Ryan assistant coach Eric Lokey has not missed a Friday night game in more than 25 years of coaching.
And he definitely wasn’t going to let kidney cancer stop the streak.
So for Ryan’s Aug. 31 season opener against Corsicana, Lokey took some painkillers and talked his wife into letting him sit in the press box for the first half. He stayed for the whole game.
“It was pretty weird [not having Lokey on the sidelines],” Ryan defensive end J.T. Williams said. “He wasn’t there coaching us, and we didn’t know what to do for a moment.”
Now, seven weeks after surgery to have the cancer and his kidney removed, Lokey is cancer-free and back to full strength — just in time for Ryan’s District 5-5A opener against Flower Mound Marcus on Friday night.
“It’s a special place for me,” Lokey said of Ryan. “I love it here, and this is where I want to coach. It’s tough when you take away what you love doing. I wasn’t sure when I first found out — what all of that meant, if I was going to be able to coach this year. All of these questions come up.”
These questions started coming up the week before Ryan’s first preseason scrimmage. One Sunday morning, Lokey knew something wasn’t right and he and his wife, Debi, drove to the hospital.
Lokey assumed he had a kidney stone and nothing more. He was sorely mistaken.
Lokey said he was diagnosed with renal cell cancer. That occurs when cancer cells are found in the lining of the very small tubes in the kidney, according to www.cancer.gov.
“It just knocked me to my knees,” Lokey said. “It was very surreal. When somebody tells you that, it just kind of really makes you stop and think.”
Ryan head coach Joey Florence has had to deal with cancer before. His father died from cancer and his wife won a battle with the disease.
Florence played football against Lokey in middle school, when Florence was in Rockwall and Lokey in McKinney. Their fathers knew each other through the coaching ranks, and their wives were cheerleaders together at North Mesquite.
And for nine of the past 10 seasons, Lokey has helped mold Ryan’s prestigious defensive line. The year he wasn’t at Ryan, he was the linebackers coach at Stephen F. Austin, his alma mater where he was an All-America linebacker.
“He and I are getting to that age where cancer is a very real thing,” Florence said. “You used to think that was for old people.
“We’re getting to an age where my wife’s gone through cancer, he’s gone through cancer, friends of ours have gone through cancer, but you’re still not prepared when you hear that.”
Lokey said he’d never had surgery before and generally has never been sick or dealt with health issues. He said he runs about four to five miles a day.
When he was asked at the hospital who his doctor was, he said he had no idea.
Lokey, 46, saw a specialist and had the surgery done on the morning of Ryan’s final scrimmage against Grapevine, less than two weeks after the cancer was first spotted. He now has a 14-inch scar on the right side of his stomach resembling a zipper, with 28 staples keeping the incision in place.
By 1 p.m. the day of the scrimmage, as Lokey sat in his hospital bed recovering from the surgery, he was evaluating the Raiders’ defensive line.
While he recovered in the hospital, his players sent him text messages to check on him. Lokey said Texas head coach Mack Brown — who coached Lokey’s son Derek before he went on to play for the Kansas City Chiefs for three seasons — also sent texts. Along with his faith and Debi, Lokey said, a constant support circle aided him through the ordeal.
“Something tragic like this pulls you together with your loved ones and your family,” Lokey said.
He began walking two to three miles a day with a cane. He took time off from work. Then he started working for half a day, coming in after lunch to ease back into his routine.
Lokey descended from the press box and started coaching on the sidelines Sept. 14 against Wylie East.
Lokey’s back where he’s meant to be — back on the same sidelines where he coached all three of his sons. He’s back beside Florence, his defensive line and the rest of the Raiders.
He avoided any type of painful therapy that would have caused him to lose his slicked-back brown hair. He also avoided missing any of Ryan’s district games, and he’s thankful for that.
But he’s most thankful the cancer was caught early, and now he can go back to doing what he loves and help others who are facing what he was fortunate enough to defeat.
“It makes me want to be able to help other people in the same situation or other people going through trials like this in life,” Lokey said. “It makes me really want to be there and support them and pray for them — things like that. I think I’ve become a better person from this.”
BEN BABY can be reached 940-566-6869. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .