MOSCOW, Idaho – The pesky issue had come up before, first when he was a teenager. Steve Axman was told he had a floating chip in his jaw, and for years after that he scarcely thought about it or felt it.
This spring, all that changed. Axman, in his fourth year as University of Idaho offensive coordinator, watched his face swell up as if he’d been attacked by hornets.
The chip had to go, his doctor said.
So the longtime coach had surgery in March. And once the chip was removed from his jaw, doctors found something much more alarming – a cancerous tumor about the size of a dime.
With the Vandals just starting spring practice, Axman, 62, underwent two surgeries in a 10-day period on his jaw and neck. More than 30 of his lymph nodes were taken out.
After the second surgery, Axman contracted a staph infection that, combined with everything else, forced him to miss 31/2 weeks of practice before returning at the end of spring. He then went through 30 radiation treatments over six weeks of the summer.
“It was certainly unexpected and I’m sure there’s a lot of people who have had a tougher time than I did,” said Axman, in his first public comments about his cancer. “For that I’m thankful. But it wasn’t really pleasant. It wasn’t really easy.”
It was a relief, however, when earlier this month Axman’s first follow-up tests revealed no trace of cancer.
Axman has coached for nearly 40 years and never missed more than a day here or there because of illness. Ordered to stay away from Idaho’s day-to-day activities in the spring, he tried nonetheless to keep his influence on the offense.
“Every day he would come in here and give us kind of a pep talk and get us going,” running backs and co-special teams coach Jeremy Thielbahr said. “He would call us all the time, want to know what’s going on with the offense. That whole time, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Hey, Ax. Just get better. We’ve got the offense. It will be fine.’”
Axman insisted he never contemplated taking off more time than he did. And Thielbahr never doubted that Axman would be back.
“I wasn’t (worried) because I know Ax,” he said. “And anybody who knows or has met Ax or worked with Coach Ax knows that no matter what he was going to be here this fall. I knew he was going to pull through it. And I knew he was going to do whatever it took to be with us this fall.
“Every ounce in my body knew he was going to be back,” he added.
Thielbahr described Axman as an “old warhorse” who returned to the Vandals with the same energy and detail-oriented approach that he’s always had. Nothing’s changed with his persona, which fifth-year senior Aaron Lavarias was happy to see once fall camp started in August.
Even though Lavarias, a defensive end, is not coached by Axman, he still feels the offensive coordinator’s presence.
“It’s hard to have anyone, especially the coaches who are like your father figures, go through something like that,” Lavarias said. “It’s really hard on the players. It was really inspiring to see him back on the field as soon as he as was.”
Axman feels the effects of his stint with cancer less frequently than even a few weeks ago. He still gets unusually tired on what he calls an exceptional day, and the sickness that once dogged him as a result of the staph infection is now pretty much gone.
The biggest lift so far, he said, was hearing that he was cancer-free.
“The situation seems to be gradually getting better and better,” Axman said. “I’m feeling very happy for that.”