Close bonds are coach’s best remedy

Matthew Busch/The Herald
Jasper boys golf coach Steve Milligan, who bumped fists with Dru Hein during a match last month, has fed off his strong bond with players to get through a physically and emotionally taxing situation. Diagnosed with cancer four years ago, Milligan nearly gave up his coaching duties but remained with the team while completing chemotherapy. Milligan’s cancer is now in complete remission, and he and the Cats will shoot for a fourth straight trip to the state finals in Thursday’s regional at Champions Pointe Golf Club.

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

It happened down at Tell City. It’s funny, Steve Milligan says as he looks out the window inside the Sultan’s Run clubhouse. There’s a boy out there. It’s Ian Weyer. That’s the kid Steve was helping out back in April 2009. It was in Tell City. Steve was on Hole No. 1 when he leaned down to view his pupil’s lie.

“I leaned down to make a ruling for him and I got a headache. A real bad headache. So I got back in the cart, came back in, got a Coke and a candy bar and I thought, something happened to me,” the Jasper golf coach said. “And I came back home that night and went to the hospital. And they put me in the machine and they told me that I probably should get it checked out because there is a golf ball-sized tumor on my brain.”

So Steve made an appointment at Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis. Two months later, doctors finally operated to find out what was the matter with him.

“That’s when they found out it was cancer.”

Four years ago this month, Steve Milligan discovered he had cancer. Months of hardship inevitably followed. The unshakable desire to surrender lingered in his mind.

“You just want to give up.”

The words hurt to hear, because Steve never says anything like that. He’s strong. He’s positive. Ask anybody. Ask Will Seger. Ask Dru Hein. Ask any of the members of this year’s 11th-ranked Wildcat boys golf team, who will aim for the program’s second straight regional title Thursday at Champions Pointe Golf Club in Henryville.

“It was a tough year for him, and everything since then has been tough, but I think he’s really battled through it,” said Seger who, along with Hein, was a freshman during Steve’s first year back from treatment. “He’s been a good role model for everyone. Just the strength and really, mentally, just staying in it for us.”

Those summer days four years ago felt hellish. Within a span of three months, Steve endured 33 chemotherapy and radiation sessions at Memorial Hospital. During that time, he did not miss a day at work as course director at Jasper Municipal Golf Course. Walking proved a burden. He left each afternoon exhausted.

Doctors said removing the tumor altogether would be too risky an operation. Since it rested on a part of Steve’s brain that controlled his motor skills, a faulty surgery could have resulted in him losing the ability to control the right side of his body.

So he coped with the treatment.

“I remember that mask they gave me every day. I had to go in there and lay there and the guy says, ”˜OK, here we go,’” Steve recalled.

He pointed to the indentation on the top of his head.

“They get the spot, right here. Just keep melting that in there.”

That first fall season. That season was tough.

“I went through the girls season, I just wanted to give up, and just quit, and just say ”˜I give up,’” Steve recalled of the 2009 girls golf campaign, his first following the diagnosis. “And then I said, ”˜Nope, I’m not going to give up.’ Then I went through the boys season. Not give up. And I said, ”˜I’m not going to give up because if I give up, that means I’ve given up something I love to do. It’s because of the kids is why I do it. The kids (are) why — they keep me going. Every day.”

Therein lies what makes the Jasper team dynamic so unique, so wonderful.

To the players, he’s just “Steve.” Authoritative, he is not.

“I think he tries to act like he’s a teenager sometimes out there with us,” Seger joked.

Cam Weyer constantly kids with him, razzes him from time to time, and Steve gives it right back — in his gentle manner, of course. When Jacob Bartley converts a birdie putt and starts waving his arms, there is Steve, flapping his wings as well.

“He’s like a father figure to me, pretty much. He gives every day of his life to being around us and trying to make us feel better,” Bartley said. “Whenever things have gone bad, I just look at Steve. He smiles every day.”

The caring between player and coach is beyond genuine. When Steve was returning from his first trip to the IU Medical Center, his players were on their way up to visit him. The following season, the boys dedicated their season, in which they made the first of three consecutive trips to the state finals, to Steve.

He keeps a newspaper article that mentions the dedication tucked away at home.

“It’s an article that I can’t read to them. I read it when I want to cry a lot,” Steve said with a smile.

The title of “coach” is far too restrictive. For Steve, his first request after players leave is that they never actually do.

“When the season’s over, I tell the kids every year — this is the first thing I tell them — ”˜Please, come back and see me during the winter or the summer, because I need you guys to keep me up,’” said Steve, whose cancer is in complete remission. “Because I do get down. That’s what keeps me going.”

The unassuming coach, a self-professed “young punk” who good-naturedly puts his age as “over 50,” totters around the golf course, still recovering from two knee replacements he received this winter. His coaching style during matches is unobtrusive. He interjects only when necessary, permitting each golfer to play in his natural flow.

Once tournament play rolls around though, it’s nearly impossible for Steve to stay as loose. When his golfers arrived almost 90 minutes before their tee times Friday, a panicking Steve waited in the parking lot and urged them to hastily warm up.

Cam Weyer joked about the episode after the sectional, imitating his stressed coach: “Hurry up, you’re late!”

Steve’s scared to spend too much time watching Seger play, because he thinks he brings the IU-bound senior bad luck when he does.

“He only sees me probably once or twice during an 18-hole match,” Seger said with a laugh.

He spends more time with younger players like Reid Lorey, who admits to stressing sometimes when swings don’t feel right. After Lorey posted a 14 on the eighth hole at last Friday’s sectional but gathered himself to finish with a sturdy 87, Steve stopped him as he walked toward the clubhouse.

“I’m proud of you,” Steve said to the sophomore.

“It really takes off the pressure of having a bad round knowing that you can get it the next round, and not having anything on your shoulders all the time,” Lorey said of his coach’s laid-back approach.

“He’s always there to say something that makes me laugh or gets me up.”

Steve is also well aware that the components of this year’s squad are special. When he speaks of its potential, it’s a constant battle between feverishness about the ultimate goal and keeping himself grounded, in the here and now. He’s a dreaming teenager, then back to level-headed coach. Then he’s a dreamer again.

“I just want to bring this one thing back. And this year, they’ve got a great chance to do it,” he said, alluding to a state championship. “But we’ve got to make step No. 2 first. And that is Thursday. Before we can make step No. 3, got to make step No. 2 ... You’ve got to keep steps in order before you do step No. 3.”

A wide grin appears on the dreamer’s face. The excitement in his voice is palpable.

Steve hates attention. He let his players know of his condition four years ago and left it at that. No weekly updates, no self-admiration in conquering a disease that takes so much from so many.

In his nine seasons as Jasper’s boys coach and eight years at the helm of the girls team, Steve has coached 12 Big Eight Conference champions, 11 sectional champions and four regional champions. His teams have made 11 appearances at the state finals.

For Steve, however, these gaudy figures are mere particulars of what he tries hardest to sculpt: a bond tighter than a team.

“He sees us as his family,” Seger said.

Spot on.

“What I hope these kids realize is, this is my family,” Steve said. “I love every one of these kids. They are the family of mine. Every one of them.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.




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