Texas State head coach Ty Harrington couldn’t be more ready for fall workouts to begin.
There are a lot of responsibilities jumbled together in having the titles of coach, father and mentor. But until now, Harrington never knew that anyone would look at him as a hero, a true inspiration and a living testament that an often-crippling illness such as cancer can make you bend, but not completely break.
Much time has passed since Harrington, 51 years old, was diagnosed with stage-3 rectal cancer. It was last fall and the Bobcats were getting into the thick of fall workouts. But almost before he could get fully engulfed into his team and preparing them for the spring, Harrington got some bad news. He had scheduled a doctor visit to check up on an issue that he didn’t think was too serious. But the doctor recommended he get a colonoscopy, and the results from that were troubling. Harrington had a tumor, and the cancer was advanced.
“On any public forum that I get, I always tell this story, because people need to get checked. The only reason I went to get checked is because I had a little bit of bleeding in my valves. I didn’t even really know much of what a colonoscopy was at the time,” Harrington said. “Get everything checked. That’s something I’d really like to get the word out on this ordeal. Had my doctor or I had to cancel that appointment, I’m not so sure, looking back, that I would’ve rescheduled it. And obviously, that probably wouldn’t have been a very good thing for me.”
Now, as Harrington and the Bobcats ready for fall workouts, he considers himself, for now, one of the lucky ones. Harrington had a brutally tough bout with rectal cancer, and it brought him to his knees at times. But now, all tests that doctors run on him come back negative for the symptoms, and there are other signs that he’s on the road to recovery — his weight and energy levels are back, and he’s finally able to have a milkshake; something he admitted to missing throughout the treatment process.
“I’m doing well. I’m on the second round of blood work and I’m on what they call the maintenance phase,” Harrington said. “I go back to MD Anderson (in Houston) every three months and get scans and tests and make sure there are no changes in my condition, that way they can track and make sure it hasn’t come back. So far, everything has been good. I’m actually able to work out again. I do have some side effects, such as neuropathy in my hands and feet, but if that is what I came away from this disease with, then so be it.
“I definitely feel much better,” he continued. “And, I’ll say this, it’s been an interesting process to say the least.”
Harrington’s learned a lot from his battle with cancer, and realizes that his fight is not necessarily over. As part of the maintenance phase, he must continue to go to MD Anderson every three months for tests the rest of the year. He also must go every four months next year, every five-to-six months two years from now, and just one time the year after. If all tests in that final visit come back clear for cancer, medically speaking, he’s in the clear.
The road to that final visit is well in the distance, but Harrington takes everything day-by-day and nothing for granted. After all, he knows how trying the road was just to get to this point.
Melaine Harrington had finalized all of her college applications and received acceptance letters, and for all intents and purposes, planned on getting away from the hill country of Texas, likely headed to either the University of Oklahoma or LSU.
Those plans, however, changed for the now-19-year-old Texas State sophomore. When Ty was diagnosed with cancer last August, his daughter had a calling. Sure, she could go off to Baton Rouge or Norman, and keep in constant touch with her dad, and his treatments and progress. But she wanted much more than that. So instead of becoming a Tiger or Sooner, she opted to stay home and be a Bobcat, while also taking almost full-time care of her father as he underwent grueling surgeries and radiation and chemotherapy treatments for eight months.
Texas State’s Ty Harrington can’t wait to get back into the dugout this fall. (Texas State)
“It’s still pretty emotional to talk about to be honest, but my daughter was all set to go elsewhere. But when she found out what happened with me, she applied here at the last second and stayed home,” Harrington said. “She was able to manage going to class, being a freshman in college, while attending to her dad. Our relationship was already growing, but this was pretty special to me.”
Harrington, who also has two other daughters — ages 7 and 5 — needed all the support he could get from Melaine, his family and friends throughout the process.
Originally, Harrington was determined to go through all the treatments while also coaching the Bobcats. But those treatments took their toll, as he opted to take a leave of absence in February with his weight and energy level declining.
“For me and our players, I think the most difficult thing for us was watching Coach (Harrington) go through physical changes. He had lost a lot of weight, he had become very skinny and he just didn’t have the same energy level,” said assistant coach Jeremy Fikac, who took over the program in Harrington’s absence. “The things he brought on a daily basis to the team, you could see those things slowly slipping away.
“You could see in our players’ faces they were very concerned about him. From the freshmen to the seniors, to the student managers to the coaches, everyone in this program felt a greater responsibility to work hard. The flip side of Ty’s situation is that he now has his weight and strength back, and you can just sense something different and better in his voice.”
Harrington’s treatments warranted strong emotional support. Throughout the process, there were times he’d be lying in bed, physically exhausted to the point where he couldn’t get out of bed. Harrington said while some cancer patients choose to take chemotherapy orally, he chose to do it intravenously. That required a real commitment. Harrington would go in on a Tuesday morning at 8:30 a.m., stay hooked up to a chemo IV for three hours with other cancer patients. He’d leave, but not without a portable chemo pumping machine, where they’d pump more in his system for about another 48 hours. He stayed unplugged from the chemo for 10 days before starting the process all over again.
Then came the radiation treatments, which involved Harrington getting into a robe and into a machine that pumped radiation to the areas most affected by the cancer, normally for 20-to-30 minutes, according to Harrington. That process was the toughest for him, especially considering it was every day for six weeks except for weekends.
“I thought when I was going through the chemo part of it, I was going to be able to handle it,” he said. “They say that chemotherapy and radiation treatments affect everyone in different ways. And for me, the radiation with chemo was very, very tough on me, both physically and emotionally.”
If that wasn’t enough for Harrington, doctors discovered during the chemotherapy and radiation process that Harrington had ulcerated areas in his stomach, causing him to get up at least four or five times a night to go to the restroom. The only solace that Harrington could take was despite having some treatments and the process overseen by MD Anderson, he was able to do a majority of his treatments at Texas Oncoloy nearby in San Marcos.
All the symptoms and side effects lumped together tested Harrington’s mettle, but couldn’t break him.
“It was uncomfortable for me to go back out there and try to get into a dugout setting. It would be fine as long as I could be in a suite or a controlled type of area, but anything else, and it was tough,” he said. “The last month of the season, I was able to kind of ease my way back into the dugout a bit. I was kind of a glorified cheerleader, but it was a great experience. You don’t understand the little things that go on in the dugout and with your team until you don’t have it, then go back again.”
Harrington admits he’s not sure where he would’ve been emotionally without a great deal of support from his daughter, family, local friends, coaches, former players, current players, umpires and other college baseball coaches and staffers. He often would get text messages and other words of encouragement, and those are the sentiments that would keep him thinking positive on days when he could barely move or get out of bed to do normal activities.
“I’ll tell you this, there were moments I’d lay in bed after chemo and radiation where I just didn’t have the energy to do anything. And just the smallest, shortest text messages or emails, they were a real help. I’ll never be able to repay people for those messages,” he said. “Being sick like that can sometimes be incredibly lonely. And the fact I got so much support was special, that being on top of being cared for by my daughter.”
Harrington had plenty of support throughout his fight with cancer, but none more important than the gift of a daughter’s true love.
If all goes well and as expected the next few months, Harrington will make his return to the college baseball diamond in February. He said he plans to coach the Bobcats this fall and says he feels healthy and ready to go from both a physical and emotional standpoint.
However, the long-time coach and former University of Texas player also realizes he has a lengthy road ahead. While the symptoms and signs of cancer are no longer there, he realizes it can return at any moment, and for that reason, there’s still anxiety attached to the situation, and he stays grounded.
Healthy and ready to go, Ty Harrington looks forward to the fall and spring. (Texas State)
“The anxiety of going out there every three months and getting those tests done, it’s always there. But as a patient, you know it’s in God’s hands. There’s still anxiety, though, and it’s always a part of your life,” he said. “I’m not out of the woods yet, though. I’m off to a good start, but there’s always that chance moving forward. The first couple of years following the disease is very critical.”
Harrington will continue to be a strong advocate for early colonoscopies and testing. He quickly realized during his fight that he almost waited too long, and in a sense, got pretty lucky. He doesn’t want others to make the same potential mistake.
“What I want to do as a coach, I really want to teach our players how valuable each day is. There are even days now that I just kind of flip the page, but then I catch myself and realize how great it is,” he said. “We just need to teach not only ourselves, but also others. There’s a lot to life, and there’s the unexpected part of it. And we all need to be prepared for that.”
Ty Harrington has gone through some of the darkest days of his life during the past year, but as the anniversary of his diagnosis nears, he’s showing no signs of cancer, he finally feels healthy and energetic, and boy, does he have a story of courage to tell.
Fall workouts can’t come soon enough for the Bobcats.
Welcome back, Ty.