Stealth's Hall is getting back to normal
For most of the past year, Washington Stealth head coach Chris Hall was focused on beating cancer. Now, given a clean bill of health, his big concern is turning around a team that slumped badly in his absence.
Following a successful career playing lacrosse, he went into coaching and the success continued. He won his first National Lacrosse League championship as a coach in 2004 with the Calgary Roughnecks. In 2010, his first full season at the helm of the Washington Stealth, he won his second title. In the process, he became just the second man in league history to win a championship with two different franchises.
But nearly 14 months ago, the man known affectionately in lacrosse circles as "CH" found out he was in for a different kind of competition -- a much more serious one. Hall was diagnosed with throat cancer. That meant radiation and chemotherapy treatments and, perhaps most painful of all, time away from lacrosse.
More than a year later, the fight continues against the toughest foe Hall has ever faced, but make no mistake, he's crushing his opponent.
And it's not even close.
With the Stealth's 2013 season opener a little over a week away, Hall is back on the sidelines. Most of the hair and weight he lost have returned. His doctors have cleared him to return to his full-time coaching duties.
"Truthfully, I probably feel the best I've felt in over 20 years," he said. "I feel great. I feel better than before I was sick, like considerably better. I think in large part that is due to I've got a little bit of a different view on life these days, and I probably take a lot better care of myself these days than I used to."
Hall missed a good portion of last season while undergoing treatment and, not coincidently, the Stealth struggled in his absence. They finished 4-12 and missed the playoffs after appearing in the previous two NLL title games.
"He's just so knowledgeable about the game," defenseman Kyle Sorensen said. "It's the little things that ... a lot of people don't notice. You see it out here (at training camp), as soon as he sees something, he nips it in the bud. He's so passionate about the game and he's so knowledgeable and respected out here on the floor that when he says something, everyone stops and listens -- and if they're not, somebody on the team is going to give them (grief). Just to have him on the floor, just his presence is so important."
The road back certainly wasn't easy.
Hall approached his physician in July of 2011 about a growth on one of his tonsils. Doctors started Hall on antibiotics, but the mass remained. He was referred to a specialist, who ordered a CAT scan.
When Hall returned Sept. 28 for a follow-up appointment, he was told he had a tumor on his tonsil and that the mass was potentially cancerous. A biopsy was performed Oct. 19.
"I admit I was getting a bit frustrated there because the process had been over three months since I first asked the question of my (general physician) and we were really no further ahead than when we started at that point," he said. "I was getting pretty anxious about it."
Finally, in late October, Hall received the bad news: He had cancer.
Shortly after the diagnosis, a treatment plan was put in place. Hall would undergo six weeks of radiation treatments and two rounds of chemotherapy.
"When I talked to the specialist, he said the first two weeks of therapy I might not notice much, but the subsequent two weeks will likely knock my socks off," Hall said.
The doctor was right. After the first few weeks, Hall began to lose his hair. His weight declined and his appetite disappeared.
"They were trying to get 2,000 calories in me a day, but I couldn't eat anything," he said. "I could eat nothing. The sickness and the pain was just horrible."
In all, Hall dropped 53 pounds during the treatment.
He said his wife, Pam Harknett, played an important role in helping him eat.
"My wife had to really persevere with me to get it down," he said. "My wife was like a pillar of strength. I really don't know what I would have done without her. She was so strong through the whole thing in helping me."
At one point doctors told Hall that if he continued to drop weight, they would have to insert a feeding tube into his stomach. Hall was weighed every day, which led him to try to pull one over on the doctors.
"I had bunches of big tins of loose change in my bedroom and I would go and fill my pockets up with coins so I weighed a little bit more," he said. "They got me one day."
The radiation and chemotherapy treatments concluded Jan. 17 of this year. Doctors told Hall he would need four to six weeks of recovery before returning to the Stealth.
Meanwhile, the team struggled without Hall, getting off to a 1-5 start. As much as the players didn't want to admit it, not having their coach had an effect.
"You definitely think about it," Sorensen said. "To correlate it with the losses, I don't know if it's an excuse or not. I think it's an easy way out to say that's the reason why. It's tough to say, you don't want to make excuses, but it's probably true. As you can see, I don't want to admit it still."
Though Hall said from the beginning that he planned to be back, he knew his players felt some uncertainty.
"The team itself was kind of in a bit of limbo too because their bench leader was gone and I think that probably was unsettling for them," Hall said. "I think it affected me personally, but it affected the team too. And it was hard to sort of watch what was going on, hoping that we were going to win and suffering some real tough losses in that stretch. ... It was difficult because you want to be there trying to help, but you know you can't be. So it was a hard time."
After taking about five weeks to recover after completing the cancer treatments, Hall decided it was time to rejoin the team. He was back behind the bench for a Feb. 24 game against Minnesota and coached the West Division team in NLL All-Star Game the following night.
"Admittedly, I probably came back a little too early, but I wanted to get back," he said. "I was tired of doing nothing."
Being back with the team helped his recovery, Hall said.
"I think that sort of helped, too, to take my mind away from really what had happened and what was going on and the whole issue. The lacrosse became a very healthy distraction for me."
For anyone who has dealt with cancer, a distraction can be a good thing, Hall said.
"It's pretty difficult to not think about every single day and really every single hour," he said. "It's not healthy to think about it all the time, so you need those distractions."
But Hall's return to the sideline didn't provide a fairy-tale ending. Washington, beset by injuries and inconsistent play, posted a 3-7 record the rest of the way.
"Not only was I having a terrible year with my own personal health issues, but we were having a Murphy's Law year when it came to the team," he said. "If it could go wrong, it was going wrong. The wheels in the front would fall off and you would sort of work to get that fixed and then all of the sudden, for some unknown reason, the wheels would come off the back."
The 2013 season already has a different feel. Hall's health is no longer a primary concern. The team appears to be healthy and morale at training camp has been high.
"He's got that drive again," Sorensen said. "He's got that passion. It's almost like he's got that second life now. He realizes that there may not be too many years left. Maybe not in this league. You have to take every day as it comes. You have to respect the day and I think he realizes that now."
Forward Rhys Duch said having a healthy Hall makes a big difference for the Stealth.
"I mean, just having 'CH' healthy, he's one of the greatest minds in the game," Duch said. "So when he can put his full attention on our team and what we are doing, it really does everything a lot of good."
When training camp opened earlier this month, the players let Hall know just how much they appreciated having him back.
"For them to give me a hug or a big handshake and say 'Gee coach you look great, it's great to have you back.' That was pretty special to me," Hall said.
It was a chance for Hall to see the impact he's had on his players over the years -- an impact that goes beyond lacrosse.
"To me, that is important to know that the values that I try to project and the values that I live that I've tried to get my players to buy into, that over the years they have (bought into)," Hall said. "For them to be able to express, I guess, the personal feelings that they were expressing for my illness was incredibly heartwarming for me because it means that those bonds have gone beyond the coach-and-player relationship at a business level. They have gone to a coach-player relationship on a friendship level."
Always humble, Hall is quick to point out that success on the lacrosse floor doesn't necessarily correspond with him coaching the team.
"To think that the team is going to succeed or fail based on my health or strength would be somewhat egotistical of me," Hall said. "I'm not the only coach on the planet and I'm not the only coach that's capable of guiding a winning team. I think I do provide sound leadership. I think I do have a presence for the players and for the league. I think I'm respected for what I've done and what I am capable of doing. So I think it will certainly have some positive influence on us at the beginning of the season. Certainly a more positive influence than we had at the start of last season when I wasn't there."
Hall will be monitored closely for up to five years to make sure the cancer doesn't return, but doctors say for now -- and hopefully for years to come -- he is healthy and ready to give all of himself to the team.
Said Hall: "They say ... 'You are good, you are strong, you are healthy right now, you are good to go, just get on with it. Try to not dwell on the negatives. Go have some fun, enjoy your coaching and we'll just keep an eye on you.'
"So that's what I'm doing -- and I'm enjoying it."
Aaron Lommers covers the Washington Stealth for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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