By Gabriel Stovall
LOCUST GROVE, Ga. — Coaches always look forward to the moment they get to lay eyes on a new football team for the first time in a new season.
Joe Teknipp got that opportunity this past Wednesday when his Eagle’s Landing squad stepped on the field at Warren Holder Park in Locust Grove to compete in the inaugural Adidas State Championship 7-on-7 tournament — formerly known as the Southside Shootout.
And you could tell by the smile on his face and the eagerness in his voice that he was excited. He’s always excited for football season, though. He’s an Ohio native — an Ohio State Buckeye fan. A Jim Tressel disciple from afar. What would you expect? Football is in his blood.
But this year means more.
Just two weeks ago, the eighth-year Eagle’s Landing coach was diagnosed with cancer.
“Jelly belly,” is the slang term for it. Pseudomyxoma peritonei is the clinical name for the rare form of stomach cancer that produces tumors in the appendix and/or abdominal area and can be the cause of problems stemming from abdominal and pelvic pain, to bloating, digestive disorders and infertility.
Ironically, Teknipp entered the path toward discovery of his diagnosis back in February when he had absolutely no inkling that anything was wrong.
He started a diet quest to simply lose some weight and get in better shape. It was several months before he realized that something serious was taking place in his body.
“I was exercising and dieting for a few months and I just wasn’t losing any weight,” Teknipp said. “Actually, I was gaining weight. Gaining a pound here, or two pounds there. And I said, you know, that there should be no possible way I should be getting heavier. It got to the point at Easter where I was finally just feeling bloated, and I went to the doctor on May 18 just to get checked.”
Thus began his journey through various doctor’s offices to be poked and prodded in search of answers. The first doctor he met checked him over and gave him a set of antibiotics and probiotics, but nothing relieved the bloating or pressure he felt in his stomach.
Then his sister-in-law got him in for a CT scan on May 19. That’s when he truly began to achieve some clarity.
“The CT scan came back, and they said, ‘Coach, you’ve got a large mass on your stomach,'” Teknipp said. “But then they did an endoscopy, you know, where they go down your throat. But they saw nothing in my stomach. In fact the doctor told me I had about the cleanest stomach possible. Enzymes, liver. Everything was perfect.”
Except he didn’t feel anything close to perfect.
The weight he had gained turned out to be 11 liters of fluid weight that needed to taken from his body — the equivalent, Teknipp said, of 5 1/2 Coca-Cola bottles. And it had weighed on his back and body so severely that when it had been drained out of him, he literally could not stand.
“I got off the table, and almost fell over,” he said. “It was just the shock, I guess, of literally losing over 30 pounds in a matter of three or four days. Then my back actually hurt worse than when I had the weight on because I’d over compensated for so long.”
Still, after testing the excess that had been taken from his body, nothing cancerous or even remotely troublesome immediately appeared. And for a moment, he felt like he could possibly be in the clear.
“I initially thought, well, it’s just an infection,” he said. “Which was okay, you know. This is what we prayed for. Something that could be easily treated.”
He began to surmise where it all could’ve come from. Perhaps the stress that went along with taking time to care for his parents for eight days, driving them back and forth from Ohio? Or maybe the rigors of battling through a tough wrestling season that came on the heels of another state playoff appearance in football.
The coach had one more hurdle to clear — exploratory surgery — in order to hopefully confirm his assertions. But it was this last hurdle that proved revelatory.
“They went in and did three incisions,” he said. “People thought they would have to really open me up, but it was just three little incisions. They ended up taking 10 liters of jelly-like substance off of my body.”
The test results were supposed to come back in about a week, “but it was about two days later when we they told me they were pretty sure it’s cancer,” he said.
The interesting thing is Teknipp tells his story with the same bright smile on his face that’s present when he talks about the electrifying potential of one of his star players in Antonio Gibson. Or the improvement of rising senior quarterback Tyler Heflin. Or the surprising grit shown by his young 9th and 10th grade “B team” which was also competed at last week’s tournament.
He shared his narrative of a potentially life-threatening disease rummaging through his body with the same coaching fire in his eyes that you’d expect from a guy preoccupied with finding a way to take a former also-ran high school football program to its third straight trip to the state playoffs.
In other words, there is nothing about Joe Teknipp’s persona that said “cancer” or “defeat.”
“When I talk to my family back in Ohio, you know, it’s almost like they’re waiting for me to be on my death bed,” he said, still smiling. “They’re like, ‘Are you alright?’ And I’m saying, ‘Yeah. I did yard work for three hours the other day.’
“Oh, believe me. I’m never gonna let this thing get me down.”
His players believe him. He sat them all down and broke the news last Thursday, and received a response you’d expect from a bunch of guys who would gladly run through a wall for their coach.
“It was kinda sad to hear, but we know Coach never lets us down,” Gibson said. “And because he’s strong, and he teaches us to be strong, we know that he’ll get through it, whatever it is.”
Heflin, in his second year in Teknipp’s program, said he and his immediate family’s first response after hearing the news was prayer.
“Man, me and my family, we try to be a Christian family and a church family, so when we heard it, we sat down and prayed for him, and the team prayed for him,” Heflin said. “We love coach Teknipp. We definitely want the best for him.”
And both players say that their coach’s current battle has worked to put a commemorative fight in the team this summer.
“We have that edge now, and it’s a great thing, because we feel like we want to come out here and play for him,” Heflin said. “Because he’s strong and he’s going to get better, we know he’ll fight through it just like he tells us to fight through things. So we want to be that reflection of him.”
Said Gibson: “We want to make sure that if he’s not out there with us, we’re still improving, so that when news gets back to him, it’ll give him something to smile about.”
So far, Teknipp hasn’t stopped smiling.
He smiles as he talks about the support system he has. He brought over assistant coach Ronnie Daniels from Locust Grove whose presence has been a spark plug to his kids.
Still smiling, he rejoices in the fact that his son Tyler, now a senior safety at Georgia Tech, is home for the summer, pacing the sidelines with him and getting his coaching chops refined after his playing days on The Flats are done.
He’s beaming at the maturity his players are showing as they have navigated the spring and early summer schedule without missing a beat.
And of course, the prayerful support. It all gives him reason to be nothing but optimistic.
“I believe in prayer so much, and there are just so many people praying for me,” Teknipp said. “I’ve been blessed with great coaches. I’ve been blessed to have my family around me. My son Tyler being home has been great. There’s a reason he’s been at school every summer for the last few years, because now he’s able to be home this summer when I’ve needed him most.”
While he’s talking, Heflin tossed another touchdown pass during a 7-on-7 matchup against Centennial. It was the third quick score in a matter of a few quick moments. Teknipp stops to record it on a piece of paper. Just that quickly, he shifted from cancer fighting mode to football coach mode.
“The pinball machine is really working now,” Teknipp said of his team’s sudden offensive explosion.
And yes, Teknipp said he has every intention of being on the sidelines for his team’s August 28 season opener against Union Grove. Not surprising, he’s trying to plan surgery, recovery and vacation around the football calendar. After once thinking he’d have to go to Texas for the cancer-removal process, it helps that he’s found a doctor at Atlanta’s Emory Hospital who can perform the surgical procedure.
“I know I’ll be in intensive care for 24 hours after surgery,” he said. “Then seven or eight days in the hospital. Then about a six to eight week recovery. Hopefully it’ll be around Dead Week in my recovery phase, and we’ll be at Hilton Head somewhere on the beach instead of me sitting around drawing up football plays.”
Would you dare think anything less of a football coach who calls the rugged Rust Belt area his stomping grounds?
Teknipp is the third person with ties to the school’s athletic program to be diagnosed with cancer over the last two years. Football team mom Chanier Jackson and Eagle’s Landing athletic director and girls basketball coach Lisa Horton are also in the midst of their own battles.
And while that may sound disheartening to some, Teknipp said the experiences he and other co-workers and colleagues are going through has only reinforced to him the kind of family atmosphere the Eagle’s Landing High School community has become over his eight years.
“I was just talking to our principal the other day, and told him that when I took the job here, this was one of the schools I targeted,” Teknipp said. “I didn’t want to be at every school in (Henry) county, but I wanted to be somewhere where we had the possibility of building community. I thought at first that we’d be able to do that through the country club area, but it’s not been that.
“It’s been the community in the school. Our staff is unbelievable, and we have such a family thread here, because so many of us have to be family for a lot of these kids.”
Despite the admirable way he’s dealing with the disease, Teknipp acknowledges he’s only human, and still subject to the same feelings of anxiety as anyone else would be. That’s why he’d rather spend time analyzing the Cleveland Cavaliers’ chances at winning an NBA Championship than researching his ailment.
“I have so many people saying, ‘Oh, I looked it up,'” Teknipp said. “Even my wife is looking up the specifics of the cancer, and she’ll ask me if I wanna look. I said, is my doctor going to ask me to hold up my liver when checking it out? No. What does he want me to do? Relax. The more I know, the more anxious I think I’ll get. I’ve been told for a while that I need to slow down a bit anyway, so maybe this will be my chance to take it easy a bit.”
Except when it comes to his kids on that football field. It’s hard for Teknipp to take it easy with those guys. They embody so much of who he tries to be, not just as a coach, but as a man. And he doesn’t want to miss this opportunity to give them another teachable moment about dealing with life’s inevitable difficulties with toughness and character.
“When I sat down with them last Thursday, once I found everything out and told them, you know, it kind of helped them understand,” he said. “Some of them were probably saying, ‘Hey, why isn’t Coach at practice again?’ I wanted them to know what I was dealing with when I was sure.
“What I try to instill in my kids is that no matter what, you’ve gotta keep fighting. Just like I tell my guys to fight through things, I’ll fight through this. I told them with their fighting spirit and mind with me, I’m confident that this thing is not going to keep me down.”