The Pandemic Is Chasing Aging Coaches From the Field - Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Pandemic Is Chasing Aging Coaches From the Field

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After Coach Paul Trosclair won a Louisiana high school football championship in December 2018, he and his family walked from the Superdome in New Orleans to celebrate with a bowl of late-night gumbo. He mused about retiring, but no one took him seriously.

For five seasons, Trosclair had endured fatigue and other effects of multiple myeloma, a treatable but incurable blood cancer, missing only a single game. He coached from a golf cart when the burning sensation in his feet made it too painful to stand. And when he was sidelined that one Friday night after a blood clot required surgery, he phoned his players from his hospital bed to wish them luck.

With a state title at Eunice High School, after runner-up finishes there in 1997 and 1998, Trosclair had reached the pinnacle of a long, successful career. He was one of Louisiana’s winningest coaches. Back home on the Cajun prairie, he rode in a convertible during the town’s victory parade, holding the championship trophy. He had nothing left to prove, but he stayed on for the 2019 season, elevating his career record to 247 victories even as medication left him with muscle cramps so severe at times that his fork fell from his fingers.

“I couldn’t pull the trigger,” Trosclair, 64, said in a telephone interview. “It’s hard to walk away.”

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Now, he feels compelled, becoming one of a number of older coaches across the country who are choosing to retire rather than risk their health in the coronavirus pandemic.

In June, he gave his retirement notice after 40 years of coaching, the last 25 years at Eunice High. His cancer was in remission but his immune system was compromised. He did not think he could remain safe when a new school year and a new football season began. Not in a locker room where his players dress shoulder to shoulder. Not in the weight room. Not in crowded school hallways.

“My doctors thought it was in my best interest not to coach,” Trosclair said. “I was on the edge; the coronavirus got me to jump over.”

While young athletes are considered less vulnerable to Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, aging coaches are at higher risk of infection and having a severe response. At least 30 high school and club team coaches have died of coronavirus-related causes, according to a search of online obituaries. Though some were in their 70s, one was 27, another 30.

Countless other coaches have been forced to reconsider whether it is worth risking their health to continue their careers.

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It remains unclear how many coaches have retired for reasons related to Covid-19. The N.C.A.A., the National Federation of State High School Associations, state athletic associations and coaching organizations said they have not kept such figures.

But a number of states have reported an uptick in teacher retirements, even if it is uncertain how many are related to the coronavirus. Louisiana, for instance, reported 335 retirements in August compared with 196 that month in 2019. In Ohio, the retirement rate more than doubled from July 1 through mid-August, compared to that period a year ago.

“More so than in previous years, we are hearing about coaching staff retirees,” said Jennifer Mann, a data technician with the Clell Wade Coaches Directory, a well-regarded national networking tool for coaches that tracks collegiate, high school and junior high school sports.

Even so, they may represent a fraction of coaches, though their departures often are deeply felt in their communities.

“There are hundreds of thousands of high school coaches across the country in various sports, so even if there are hundreds who have retired, it is a pretty small number,” Bruce Howard, a spokesman for the national high school federation, said in an email.

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Some coaches who walked away said the pandemic had led them into deep introspection about their safety and their life’s direction.

Norm Ogilvie, 60, Duke University’s longtime track and field coach, said in a statement that he felt “there needs to be a final meaningful chapter for the remaining years I have on our rapidly changing planet.”

Mike Fox, 64, retired after 22 years and seven trips to the College World Series as the baseball coach at the University of North Carolina. The coronavirus, he told the school, made him realize “it is time for me to be a full-time husband, father and grandfather and do other things with my life.”

Joe Bustos, 57, who won two Arizona state basketball championships in 23 seasons coaching at North High School in Phoenix, stepped down, expressing frustration with virtual teaching and concern after two Arizona teachers died over the summer of Covid-19, including a 61-year-old high school swimming coach.

“I’m just afraid; I don’t want to be playing Russian roulette,” Bustos said in an interview. “I love coaching and teaching, but at the end of the day you’ve got to look out for yourself.”

Peter Kingsley, 54, taught middle school for nearly three decades in Boulder, Colo., and coached football, basketball, wrestling and track. But he has epilepsy and a circulatory condition that leaves him predisposed to strokes. His wife urged him to retire because of the pandemic. And he was influenced by spending 22 days in hospice with his father, who died this summer of bone cancer.

“I had a choice to make whether to potentially die or keep coaching and teaching,” Kingsley said in a telephone interview. “I just needed to stay safe.”

Trosclair’s decision to leave coaching in Louisiana came reluctantly, after battling a cancer that he had never heard of until he learned he had it.

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In spring 2014, he began to experience dizzy spells and fatigue. His blood pressure rose and his kidneys began to fail. The diagnosis was multiple myeloma, which begins in the bone marrow and limits the body’s ability to fight off infections, weakens bones, reduces kidney function and lowers a person’s red blood cell count.

Trosclair began chemotherapy and taking a corticosteroid called Decadron, which left him intensely focused, insatiably hungry and agitated from extreme insomnia followed by bouts of crashing. He recalls his oncologist at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston saying that he might lose his job in such a severe state. He jokingly replied, “They already think I’m crazy, so they’ll give me a pass.”

He asked one of his assistant coaches to remain vigilant in case his temper flared. Some days he felt 20 years old, he told a Louisiana reporter. Other days he felt 100. Still, Trosclair coached every game in the 2014 football season. In early 2015, he underwent a stem cell transplant. His own blood-making stem cells were harvested, frozen, then reintroduced after chemotherapy to produce new, healthy blood cells. He spent six weeks in Houston for the treatment and recovery.

“People in Eunice raised some money and it was a big help,” Trosclair said.

Months later, though, a mix-up over blood thinners during the 2015 football season led to a blood clot in his left leg and forced him into intensive care at a hospital in Lafayette, La. His left foot swelled to three times its normal size. Three surgeries were required, causing him to miss his only game in 25 seasons. Trosclair spoke to his team beforehand by phone, saying, “I love you. Go out and play.”

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Irma Trosclair, his wife and the superintendent of schools in Lafayette Parish, one of Louisiana’s largest school districts, still keeps a video of the bedside pep talk.

“When I saw him doing that, with all those tubes he had going, I knew that coaching wasn’t just work,” she said. “It was what was going to pull him through.”

In 2018, Eunice High unexpectedly reached the Class 3A state championship game and prevailed, 59-47, with Trosclair’s Wing-T offense, an intricate symphony of misdirection and strategic passing. After a quarter century at the school and five seasons of fighting cancer, he claimed his biggest football victory. Trosclair told a television interviewer, “It was like the universe opened its doors and said, here you go, here’s a gift for you.”

The high school and its football team confirm that Eunice still measures up, even as its population and student enrollment continue to shrink and a third of its 9,800 residents live in poverty. It is the only traditional public high school in St. Landry Parish to carry an A-rating of academic performance from the state and has maintained its diversity a half century after desegregation.

“When you think of Eunice High, you think of Coach Trosclair,” said the principal, Mitch Fontenot. “Everybody looks up to him. He has a real calming effect. It’s a big loss.”

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Sixteen starters were to return for the 2020 season. Another deep playoff run seemed possible. But the coronavirus shuttered Louisiana schools in March and the state became a hot spot. Trosclair no longer felt he could protect himself and manage his team safely at the same time. Retirement began to seem inevitable.

On June 18, Trosclair saw Dr. Donna M. Weber, his oncologist at M.D. Anderson, who wrote in a letter that he was at particular risk of infection during the pandemic and that she “advised him not to return to work.”

Irma Trosclair said, “He needed his doctor to tell him he absolutely had no other option. I think he’s very much at peace with it.”

There has been sobering validation of Trosclair’s decision. The athletic director of an area high school also retired with multiple myeloma. The father of one of Trosclair’s former players died of Covid-19. Trosclair’s replacement at Eunice High, interim coach Andre Vige, 41, tested positive, along with two Eunice High players, one of whom was hospitalized. All have recovered. Two teenage brothers in the area, the youngest a football player, also contracted the virus. The elder brother died at age 19.

“It’s possible for young people to die,” Trosclair said. “That’s the scary thing.”

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He spent the summer playing golf, taking 6 a.m. walks around the Eunice High track and lifting weights at the school when no one was around. He takes Revlimid, a maintenance medication, three weeks of every four. And while fatigue and muscle spasms persist, acupuncture has helped relieve the burning feeling in his feet. His red blood cell count and other markers are encouraging. Still, he has avoided large gatherings.

When the Eunice city council honored him, his wife went in his place. His grandchildren have not visited since March. When his youngest son, Trenon, 26, got married in June, Trosclair sat in an isolated section of the church, then left through a side door and skipped the reception.

“I’m really sad right now,” he texted his wife.

Louisiana’s delayed high school football season is set to begin on Oct. 1. Trosclair would like to remain involved with the team in some manner. He has studied plays at the dining room table with Trenon, the team’s secondary coach. Perhaps he will help with game planning. He would like to attend games, if he can stand away from everyone, but his wife is skeptical. She has another idea.

“Hopefully they’ll let me keep my same parking spot,” Irma Trosclair said. “Then we can watch the whole game from my vehicle. Surely they’ll grant that for Coach.”

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Gillian Brassil contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill and Susan Beachy contributed research.


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