Of course, it was always important to remember that he was a football coach and could not be defeated, at least not without a struggle.
And who could help but picture him walking through the glass doors of Holy Cross Hospital as if it were a stadium filled with enormous possibility? Or wearing that funny porcupine flattop as if determined to hang on to what simple prettiness he could of the old days? Oh, what a haircut! And now some of his boys at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring are paying money to try to get their hair fashioned that way, in the good but archaic style of Brady Straub.
You might imagine what happened in his home June 19, the day school let out for the teachers in Montgomery County.
He was in his bedroom, lying on his side, almost asleep, when the phone rang. He could hear his wife say "okay" a couple of times. And he could feel the sting in his side where the doctors, doing a liver biopsy, had stuck needles the day before, long, impossible needles that seemed to reach clear across to the other side. Then she was coming up the stairs, and he was remembering how he used to take her to those dances at the student union, back when they were just kids in school. And how he'd take her out for a pizza afterward and they'd talk for hours, and laugh, and then he'd walk her to the door. Those walks, those good long walks.
She sat on the edge of the bed. And she told him what it was. He knew she wanted to cry. So he said right away, "We're gonna beat this thing. I'm telling you, Janie. We're going to beat it."
And he was glad that he knew, bad as it was. He was glad, all right, even if it was cancer. Cancer, of all things, and of both the colon and the liver. Brady Straub, who is only 37 and the best and toughest coach you'd ever want to meet, had cancer.
"As you know," he told his boys last Saturday morning, the first day of football practice, "I've been ill. There'll be times when you see me sitting down or lying down or even leaving the field to go inside and rest up. This is because I'm like a Cadillac running with an engine the size of a lawn mower. I'm sick, boys. But I guarantee you, I'll give this team 110 percent all the time, no matter what."
Then he told the 48 assembled what he expected of them. Although coaches generally are pretty lousy at giving speeches, Brady Straub has a way of letting you know that he's read a poem or two in his time. He's read them through, start to finish, and come away somehow different, changed in a way that will make him a "better human being," as coaches are known to call people looking to do the right thing.
This one poet, football Coach Grant Teaff of Baylor University, once said, "I am only one, but I am one. What I do can and does make a difference. So let me do it to my God-given ability," and Brady Straub never forgot it. He took it to heart. And this is what Brady Straub told his boys about heart:
"Heart is something you've got to bring with you. But what is heart? Heart is something we can't give you. But heart makes up for a lot of things. Maybe you don't have the size or the speed or the strength, but you were born blessed with the ability to hit. You've got to look and find something within you, and it all comes from heart. You can't go to the store and buy it. We can't order it for you. There's nothing we can do about it, but if you look real hard, maybe you'll find it.
"Heart, like I said, makes up for a lot of things."
He knew he was really sick over the Easter break, when he and Janie and the kids, Amy and Katie, were visiting family in Knoxville.
For some reason, he couldn't eat. Everything seemed to sit on his sternum and he was nauseated. Then about a week later, after they'd returned from Tennessee to Maryland, he was cutting the grass out in the yard and started feeling it again. He came inside and sat on the steps leading up to the kitchen.
"I don't feel well," he told his wife. "Something's wrong."
She said, "I'll call the doctor and make an appointment."
And he told her something she already knew: Brady Straub was never one for doctors.
The way he always dealt with his players, he'd say right off the bat, "Don't lie to me; tell me the truth," because that was how he liked to be treated. If he thought a kid wasn't talented enough to play, he'd pull the kid aside after practice and say so. He never made any guarantees. And he never pretended to be anything he wasn't.
Back when he was in college at Middle Tennessee State, where he'd been a baseball star, Straub had talked to several scouts about playing in the big leagues and said he wouldn't sign for nothing, and one had told him they could pick up 50 really poor kids with equal or better talent for what he was asking. He never forgot that. It was hard, but it was honest.
His father had driven a milk truck in Maryland before retiring and moving to Dalmatia, Pa. Brady always said his father had a tough life, getting out of bed every night at 12:30 and hitting the streets. Bob Straub delivered milk to giant supermarkets and little quick stops. He'd get home at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, take a shower, eat a little something, then head out to the ballpark. Almost every day, Brady could count on his father giving him a ride home after practice. They were close in a way you really couldn't put into words, close enough for Brady to remember his father as being a great teacher and coach who happened to drive a milk truck for a living.
When Brady Straub was a boy, it seemed playing games meant a whole lot more than it does today. There were only a couple of decent movie theaters and no MTV. Back then, you found an open field or went to the ballpark when the day slowed down. His mother might have gone so far as to inquire about his health if he moped around the house for more than a half-hour. Who ever thought kids would find transport in shopping malls? Hell, who'd ever heard of a shopping mall?
There was baseball and there was football and there was basketball and there was wrestling. And that's all there was. At Northwood High School in Silver Spring, where he later would coach for 15 years, he lettered in three sports and won the county wrestling championship against Larry (Thunder) Thornton, a 145-pounder who'd won the title the two previous years. Thornton would have won the match had he not heaved Straub off the mat and slammed him home, knocking him unconscious. Robert (Dr. Mac) McNelis, the Kennedy assistant principal who then was Straub's wrestling coach, said the official disqualified Thornton for not returning his opponent safely to the mat. Brady woke up in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, the champion by default.
"That was the first time I'd ever been knocked out," he said. "The second time was when they put me under for surgery."
Brady Straub took over as football coach at Kennedy one year before the Montgomery County school board closed Northwood's doors forever. Some people accused him of "being just like Benedict Arnold," leaving his alma mater at its time of need to work at its biggest rival. He took their criticism pretty hard, remembering the 15 years of coaching he'd put in at the school and how he and his staff had turned a losing program into a winner. While at Kennedy, he oftentimes slipped and called it Northwood. He told his close friend and assistant, Ken Rippetoe, that his love for the old place was something he could never give up.
"It was home," he said, "a part of me."
When Kennedy played Northwood in 1984 for the last time ever, Brady Straub watched the game from a chair on the sideline. He'd missed almost two weeks of school with a virus so bad many of his colleagues, including Dr. Mac, wondered if maybe it was something worse than an intestinal bug. With the new job, Straub had been under a tremendous amount of pressure, and several friends suggested he get tests to see if he had stomach ulcers. Shortly after watching his team slip by Northwood, he started to come around and eventually felt strong enough to guide Kennedy to the state championship.
Last March, shortly before Easter vacation, Straub had a complete physical examination and received, he says, "flying colors. My doctor's only comment was that I was in good enough shape to get in even better shape.
"Then, out of nowhere, it hit."
Over the following three-month period, during which he had countless blood tests, a gastrointestinal exam, a CAT scan and a nuclear scan, Straub lost almost 50 pounds, dropping from 195 to 146. The examination of his colon and liver biopsy he had in June both proved cancerous, but he said he was prepared to do "anything it takes to get well. I was ready to take a year away and relax."
On July 17, he said, "I was supposed to have surgery at 7:45 in the morning. They were going to insert a pump that would send small doses of chemotherapy to my liver. It was one of three choices my doctor said I had.
"I could have done nothing and let the doctors sit back and observe me. I could have treated it with straight chemotherapy, which gives you about a 20 percent success rate. Or I could have the operation and have the pump put in, giving me an 80 percent chance of success. It took me only about 10 minutes to decide. There was really no decision to make. I wanted the surgery."
He said he came to in the recovery room and asked the nurse, "Did they get the pump in?" When she told him no, the pain seemed even worse.
"They went inside," he said, "and looked around. Then they stitched me right back up. They found more cancer in my colon than they'd anticipated. Now I'm taking chemotherapy once a week, and I've got this scar forming that's shaped like a question mark, just like a question mark etched right across my lower belly. It runs right around the navel and then comes straight down."
Brady Straub wore his favorite coaching outfit to practice the other day: Kelly green shorts, a white shirt and white athletic socks dressed with a clover leaf on each ankle. There were only four players wearing flattops, but Shawn Crawford, a junior linebacker and the first to cut his hair that way, figured it wouldn't be long before some of the other guys started looking for an old-time barber. Crawford had been on vacation when he heard about Brady Straub. The mother of one of his teammates had called him out in Ocean City with the news; she'd said that Coach Straub had inoperable cancer and was dying.
As soon as he returned home, Crawford went to the hospital with a box of saltwater taffy, a gift for Straub. He said he felt good knowing that his taffy was the first "real food" Brady had eaten in three days. Later that night, his mother told him not to worry. She said Coach Straub would pick up, she could tell, and that was when he decided to get the flattop. He figured he had to do it.
A few weeks later, Crawford went by Straub's office to see how he was doing. This was on a Friday noon, less than 24 hours before August two-a-days began. Straub was sitting at his old metal desk, telling the story again.
"Every doctor I've been to," he was saying, "and I mean every one -- the internist, the gastroenterologist, the surgeon, the oncologist and my family doctor -- my first question after they finished testing me was: Am I going to be able to coach football this year?"