Hugh Watson is back coaching basketball, this time at his alma mater, Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tenn.
Yes, doctors told him more than two years ago when he was diagnosed with non-curable multiple myeloma that he probably had six months to live. Yes, he’s been through chemotherapy, pills, excruciating needle injections and a stem-cell transplant.
Yes, cancer temporarily took his hair, his stamina and his ability to walk.
Yes, he’s 71 years old.
He told Hiwassee president Dr. Robin Tricoli all of these things when she called to gauge his interest in the job. Tricoli told Watson she truly believed he was the right man for the position.
So Watson said yes.
Watson has had just about every centimeter of his body examined since being diagnosed with cancer but he figures the doctors missed a spot.
“I think somebody needs to examine my head,” cracked Watson, describing the latest twist to his personal odyssey since leaving his coaching position at North Idaho College before the 2004-05 season.
Watson left Coeur d’Alene to move closer to family, including three children and four grandchildren, in his native Tennessee. He coached for four years at NCAA Division II Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate and then was headed to a retirement filled with family, fishing and Friday nights watching son-in-law, former Idaho Vandals defensive lineman Mike Zeller, coach at Lenoir City High.
It didn’t quite go as planned.
The affable Watson was helping his father-in-law’s neighbor when he suddenly felt dizzy and sick to his stomach. He was in excellent shape, thanks to a fitness regimen that included daily four-mile jogs, but he noticed he was becoming extremely tired as he completed runs.
Watson thought the heat was getting to him but doctors weren’t convinced and ran numerous tests. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of cancer that originates in plasma cells. His best treatment option was at Vanderbilt University, but the medical center generally doesn’t accept patients older than 65. A doctor successfully pitched Watson’s case to the board. Watson spent 45 days in the hospital.
At one point, he crawled to get around. He progressed to a wheel chair, a walker and eventually a cane. He takes seven pills daily. He said his blood has been removed, cleansed in a machine and returned to his body. He’s had injections so painful it took four staff members to hold him in place.
“I’m feeling good, really good, but like the doctor said, it could come back at any time,” Watson said. “My wife (Anna Sue) has been just wonderful. I couldn’t get along without her. We just celebrated our 50th anniversary.”
Doctors informed Watson that roughly 3 percent of the cancer remains. He goes in for chemical injections every two weeks to strengthen his bones.
Watson wasn’t sure if he wanted to take on the stress of coaching again but he knew he made the right decision after Hiwassee’s first practice.
“I came in and my wife started laughing at me,” he said. “She said, ‘Go look in the mirror.’ My hair was all over the place because I was moving all over the floor. I still scream and holler; it hasn’t hurt my voice any.”
Watson played at Hiwassee in the early 1960s and served as coach and A.D. from 1984-1990. He was an Idaho assistant in the early 1990s and replaced Rolly Williams at NIC in 1996. Watson’s first team finished fourth, best in school history, at the NJCAA tournament.
Injuries have sidelined some key players, but Watson expects Hiwassee to be strong in the second half of the season after the addition of a couple mid-year transfers.
Watson’s staff includes son Gabe and another assistant. On rare occasions at practice, he takes Anna Sue’s advice and sits down for a few minutes when he feels tired.
“Coaching gets my mind on something else,” he said. “When I wasn’t doing anything, I’d get on the couch and watch TV. Here, I stay pretty active, which I need to do.”
Watson doesn’t know how long he wants to coach. He said he’ll play it by ear, but he has long-range plans.
“I’ll be 72 in March,” he said. “I’m going to live to be 92.”