Brown: How McCaffery has changed since son's cancer diagnosis

Rick Brown

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Patrick McCaffery recently passed his 6-foot-4 dad, Fran, on the growth chart. Another inch, and the 14-year-old will be looking down at his older brother, Connor. He passed his 6-1 mother, Margaret, eons ago.

Last week, in North Central Junior High's first eighth-grade basketball game of the season, Patrick dunked. Twice.

"I was stunned," said Fran, the Iowa men's basketball coach. "They were legit dunks, too."

Patrick's battle with thyroid cancer weaves its way through basketball, the sport of passion for the McCafferys. Fran and Margaret both played Division I basketball. Connor started at point guard for Iowa City West's 2014 state champions as a freshman and has already committed to the Hawkeyes.

It introduced itself late last season, when the Hawkeyes were preparing for the school's first NCAA Tournament appearance in eight seasons.

When Fran retells the story of Patrick's diagnosis, which he did again Tuesday night when he and Margaret hosted their third Coaches vs. Cancer Fundraiser at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, emotion still wins. His eyes, fiery during games, fill with tears.

"I don't know if you ever really know what to do or how to handle it until you go through it," Fran said. "There's no blueprint for it."

The experience has left a lasting impact on McCaffery, who starts his fifth season as Iowa's coach on Nov. 14 against Hampton. The ultra-competitive coach said he has toned down and doesn't view each possession as life or death anymore.

"Because it's not," Fran said. "We were dealing with life and death."

Tuesday's event raised more than $133,000, with proceeds going to Hope Lodge and to researchers at Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center. Last year's event raised $82,000. And there's a story there, too.

The parents of Wil Roling of Cascade spoke last year. Their son, who beat the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma he was diagnosed with in March of 2011, was back at the McCaffery home hanging out with Connor and Patrick.

A year later, it was the McCafferys who spoke from first-hand experience. How do you prepare a game plan like that?

Iowa's Fran McCaffery and a referee discuss a call against Northwood during the second half of play at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday, November 2, 2014. The Hawkeyes won 92-51 in the exhibition game against the Seahawks. Iowa opens the regular season on Nov. 14 against Hampton.

"We never dreamed we'd go through what we went through, and be the recipient of amazing care that people get when they get horrible news that your son or a loved one has cancer," Fran said.

The McCafferys hosted cancer fundraisers long before the coaching path led them to Big Ten country. Fran lost both his parents to cancer.

"We were so invested in working to raise money for this, partly because of Fran's parents, but also just to be part of a community and contribute in a way we felt was really meaningful," Margaret said. "And then we got to know these people that have been touched by this disease. And all of a sudden we are calling on all these people because they know what we're going through."

Fran was with his team, headed to East Lansing, Mich., for a March 6 game with Michigan State, when he got the news that Patrick had a tumor on his thyroid. A biopsy was scheduled for the following Monday. The McCafferys kept the news a secret. But when Iowa lost to Illinois on a last-second 3-pointer on March 8, it was all too much.

Margaret broke down in tears in the arms of Billy Taylor, Iowa's director of basketball operations. Lisa Roling, Wil's mother, witnessed her emotional collapse. I'm sorry, Margaret told her in a note, there's some stuff going on.

When Fran gathered his team at practice on March 10, he tried to tell them what Patrick was facing. With his team circled around him, the coach was overcome with emotion and couldn't speak. Devyn Marble hugged his coach as Margaret spoke for him.

"I will never forget Devyn hugging him, holding him and saying, 'We got you, coach. It's OK,' " Margaret said.

Today, it's Fran who is doing his best to elevate Devyn because his father, Roy, Iowa's career scoring leader, is in the fight of his life with cancer.

"I'm proud of how (Roy's) fought this disease," Fran said. "He's incredibly optimistic. He's living every day. When you have tumors in a lot of different locations, it's never good. But the tumors are shrinking and his outlook is incredibly positive. And we are all praying for him."

Patrick had surgery to remove his tumor March 19, the day the Hawkeyes returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. Fran was at University Hospitals for the surgery, then flew to Dayton, Ohio, in time to coach his team against Tennessee.

Watching from his hospital room that night, Patrick was upset when the Hawkeyes lost in overtime. Out of bed for the first time after surgery, he walked off his frustration in the hospital ward as Margaret tried to keep up.

"It was really hard, because he was so sad," Margaret said.

The McCafferys expected the biopsy would come back benign. But an early-morning phone call on March 21 told a different story. Cancer.

"A completely different journey that no one is prepared for," Fran said.

Two surgeries later, Patrick is back on the basketball court. A neck ultrasound two weeks ago showed the cancer hadn't returned. Blood work is done every month, but it might be cut back because the readings are normal. Another ultrasound is scheduled for the first of June. He takes thyroid medicine every morning and will for the rest of his life.

Another season is about to start. Another Iowa team that Patrick will become emotionally attached to. A team that his dad will coach with passion and preparation. But not like life or death, he says. Is that possible?

"I think the season will be the tell-all, won't it?" Margaret said. "It gives you a totally different perspective on what's important. I mean, he's competitive. Patrick's very competitive. So am I. Probably to a fault, all of us. I don't think you can completely take that out of your personality."

But life throws you curves, and leaves behind perspective.

"I think it's always good to have that kind of experience," Margaret said, "where he says, 'You know what? There are things that are more important.' "

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.