terre Haute South’s boys team (1989-1994 and 1995-2004). When the legendary Pat Rady decided to step down as the Braves’ head coach following the 2003-04 season, Saylor became his successor.
Seven seasons later, Saylor resigned with a career record of 103-69 against one of the most difficult Class 4A schedules in Indiana.
Interviewed after his final game with the Braves in March 2011, he reflected on his favorite coaching accomplishments.
“The main things were helping the kids and getting the kids [college] scholarships,” Saylor told me as we stood in the Northview High School gym.
“The final four [in 2005], the final eight [in 2009], being in the sectional finals four out of seven years, the two Pizza Hut [Wabash Valley] Classic championships [in 2004 and 2007] … they were great. Another one of the things I’m most proud of was the way the kids developed while they were in the program.”
But as much as Saylor enjoyed being part of a basketball family — which over the years included Brian Evans, Steve Hart, Maynard Lewis, Armon Bassett and Jake Odum, to name a few — he enjoyed spending time with his real-life family more.
The toughest opponent yet
Saylor, 52, is approaching his new battle with the same athlete/coach competitive spirit that symbolized his pre-cancer life.
But he can’t do it alone. He needs reliable teammates.
Saylor encourages anyone and everyone to pray, not just for him, but for Bogle and other cancer patients around Terre Haute and all over the world.
“There are so many people out there battling cancer,” Saylor said. “They all need continued prayers.”
Bogle, for one, is hanging in there, although he’s not out of the woods yet. Unlike myself, he is not cancer-free.
“With a lot of doctors’ help, I’ve been battling it successfully,” noted Bogle, also 52. “But it’s an ongoing battle.”
Bogle and Saylor grew up as neighbors on South 11th Street. So when Bogle heard about Saylor’s recent cancer diagnosis, he didn’t hesitate to offer his help, the way Saylor previously offered to help him.
Bogle even drove Saylor to a doctor’s appointment in Indianapolis earlier this month.
“We played all sorts of sports together [as children],” Bogle recalled. “We did summer vacations together. … I’m thinking our paths were put together several years ago so we can fight this battle together now.”
Bogle said he and Saylor agree they will eventually beat cancer with the aid of their Christian belief in “faith and hope, love and support.”
How to be a teammate
Asked on Facebook what a person can do to help his cause, Saylor replied: “Pray to Jesus.”
Terre Haute attorney Mike Ellis, a longtime friend of Saylor’s and a 1978 South graduate, is offering an additional option.
He created “THE COACH MIKE SAYLOR BENEFIT FUND” Facebook group, which already has more than 1,620 members. He also helped start a separate website (www.coachmikesaylor.com) with a similar goal.
“I know he’s respected by a lot of people in the community and I know there are a lot of people who want to help,” Ellis explained. “So I wanted to give them the avenue to help.”
Ellis pointed out that most families are not in a financial position to handle unexpected significant medical expenses, even with insurance coverage through an employer.
Ellis promised that 100 percent of monetary donations to this fund will go toward paying for the Saylors’ transportation to and from Houston, motels, child care and medical expenses not covered by insurance.
Donations can be deposited into the “Coach Mike Saylor Benefit Fund” account at any First Financial Bank location or they can be dropped off at Ellis Law Office, 417 Wabash Ave.
Down the road, a benefit basketball game in the South gym and a tennis tournament are expected to raise funds for the cause. Those are probably weeks away, though, and the Saylors are receiving medical bills now.
“Friends help each other out any way they can,” Ellis said of why he’s putting in so much time to assist Saylor.
Ellis is right, so I pledge $50 that I’ll take to First Financial Bank early this week.
It’s the least a cancer survivor can do for a cancer patient.
David Hughes can be reached after 4 p.m. by phone at 1-800-783-8742, Option 4, or at (812) 231-4276; by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; or by fax at (812) 231-4321.