When Brady Straub learned that he had cancer of the colon and liver early last summer, the one question he asked his doctors was whether he would be able to coach his football team at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring through one more season.
He told his family and friends that he would not die, and he set out to prove it, working the entire season and missing only one practice. Those times people asked him if he truly believed he would get well, Straub said he was a football coach and could not be defeated, at least not without a struggle. "Heart makes up for a lot of things," he told his team last August.
They buried Brady Allen Straub yesterday in the rain and cold at Parklawn Memorial Park in Rockville, three days after his fight with cancer ended and he died at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital. Like Straub himself, so many of those who attended his funeral seemed unwilling to surrender the life of a man only 38 years in this world. Long after the crowd of about 1,500 had dispersed, huddles of Straub's former students and athletes remained by the oak coffin, touching the bed of yellow roses and carnations, remembering.
"Brady Straub was not just a football coach at a high school in the state of Maryland," said David Lieberman, an assistant coach at Kennedy. "He was everything good and right in a human being. When you met him, he left an impression you never forgot. He always said the right thing, and not because he was trying to. He was just different. He was special."
Straub coached at Northwood High in Silver Spring for 15 years before he left the school in 1984, one year before the Montgomery County school board closed it. During this, his second year at Kennedy, Straub repeatedly promised his boys that he was feeling better and would see the season through, even when chemotherapy treatments left him exhausted. Everyone, including his staff, believed him and refused to accept the disease as life-threatening.
On the first day of August two-a-days, Straub met with his team in the school auditorium and talked about what heart means. One of his players, tackle Shawn Crawford, said it was a pretty speech and sad in a way, but happy, too.
During the funeral service, it was not hard to picture Straub as he was on that hot summer morning when everything seemed bright and new. Straub entered the room wearing that familiar porcupine flattop, and he walked back and forth with his hands balled up in his pockets. He told his boys you couldn't buy heart in a store. You couldn't order it from a mail-order house. You had to look really hard to find it, and the place you found it was within.
The last time the players saw their coach was the night of Dec. 3, at the football banquet after the Cavaliers' 5-5 season. The boosters club gave Straub a plaque with parts of what everybody had come to call "the heart speech" engraved on it. Straub was weak and his voice slurred; he sat on a stool most of the night.
Afterward, Jerry Shuster, president of the boosters club and the father of one of the boys, went up to Straub and thanked him for helping his son. It sounded so final, the way it came out. Shuster knew he had implied that Brady Straub's days as a football coach were over. Perplexed, Straub wanted to know if Shuster's son had enjoyed the season. Shuster said he had. Straub wanted to know if the boy was coming back out again next year. Shuster said he planned to. Then Straub said, "Well, so am I, Jerry."
Yesterday at the funeral, the crowd spilled out of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Kensington, and hundreds more waited outside on the front steps. The night before, the line of visitors ran down the center of the church, cut a quick left where the pews ended in the back, ferried out the big double doors, through the foyer and another set of doors and out onto the sidewalk that circled the building. It was drizzling outside, but they came and waited anyway, whispering, almost everybody saying Straub's death did not make a bit of sense; it just wasn't fair. Some of the players said nothing.
Shawn Crawford, dressed in a handsome suit and tie, said he could not turn off the pictures of his coach that kept tumbling around in his head. He could even hear Straub talking. He remembered how somebody once asked Straub if he would beat cancer, and how Straub had said he had no doubts, and how he had laughed. Straub had a way of laughing that just made you crack up. Then Crawford started thinking about things that confused him and left him feeling empty.
Crawford said you find a man who stands for everything good and then something happens and takes him away. He said you see so many people every day who don't respect themselves and don't respect others, and they get along fine. A lot of nice things go their way. And then here comes Brady Straub, working so hard to make each moment count, to serve others and take care of his family and all the people he loves, and look what happens.
"People are saying to keep your head up because Straub would want it that way," Crawford said. "I can understand people saying Straub would want it that way, but somehow I think it's too early yet. I'm not ready to hold my head up. It's still too hard. Some people don't know what we lost. The gap is too big. What I keep wondering is who can fill it."
"The players are just blank right now," Lieberman said. "They're standing around, looking for something. I'm the same way. I'm an adult, but I feel the same way. There's got to be some kind of understanding. What I know is that Brady Straub will always be looking over their shoulders. They've got a responsibility now, and it's to Brady. He had this credo he lived by -- to be a gentleman, a scholar and an athlete. They've got to be the very best they can be."
Straub lived only a block from Lieberman. Almost every day, Lieberman went over to see how his old friend was doing. Sometimes the bedroom door was closed and Jane, Straub's wife, said Brady was resting or just not feeling up to seeing anybody. Those days, Lieberman sat and talked with Jane Straub, and she picked him up. She was a tower of strength, Lieberman said, and their two little girls, Amy and Katie, were so lovely and kind. Whenever Lieberman saw Straub, the first thing he said was, "Well, how you doing, Brady?" Even at the very end, Straub said he was feeling better. He might start, "A little wobbly, a little dizzy, my voice is slurred," but he always said he was feeling better.
"He wanted us to be like the people we wanted the kids to emulate," Lieberman said. "He was the most outstanding human being I've ever known. You couldn't outwork him; he lived what he preached. When he died, he didn't want to die. He fought to the last breath, I guarantee you."
During his meditation at the funeral, Edwin C. DeLong, Straub's minister, said the last time he saw the coach was at the hospital. When DeLong asked Straub if there was something he wanted to pray about, Straub sat up in bed and put his hands together. DeLong recalled the way Straub's eyes still burned bright, the way he nodded yes, smiled and said, "Life."