Sam Harrell believes he may be the luckiest man alive.
Even though he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005 – a diagnosis he and wife Kathy shielded from friends and family until recently - the Ennis Lions football coach counts his many blessings.
In 2005, Harrell first noticed the vision in one eye was going blurry, which would get worse with heat and exercise.
An eye specialist referred him to a neurologist, and three tests all pointed to a devastating diagnosis: multiple sclerosis. His immune system was ravaging itself, eating away the myelin sheath surrounding the nerves.
“Heat plays a huge role. If your body gets hot, through weather or exercise, your nerves start firing faster. When you have MS and your nerves start firing faster, then your symptoms start going faster – your symptoms, balance and coordination, walking – all that just escalates,” he said.
Multiple sclerosis is a very individualistic disease; each case is unique and often unpredictable. Since Sam’s symptoms weren’t always apparent, the Harrells kept to business as usual and decided to keep the diagnosis to themselves.
“We chose to keep it quiet for several years. We didn’t even tell our boys, because we didn’t want them worrying about it. They had an idea something was wrong - I didn’t ever go out and shoot baskets with them any more, I didn’t play tennis with them, I can’t mow the yard, I can’t do anything you ought to be doing. They had an idea … we never told them exactly what Dad had,” he said.
“I wasn’t in denial – I knew I had it, but it would kind of come and go. My hope was that it would go more often than it would come,” he said.
This spring, the Harrells decided it was time to tell their sons, and Sam went to the school board and told them.
“I feel like our school board’s a great group of people, but also my bosses, and I didn’t want them hearing about it and not knowing something about it. I told our players and our coaches – all those groups are special to me and close to me and I wanted them to hear it from me,” he said.
While he looks like the same Sam Harrell – and he feels like the same Sam Harrell – the moment he tries to jump rope or jog like he did in the old days, that normal feeling subsides quickly, he said. He’s been on medication since the disease was discovered, and careful management can keep symptoms at bay to some degree.
“The thing that’s kind of disappointing is that the neurologists here have nothing that really gives you much hope. All they can do is say keep on this medication and hope it slows down, hope it doesn’t overtake your whole nervous system before they find a cure,” he said.
Looking ahead, Sam Harrell says he is encouraged by accounts of medical advances being achieved outside of the U.S. strict regulatory environment.
“Outside the U.S. some things are being done that people have had phenomenal results with, and that’s been encouraging. I really think there’s going to be a cure for it. That’s what I’m hoping for. It’s been encouraging to hear those stories and talk with people,” he said.
“I really think I will go outside US and do something. I’ve heard of two different procedures I really think I’ll try,” he said.
One procedure being done in Costa Rica involves the use of adult stem cells by American doctors.
“It’s very expensive, but that’s a hurdle I can try to tackle for hope of a cure,” he said.
“I get excited when I talk to those people who have gone outside the country, because they’ve come back with a story of hope,” he said, recounting the story of a young father who left the country requiring a scooter for mobility, and returned able to walk on his own and play with his young boys once again.
“I’m still hopeful for a cure … I’m serious about that. These people who have tried some of these things, they don’t feel better – they feel cured. That’s what I’m hoping for. Then I can still live in Texas,” he said.
“I just don’t see myself going anywhere but Texas, even though the weather would be a relief and would allow me to do a little more. It’s sure hard to take the Texas out of me,” he said.
Harrell says he’s adamant about one thing he has never asked for: sympathy.
“People don’t die from MS … I don’t want to make is sound like ‘Poor pitiful me’ - .. a lot of people are facing tougher things than that. It takes away the things you do, but it doesn’t take away your life,” he said.
Sam Harrell’s office is filled with memorabilia of years of coaching success – evidence of back-to-back 4A football state championships – and three state prizes within five years. He was named to the Gordon Wood Hall of Fame, he got to coach his own sons on great teams. He was elected to coach the All Star team in 2002, and last year, he was elected president of the Texas High School Coach Association.
These are the blessings he counts, on a daily basis.
“Kathy and I were talking about that just this weekend. I still feel like one of the luckiest guys in the world. When you think about how blessed we’ve been with families and careers and things that have just happened – the good Lord’s just blessed us. I don’t think I’d trade places with anybody,” he said.
As a father of three sons and a mentor to many young men and other coaches, Sam Harrell sees ahead a golden opportunity to practice what he has always preached.
“That’s just part of life. There’s going to be some good things and there’s going to be some tough things. How we handle the tough things is probably a reflection of how we see the good things. All those good things, family or job, that I’ve been so blessed with – I didn’t do something to deserve those. They were just blessings from God.
“You get those good times come and the tough times. Now, do you give up and start crying, ‘Oh, poor pitiful me?’ No you don’t. You just keep going on trusting, that’s just part of life. And all of us, some time in life, are going to have some tough times,” he said.
“We tell our kids all the time, ‘Hey, don’t give up – you’re going to get some adversity. Never give up. Stay strong.’ You say all those things, but then you get a little adversity and you collapse or you quit? No, we’re not going to do that. I’ve been dealing with this since 2005, and I’m going to keep dealing with it. I get a chance to walk my talk, right there,” he said.
And for now, life goes on, pretty much as usual – with some modifications: the use of a golf cart to get around quicker, focusing on the teaching side of coaching.
“No, I’m not deathly ill, I’m not quitting coaching. Things are not going to be much different. We’re going to keep coaching and keep going,” he said.
The Harrells have settled into their adopted home town.
“Kathy and I feel like years here in Ennis have been so enjoyable and special. We’ve had opportunities to leave, but the people here are good and we like it here,” he said.
He is quick to reiterate that there’s nowhere he’d rather be, no one’s shoes he’d rather walk in, because it’s all about focusing on the blessings.
“You just think about some of those things. I may be the luckiest guy in the world, you know,” he said. “I don’t want sympathy. I don’t know that I’d trade places with anyone.”
This article by J. Louise Larson originally appeared in the Ennis Journal and the Waxahachie Daily Light.