BOZEMAN - It's people that matter to Jim Svoboda.

That's why he hates cancer.

The man who became the head coach of a college football team at the age of 26 knew he could handle a strand of the disease that's only diagnosed in this country 1,000 times a year.

The former offensive coordinator at UCLA knew the 11 hours of surgery it would take to remove an expansive tumor wouldn't put him out of commission.

The husband who lives a thousand miles away from his wife in order to coach quarterbacks at Montana State knew spending hours researching cancer of the appendix, interviewing doctors and moving to Omaha, Neb., for a summer on top of keeping up with his duties to the Bobcats wouldn't be exhausting.

"When there's a lot at stake," he said, "there's a high level of motivation."

He's a man who never looks back. But he does look to his sides.

And that's the problem.

Svoboda's corner is loaded with people who would brand a bull blindfolded if it would dissolve the cancer that harbored in his abdomen.

"My brother was doing research, my friends were doing research, my wife was doing research," Svoboda said. "I think some people might have done more than I did."

But all the studying in the world won't do away with the feeling of helplessness those closest to him felt. Just ask Dale Ploessl, Svoboda's roommate, colleague and friend. His sister has been battling ovarian cancer for two years.

"Unless you've been through something like that before, I'm not sure anyone really realizes the toll it takes on the family and those around you," Ploessl said. "When you're the bystander, you don't know what to say or do. You want to help but there's really nothing you can do to make them feel better physically. It's a weird feeling.

"You just try to be there to give them everything they need when they need it, especially when they have that bad day. Because they're going to have some bad days."

Even though he's a man who gives pep talks for a living, Svoboda had some of those tough days.

"It's real," Svoboda said. "You have some very dark times where it's grim reaper kind of stuff. You're looking at some scary things right in the eye."

But that's the thing about football coaches - staring something down never seems to be a problem.

"To use a trite statement, it is what it is," Svoboda said. "There is no choice about how to approach this. You smack it head on."

Ploessl said the same thing.

"The treatments are a lot better than they used to be. If you got cancer 10 years ago, you got busy planning your funeral. Now people have the feeling that this is something they can fight."

Through Svoboda's fight, there was something that was constant, something that has never left his life, something that is never far from a practice field.

A good laugh.

The day Svoboda returned to Bozeman, he noticed a few supplies missing from his office. Bobcat assistant coaches Bo Beck and Kane Ioane came to him with a confession.

"They said, 'Sorry coach,' " Svoboda remembers. " 'I guess some of the guys just didn't think you were going to make it.' "

It's easy to smile now, but the process Svoboda went through was long and drawn out. It began with something very foreign for any football player or coach - seeking treatment for a pain that wasn't debilitating.

In Svoboda's case, it was a slight pain in his side.

"I think the first reaction for a lot of people, especially in this industry, is, 'Ah, it'll go away,' " Ploessl said. "We all kind of feel like we're supermen, a little bit. But you have to evaluate that sometimes and realize we're going to get sick just like everybody else."

Oddly enough, it was the inspiration of a tough guy that got Svoboda into the doctor's office.

"I lost my father to colon cancer and he was a very tough individual," Svoboda said. "There were certain things that he noticed with his body that you can't ignore. One of them is unexplained pain. It wasn't that I couldn't deal with it, it was just ticking me off because no one had an explanation for it. So I was persistent in finding out what was causing it."

Finally Svoboda got the CT scan that may have saved his life. Doctors discovered a form of cancer that centered on his appendix when they detected fluid in the scan.

Considering the particular strain of cancer can be asymptomatic, there's no telling how long it was in Svoboda's body before it was discovered.

In fact, a great contingent of the medical community probably doesn't know anything about the condition at all. One doctor in Bozeman who worked closely with Svoboda said he had never seen the disease in 25 years of practice.

"To a large degree, you have to take it into your own hands and find out the nature of it," Svoboda said. "Who else has had it? What's it like? What's the surgery like? But the main thing was to find who had really seen a lot of this disease."

It turns out it was a pretty short list: Creighton University in Omaha, a facility in Houston and one more in Baltimore. Like a coach evaluating a recruit, Svoboda went in for home visits at each hospital.

Creighton came out on top.

"I had a list of questions. Some of it's a gut feeling. Some of it's other research you do," Svoboda said. "I had people talk to other people in the hospital about this particular doctor and I just couldn't find anybody who said a bad word about him."

After the team at Creighton finished the sunup-to-sundown procedure, there was some good news to report. Some of the best possible news.

The disease had a low-grade malignancy.

As he recounted the day, Svoboda's comments rang like those from a post game press conference.

"I was fortunate, given the extent of the surgery, that I didn't have any complications," he said. "I had a good physician. I had a good team. They put me back together and I was walking as soon as I was out of the hospital."

From there, Svoboda got to work on rewriting the medical record books.

"I ended up getting out of the hospital faster than anybody my doctor had ever dealt with in hundreds of procedures," Svoboda said. "Maybe that's the competitive part of me that says, 'What do we have to do to move forward and get

healthy?' "

As of now, Svoboda is healthy. He's in better shape, Ploessl said with a hint of envy, than "half of the (Bobcat) coaching staff."

But in four to five months, when he goes back to Omaha for a re-evaluation, there are no guarantees. It's a reality he hopes his players can grasp.

"I think about my mortality more," Svoboda said. "And I think you want your guys to consider that, too. You almost want them to be grateful. Because there's so many things to be grateful for."

One of them is people.

It was the only thing that brought a tear to Svoboda's eye in an hour-long conversation about his condition.

"The e-mails, the calls, the texts, the cards," Svoboda remembers. "It was unreal. It really made a difference.

"It's inspirational. You want to get better for those people."

Because at the end of the day, it's not wins, it's not football, it's not sports that really make life worth living, Svoboda said.

"It's people that really matter."

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