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Healing on the Mat

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joey Coughran understands he shouldn’t be wrestling anymore. Nevertheless, here he is, trying to forget the past and win a title for host Cal State Fullerton at the Pacific-10 Conference Wrestling Championships today and Sunday.

Forgetting, however, is not simple for Coughran. He is reminded every time he looks in a mirror, or when he catches someone staring at him. It’s his scar. The scar that runs from one ear, over the top of his head, to his other ear. It will be a lifelong testimony to Coughran’s ordeal.

Coughran began to suffer headaches during his sophomore year at Calvary Chapel.

They were more a nuisance than painful, so he took a few pain relievers and that was about it. After all, as one of Calvary Chapel’s finest--he finished third at the state finals in 1993--pain was part of the game.

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Coughran lived with the headaches for three years. But they became more intense when he went to Purdue on a wrestling scholarship in 1994. He also started feeling fatigued.

“It was hard for me,” Coughran said. “I was alone at Purdue and I had these headaches that were getting stronger. But I think it was the fatigue that was the worst part of it. It affected every part of my life. I couldn’t do my homework, my wrestling was bad. . . . I just wanted to go home.”

He returned to Santa Ana for the summer, and, not feeling any better, decided not to return to Purdue. While on vacation with his family in Laughlin, Nev., he developed a sinus infection. It got so bad his left eye swelled shut.

An X-ray revealed more than a sinus infection. He had a bone tumor, so large that it prevented the sinuses behind his eye from draining properly.

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The tumor was benign, but had to be removed immediately.

Dr. Robert del Junco of St. Joseph Hospital in Orange performed the surgery on Aug. 29, 1995.

“It [the tumor] was huge. It was as big as they get,” said del Junco, who specializes in face and nose surgery. “Who knows how long he had it, maybe seven or eight years, but it was slowly getting larger.

“It’s kind of like a hallway that is being laid with concrete. As the concrete slowly fills up the hallway, it fills every corner and empty spots. And when it dries, it needs to be chipped away, piece by piece, to remove it.”

The operation took seven hours.

“Basically, we cut from ear to ear from the top of the head, and we peeled his forehead all the way down to his eyes,” del Junco explained. “Then we drill into the bone around his eye to remove the tumor. It’s a dangerous procedure because the brain is so near the site [of the operation].”

Coughran’s tumor measured five centimeters, about the size of a handball.

With the operation a success, Coughran slowly began to recover and regain his strength. With his headaches gone, he started to dream about wrestling again.

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He enrolled as a sophomore at Cal State Fullerton in 1997. Although ineligible that season because he was a transfer student, Coughran worked out with the team and was offered a scholarship the next year.

He is ranked 14th in the nation among NCAA Division I wrestlers at 126 pounds. Two weeks ago, Coughran and teammate Jason Webster each won championships at the California Collegiate Wrestling Invitational at San Francisco State. Coughran will be seeded third at the Pac-10 championships with a record of 17-3, best on his team.

“Joey is an inspiration to us all,” Fullerton Coach Ardeshir Asgari said. “He’s not only a very good wrestler, but he’s also a hard worker. He’s excellent on his feet and he knows exactly what he’s doing on the mat. He knows what it takes to be a champion.”

Del Junco said he has been amazed by Coughran’s rapid recovery, but has cautioned him that this is still danger.

“I’ve had a lot of discussion with Joey and his family about the inherent risk of fracturing his forehead because of the surgery,” del Junco said. “Because of the nature of the surgery, it could be dangerous.”

Coughran said he understands his doctor’s concerns, but continuing his wrestling career is important.

“I feel pretty good right now, and I do think if I wrestle like I know I can, I think I can win my weight class at Pac-10,” he said. “But you know what, if I don’t, that’s OK. I’m pretty fortunate to even be wrestling, let alone have a chance to win a title.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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College Wrestling

* What: Pacific-10 Wrestling Championships

* When: Today-Sunday

* Where: Titan Gym, Cal State Fullerton

* Participants: Arizona State (defending champion), Boise State, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Cal State Bakersfield, Cal State Fullerton, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford and UC Davis

* County connections: Cal Poly San Luis Obispo--David Wells, 158 pounds, Jr., Orange; Cal State Fullerton--Joe Coughran, 126, Jr., Santa Ana; Mauricio Mora, 134, So., Santa Ana; Joshua Rydbeck, 142, Fr., Huntington Beach; John Pelzer, 177, So., Yorba Linda; UC Davis--Tim Lee, 118, Jr., Irvine

* Schedule: Today’s Session I--preliminaries and quarterfinals begin at noon; today’s Session II--semifinals and quarterfinal consolations begin at 7 p.m.; Sunday’s Session III--consolation semifinals begin at noon; Sunday’s Session IV--finals begin at 7 p.m.

* Tickets: $10-$20 all-session pass; $3-$6 per session

* Parking: No charge on weekends

* Information: (714) 278-2783


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