Ten years ago, three words changed Chris Carlisle’s life forever — and have since impacted countless others’ lives as well.
You have cancer.
Exactly one decade after hearing those words, the Seahawks head strength and conditioning gets choked up when asked about it, and he gets uneasy when talking about what happened 10 years ago today.
“You get to that instant where you don’t know when you’re time is going to be up,” Carlisle said, trying to hold back a decade of emotion, pain and battling. “And when your time is up, what did you leave?”
His time isn’t up, but Carlisle has been leaving a legacy and writing a story that inspires the soul, captures the mind and touches the heart. He almost reached the end of his road but instead turned around and has taken off to new heights since.
On Nov. 30, 2000, Carlisle went to the hospital with chest pains, thinking he was having a heart attack. Several hours and numerous tests later, doctors came to him with those three words no one ever wants to hear.
You have cancer.
In the span of a few days, Carlisle was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer that viciously attacks the lymph nodes and immune system, and underwent emergency surgery before immediately starting chemotherapy. Through a stirring series of events and a relentless attitude to overcome, a decade has now passed since that moment that serves as the ultimate life-changer in Carlisle’s journey.
The thing about those three fateful words was that Carlisle didn’t use them as an opportunity to sulk. He used them as an opportunity to shine.
“Chris is one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever known, without a doubt,” said Coach Pete Carroll, who has worked with Carlisle for the last 10 years minus the first month of the cancer.
Unlike many moving health-related stories, Carlisle didn’t defy odds — doctors say about 85 percent of people diagnosed with the disease overcome it and live at least 10 years — but it’s the way he went about it that carries the most inspirational weight, especially to this day.
Merely surviving had no place in his journey; completely thriving did. And it still does on this milestone day.
“I’ve never felt that I was a survivor because I never felt I was a victim in the first place,” Carlisle, now 48 and cancer-free, said. “I never allowed it to take over my life. I kept doing what I was doing and kept living. It was an interference on my life, but I don’t think I ever survived anything.”
‘Good news and bad news’
On the Thursday after Thanksgiving weekend in 2000, just five days removed from the University of Tennessee’s regular season-ending 28-26 win over in-state rival Vanderbilt, associate strength and conditioning coach Chris Carlisle hit a wall.
Stricken with terrible chest pains, the 38-year-old couldn’t move and definitely couldn’t work anymore. He was delivered to the hospital, where his wife Louon met him, everyone thinking he was having a heart attack. Carlisle, in good shape, saw several doctors and underwent numerous tests, X-rays and more before a specialist delivered some strangely dichotomous news.
“We go into a room and the doctor says, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news,’” Carlisle recalls. “‘The good news is we’re going to have to take your gallbladder out, because it’s gone.’ And I’m thinking, ‘that didn’t sound like very good news to me.’ So I ask what the bad news is.
“‘And the bad news is, you have cancer.’”
Devastated and heartbroken, Carlisle — all of a sudden — faced the toughest moment of his life. An associate strength coach on a team that had won a national championship two years before and was a month away from playing in the Cotton Bowl and the father of a 1-year-old boy, Carlisle’s career and life came crashing into a brick wall named Hodgkin’s disease, one of the rarest forms of lymphoma cancer that affects a mere 0.002 percent of the U.S. population (fewer than 9,000 people each year). Notable people who have been stricken with Hodgkin’s disease include hockey legend Mario Lemieux and author Jane Austen.
“Right there, it just stunned me,” he said. “It just shocked me.”
He wasn’t alone.
“It was the scariest time,” his wife Louon said. “When the doctor told us he had cancer, I’m thinking he was dying; I have a 1-year-old baby and he’s not going to have a daddy. It was so hard. I remember praying to God, ‘Please don’t let him die.’”
Two days later, he had his gallbladder removed and a biopsy was taken to determine the severity of the cancer’s spread through his lymph nodes and its exact classification.
“It’s definitely cancer, and it’s Hodgkin’s disease,” the doctor told Carlisle. “If we want one, that’s the one we want because there’s a better chance. Non-Hodgkin is radical and Hodgkin’s is organized in how it goes so we have an idea of where it’s going. Your chances are better to beat this.”
Those words were enough to light a fire in Carlisle that burns to this day. Chemotherapy started a couple of weeks after the surgery, which forced him to stay in Knoxville, Tenn., while his team went to Dallas to prepare for the Cotton Bowl. His career would have to be put on the backburner for the moment, but his life would not. As Carlisle continued through chemo treatments, he continued fighting, knowing he could — and would — beat the disease.
As a result of the chemo, his hair started falling out, his energy was sapped and he became physically sick.
“I don’t have a lot of hair now but I had even less then,” Carlisle said. “I felt terrible. I felt nauseous, and smells would get me. It wasn’t good.”
His attitude, though, remained undeterred. And it paid off in big ways.
‘Can you start Monday?’
As is the norm with a successful program, the assistant coaches are plucked for higher-ranking jobs at other schools. It was no different at Tennessee in its heyday a decade ago, and it was no different for the assistant strength and conditioning coaches.
Before being diagnosed with cancer, another program had approached Carlisle to gauge his interest in becoming a head strength and conditioning coach. The dialogue continued through December and Carlisle was at the top of the list — until the program learned he had been diagnosed with cancer.
“When they found out, they never called me back,” Carlisle said.
On the other side of the country and a world away from Carlisle, Pete Carroll had just been hired as the head coach of the USC football team. Needing a man to run the all-important strength and conditioning program, Carroll called Carlisle in January, asking him to fly out for an interview.
Recommended to Carroll by his longtime friend John Stuckey, the head strength coach at Tennessee at the time, Carlisle’s reputation preceded him.
“We heard nothing but good things about Chris, and it was coming from a man I really respected,” Carroll said.
Carlisle flew to Los Angeles near the end of January to meet with Carroll, and he went into the interview both excited and nervous. He didn’t show noticeable signs of cancer or the chemo treatment, so he wasn’t going to tell Carroll about the two-month-old disease until he needed to. Partway through the interview, Carlisle broke the news.
An unforgettable and inspiring exchange followed.
“I’ve got to be upfront, I’ve been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease,” Carlisle told Carroll.
“Is this going to change how you coach?” Carroll asked immediately.
“No sir,” Carlisle replied.
“Can you start on Monday?” Carroll said, offering the job and a vote of confidence that would encourage Carlisle to keep fighting on.
“It was clear to me that he was resolute in overcoming this and that bringing him onboard was the right decision,” Carroll said this week. “And I thought it was a cool way for us to help him and show him that we support him.”
Carlisle accepted the job on the spot, flew back to Tennessee that Thursday night, received his latest chemotherapy on Friday morning, packed his bags on Saturday, returned to L.A. on Sunday and began as the new USC strength and conditioning coach on Monday. His first day on the job was exactly two months after being diagnosed with cancer.
Emotionally buoyed by a whirlwind week but physically dragged down by the cancer and chemo, Carlisle got to work on a massive rebuilding project — and he wasn’t going to let anything slow him down.
“I was not feeling good but when things start going bad, you have two choices,” Carlisle said. “You can hop on the rollercoaster and let that bad take you wherever it goes, or you can fight against it and keep doing what you do and keep going to work. My big thing is, don’t think about it, just go about your work.
“I never wanted to think, ‘woe is me.’”
Carlisle and Carroll agreed to keep the cancer a secret from players and coaches, just so it wouldn’t become a crutch, excuse or distraction. Not even his top assistant knew about it.
“We had no idea,” said Jamie Yanchar, Carlisle’s No. 1 assistant strength coach at USC for nine years before coming with him to the Seahawks this season. “He kept it high and tight. His voice would be hoarse, but no one thought that was cancer or the chemo at the time.
“We just didn’t notice.”
Carlisle would have to fly back to Tennessee each week to continue taking the same chemotherapy prescription he started with. He would take a redeye on Thursday night, land early Friday morning in Knoxville, get his chemo, rest at home through Sunday morning and then fly back to L.A. and begin another week of the offseason program for the Trojans.
As challenging and draining as that was, it got even harder when doctors discovered his white blood count was declining rapidly. Working in a dank basement weight room did not serve as the cleanest, safest environment for someone battling cancer.
“Since I was in a weight room with all the funk and dirt and everything, the doctors told me to stop working because I’d probably get sick and then I couldn’t fight the sickness,” Carlisle said. “I told them I can’t do that, Coach Carroll’s trusted me and believed in me to do this, and I’m not going to do that. So I asked, ‘what’s your next option?’”
Doctors told Carlisle he had to start taking neupogen shots daily to increase his white blood cell counts. The only problem? He had to go into a doctor’s office each morning to do that. The relentless Carlisle didn’t want to hear it, so he offered an alternative.
“Can I give the shots to myself?” Carlisle asked the doctors.
They consented, and he was trained how to properly inject himself at 4:30 a.m. each morning.
“The shots started to work,” Carlisle says with a triumphant smile.
‘I couldn’t worry about me’
Most people stricken with cancer remove themselves from normal everyday activities and rest at home or in a hospital.
Carlisle is not like most people.
In the beginning part of the transition from Tennessee to USC, Carlisle left his wife and young son in Knoxville, meaning he lived alone in a hotel just off campus for several months. Every day, he would wake up at 4:30 a.m., give himself a neupogen shot, walk to the football headquarters at Trojan Hall, lead the first of four offseason workouts starting at 6 a.m., finish work by 6 p.m., walk back to the hotel, fall asleep and begin the process anew the following morning.
“That was my existence then,” Carlisle said. “The great thing was that we were so busy training and building a program that I couldn’t worry about me. The only time I’d really think about it was the walk home across campus because I was so tired.”
His assistant Yanchar also noticed how oddly advantageous the exhausting, around-the-clock job was for Carlisle’s psyche.
“He had an outlet, which was huge,” Yanchar said. “It took him out of the reality of the cancer. It definitely helped him to get through it.”
His attitude became more and more optimistic as the days passed, even to the point where he was lifting up others during his challenges, shunning sympathy for the sake of positivity.
“He kept me calm through the whole thing,” Louon Carlisle said. “You’d think it would be the other way around.”
In March 2001, about four months after being diagnosed, Carlisle began radiation treatment, a five-day-per-week proposition that would add to the whirlwind. USC’s medical campus, about a 20-minute drive from the main campus, was close enough for Carlisle to lead workouts in the morning, hustle over for his 1 p.m. treatment slot and be back for team meetings at 2:15 p.m. He owes much of the credit to Dr. Oscar Streeter, a “tour de force” in the cancer department who ushered him through the regimen in record pace each day.
“Nobody got in the way of Dr. Streeter,” Carlisle joked. “He was the guy.”
Fortunately, Carlisle’s cancer was caught early enough that it didn’t spread to other organs or other parts of his body besides his throat and chest. It was non-symptomatic, and the only long-term effects are a raw throat that still doesn’t allow him to yell, three small tattoos on his torso that doctors used to align the radiation machine and a scar on his chest from the biopsy.
Without symptoms, Carlisle could carry on with normal work as the Trojans charged through their offseason program and spring practice. Doctors determined he was cancer-free in the summer, and Carroll thought it offered the perfect opportunity to finally tell the players and coaches about the battle Carlisle had fought and won.
“It was a shock when he told everyone,” Yanchar said. “It was an inspiration. You’re thinking, ‘wow, it’s impressive that it happened and that he’s able to keep going and fighting and working.’ The little problems you have are nothing compared to what he went through, with his life on the line.”
Not that Carlisle particularly enjoyed breaking the news.
“I hate talking about it still today,” Carlisle said, beginning to choke up. “It’s still an emotional thing for me. It’s difficult to talk about.”
‘I never thought for a minute it would take me’
Way more than minor side effects remain from Carlisle’s battle with Hodgkin’s disease. Sure, there’s the damaged throat that doesn’t allow him to scream, the three small permanent ink marks on his chest and a scar across his torso, but what’s really left from Carlisle’s victory carries extreme weight.
It’s the lessons and inspiration that have changed his life and so many others’.
Carlisle’s journey back to health began with a simple, internal decision in his own heart and mind, something that influences and empowers him daily.
“It was a mindset about how you go about solving problems,” Carlisle said. “You’re as sick as you think you are and you’re as healthy as you want to be. If you want to be healthy, then act healthy, but if you want to be sick, mope around and whine and be miserable. I wasn’t going to do that.”
As much as Carlisle wanted to get healthy for personal and family reasons, he also wanted to get healthy for professional reasons. In a sense, he said he felt a responsibility to Carroll and the Trojans to overcome the cancer — “I was not going to let Coach Carroll down,” he said — and keep one of a program’s main pillars at full strength.
“If you have a weakness in one of the pillars — offense, defense, special teams, training room, equipment room, weight room — then the whole building will crumble,” Carlisle said. “I vowed to never be a weakness. I didn’t want to think about it, so I poured myself into work.
“We had a big job to do. We had a program we had to build.”
Carlisle’s attitude and relentlessness allowed him to help lay the foundation of a program that would win seven straight Pac-10 championships, play in seven consecutive BCS bowls, win two national titles, turn out 60 NFL draft picks and produce three Heisman Trophy winners over the next nine seasons. He was honored as 2006 National Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year by the Professional Football Strength and Conditioning Coaches Society, the highest award a college strength coach can receive.
“Chris’ story has always been in my mind,” Carroll said. “To overcome what he did and then give back 1,000 times over, it’s incredible.”
Carlisle’s story became a multi-layered lesson for so many, including his players and himself.
“I’ve learned so much from him and I’ve become a better player and a better person through him and his story,” said linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who worked under Carlisle for three years at USC before being drafted by the Seahawks in 2005.
What did Carlisle learn through the battle? Besides an unyielding will to overcome, he said the fight taught him to enjoy all the moments of life, thereby giving meaning to each triumphant step he now takes.
“I don’t live each day to the fullest, I don’t go bull riding, but I have fun in everything I do,” Carlisle said.
Naturally, humans doubt, fear and struggle with adversity. Carlisle, however, didn’t subscribe to natural human instinct when faced with cancer.
“Never, not for one instance, not for one second did I ever think that this may not work,” Carlisle said, eschewing the idea of doubt. “You always have that positive mindset and you find a way to push every day. I never thought for a minute it would take me.”
Although he never gave in to doubt, Carlisle said he’s sympathetic to others who are facing such a brutal challenge.
“There is a fight there — I can see why people give up, because it’s a struggle,” Carlisle said. “You feel like garbage for most of the year all the time.”
Carlisle hardly ever talks about his triumph, simply because he doesn’t like talking about it. For the first time this year, Carlisle shared his story with the Seahawks two weeks ago on the night before the game in Arizona. Asked what he thinks of becoming such an inspiration to so many, he shakes his head, emotion overcoming him.
“I don’t know if it’s become an inspiration,” he said, a lump filling his throat. “You’ll have to ask someone else.”
A Pro Bowl linebacker is one of many who can attest to Carlisle’s inspiration.
“You hear of people battling through sickness, but to hear it from someone so close and to see how he did it, it’s a testament to how strong-willed he is and the fight he has inside of him,” Tatupu said. “A lot of people would give up and ask, ‘why me?’ But Coach C asks, ‘why not me?’”
Ten years ago today, three words became the launching pad for a story that inspires, touches and captivates to this day.
You have cancer.
Who would’ve thought a negative could become such a positive?
In typical Carlisle fashion, with his usual quiet humility, he shrugs off today’s 10-year anniversary, but he can’t shrug off its influence and impact on so many.
“It’s just another day,” Carlisle said, tears beginning to well up. “I’m not one to brag about ‘this is what happened to me.’ This was a fight I went through and it is what it is.
“It’s just another day we’ll go through.”
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