University High’s Chris Conlin was diagnosed with cancer last month, but the long-time high school coach is maintaining a positive outlook in an effort to beat it.
Conlin, University High’s baseball coach for the past 23 years, learned he had squamous cell carcinoma in his neck in September. He had surgery to remove the mass soon after and just this week began a seven-week program of radiation and chemotherapy therapy.
Conlin is still at school for now, continuing his duties as co-Athletic Director and an assistant coach on the varsity football team. He’s handing over the offseason baseball workouts to his assistant coaches Mike Gerakos and his son, Kevin Conlin.
It’s been a lot to absorb for Conlin, 58, but Conlin seems more concerned about those around him.
“What made it worse is that my dad passed away on Sept. 19 at the age of 90, and two days later I found out I had cancer,” Conlin said. “I’m not so much worried about me, but for my wife and two kids, that’s a lot to digest in a short time.”
Conlin’s situation is eerily similar to University’s football Coach Mark Cunningham, who also serves as co-Athletic Director. Cunningham was diagnosed with throat cancer last year, missed about half of last year’s football season, but has been given a clean bill of health and is back to work.
“The good part is that I’m a sounding board for him,” Cunningham said, “for what he can expect and how to handle it.”
It was Cunningham who implored Conlin to get checked out.
“About six weeks ago I was shaving and I felt a bump in my neck,” Conlin said. “I didn’t think it was anything for a couple of weeks, but then I showed Mark, and he said ‘Oh my gosh, it’s really bad.’ He told me to please check it out.”
Conlin went to the doctor and was initially diagnosed with a cyst by a general practitioner, who also recommended Conlin see a specialist. The specialist didn’t seem overly concerned initially, according to Conlin, but ordered a biopsy.
“It was the same night we played Estancia (in football),” Conlin remembered. “I had a biopsy at 5:30 and the game was at 7. They hit a spot and it kind of exploded, so he explained he was 99 percent sure it was a cyst.
“Then I went to the game and we won, so I was happy. But I went back to the specialist on the following Tuesday and he said he was 90 percent sure it was cancer.”
Conlin had surgery a few days later to remove the mass.
“They feel they caught it in the early stages,” Conlin said.
Conlin has been a successful coach for nearly four decades, most recently leading University’s baseball team to seven Pacific Coast League titles. He’s also been a football coach for 35 years and was a wrestling coach for 16 years, coaching at Glendora High, Nogales High and Gahr High in the Southern California area.
He hopes to continue coaching with the football team through the rest of the season, then regain his strength following the radiation and chemo treatments in time to return as baseball coach in the spring.
“I’m going to try,” Conlin said. “We were at the doctor’s office and my wife says, ‘You can’t go back to work.’ But the doctor said it’s OK to do whatever I feel I can do.”
Cunningham, though, will make sure that Conlin doesn’t overdo it. He knows what Conlin is in for when it comes to the side effects of the chemo and radiation treatments.
“The bottom line is getting himself better,” Cunningham said. “He can’t push it. They tell you, ‘It depends on how you feel.’ But I want to make sure he doesn’t do too much. He’s an old school type of coach and he’s going to work as long as he can, but I’m going to temper that so he doesn’t push himself too hard.”
Conlin said he has no concerns handing the reins of the baseball team’s offseason workouts to Gerakos, a former UC Irvine baseball coach, and his son Kevin.
“I think they pretty much run everything even when I’m there,” Conlin joked. “It won’t be a big change.”
Cunningham said both he and Conlin talked to the football team to let them know Conlin’s situation.
“We wanted to make sure everyone understands what’s going on,” Cunningham said. “I told them, ‘if you pray, pray for him.’ ”