Jim Weber is sitting at the kitchen table. Tacos are in front of him. His wife, Pam, is to the left. Maverick and Zoe, between them about 200 pounds of Rhodesian Ridgeback, are fighting the urge to join the lunch. They are good dogs.
This is a happy family. They have a life filled with laughter. Two sons in high school, a beautiful house in Stilwell, and Chiefs season tickets. The Chiefs are a big part of the Webers’ lives. They thought about giving the tickets up a while ago, during the Pioli years, but the boys argued hard against it.
Home games are like vacation days for the Webers. They leave by 6:30 in the morning, stop for coffee, and get to Arrowhead before the gates open. Jim grills breakfast, then lunch. Then they go inside and scream for the Chiefs. This is a very Kansas City way of life they have.
Jim’s favorite player is Dustin Colquitt, the punter. Jim likes that no matter what, playoff game or 2-14 season, Colquitt brings it every week. Never an offday. Always goes hard. That’s taken on a different sort of meaning for Jim ever since the diagnosis.
The diagnosis. It’s multiple myeloma, an incurable form of cancer that chokes off the body’s ability to create blood cells, and eventually eats away at the bone. So, now the Chiefs and the diagnosis are big parts of the Webers’ lives.
Jim is using one to help deal with the other. He is putting the Chiefs in the center of the fight for his life, and maybe that sounds strange, but sports have a remarkable way of entering our lives like this, don’t they?
“You can see I outkicked the coverage,” Jim says, smiling at Pam.
“Well, he had more hair then,” Pam says, smiling back.
“But it’s the chemo,” Jim says, “so you can’t make fun of me.”
They both giggle. Pam looks away. Reality is always there, even when she tries to forget.
By now, the people at the Mayo Clinic know Jim by sight. He’s the guy in the red Chiefs jersey, Colquitt and No. 2 on the back, there to fight cancer with a smile on his face and a plan stolen straight from a football coach.
The dialogue around football is often filled with out-of-place metaphors and hyperbole. There are no true battles in the trenches. No real heroes on the gridiron, not in the purest meaning of that word. They are men playing a brutal and enthralling sport, but what about when the analogies go the other way?
What if a man truly facing a life-or-death fight uses football to make the journey more digestible, less frightening, more, well, fun?
“I’m glass half full,” Jim says. “Besides, this makes it easier to explain to the kids. And to stay positive.”
Jim didn’t ask for this fight. He shouldn’t be in this fight. Most people with multiple myeloma are older. In their 60s, at least. Many in their 70s or 80s. Jim is 49, and he looks younger than that. He’s in very good shape. Actually, he first started noticing the problems when his marathon training slowed.
He’d been running 10 miles at a time, sometimes more, with no issues. He was getting stronger. Then, like a switch, he could barely run a mile. The doctors thought it was a sinus problem. They gave him antibiotics, then different inhalers. One doctor wanted to do surgery.
Jim knew it was something bigger — something scarier — when he had the heart attack. At least, that’s what he thought it was. He was sitting at his son’s swim meet — the state swim meet, actually — when his chest tightened. It was his entire upper torso, just squeezing in on him, but he didn’t want to say anything.
A few days later, it was only going worse. Jim had to sit down to brush his teeth. A walk up the stairs left him sucking air. His eyes were fading. Pam worried. Took him to the emergency room. The first thing they heard was that Jim was anemic. A nurse told him his levels were so bad she was surprised he hadn’t passed out.
The tests seem to never stop. Symptoms overlap, and the process of elimination can be frustrating. Eventually, Jim and Pam are hearing subtle signals that it might be cancer. The doctors sent that message slowly. Jim thinks they wanted him to absorb it on his own. When they told him about myeloma, he Googled it, and, well, that was a mistake. The stories are almost all terrible.
But then the doctors started talking about the treatment. Four cycles of chemotherapy, each lasting four weeks. Then they’d do stem cell transplants. That would be about a month. After that, they’d know more.
Jim thought about it. Like he says, he’s glass-half-full. Sixteen weeks of chemo sounded like a football season to him. A month of stem cell transplants sounded like the playoffs. Hearing the results sounded like the championship.
That’s when he realized.
The Chiefs’ home opener is his Super Bowl.
“I can only control what I can control,” he says. “Everything else is out of my hands.”
He sounds a little like a football player, right?
Most of the time, sports are such a silly enterprise. We take them much too seriously. We build massive stadiums, often with public money, and often with statues in front. Tom Brady is testifying under oath about the air pressure in footballs. Billions upon billions of dollars are spent, invested, and gambled on these games.
But, sometimes, sports can be the most important thing in the world. They can provide structure, a model, a distraction. That’s what football is doing for Jim.
He made himself a spreadsheet, which in reality is sort of like the box score of his season. Each week, he grades himself how he does with the parts of his treatment he can control.
Did he exercise six times, for at least 60 minutes? Did he drink a hundred ounces of water each day? Take all his pills? He grades himself, pass or fail.
Jim is under no illusions here. When the results come back, the cancer may still be there. It could be stronger than before. He chooses not to think about that. Pam says she pretends the worst is not even an option. We all have different ways of coping.
In Jim’s schedule, he is now in a break between the end of his regular season and beginning of his playoffs. He can’t know how this will turn out, of course, but every once in a while he thinks back to a meeting he had with his doctor.
Jim’s doctor is a kind man, brilliant, and by all accounts terrific at what he does. He is also from Malta, and not much of a sports fan. Particularly not American football. But he knows it must be important to Jim, because he’s always wearing that jersey, so one day the doctor walked in and asked if Jim’s team won that weekend.
Jim mentioned that the season did not start until the fall. There were no games. The doctor does not understand much about sports. But he does understand how to relate.
He looked at Jim’s chart, and smiled.
“Well,” he said. “We are winning here.”