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Wacker facing death with dignity

San Antonio Express-News (08/08/2003)

By David Flores

His voice is raspy, almost squeaky, but his indomitable spirit remains untouched by the cancer that is slowly draining his energy.

Despite his terminal illness, former football coach Jim Wacker is fighting with the same grace and dignity he exemplified during a 37-year career that included glorious stints at Texas Lutheran and Southwest Texas in the 1970s and ’80s.

“ His enthusiasm has not been dampened,” said Ron Harms, who played college ball with Wacker at Valparaiso, Ind., and later coached with him and against him. “It’s just Jim’s personality. He fills the room with energy whenever he walks in.”

Those of us who have known Wacker for decades would expect no less from a man whose zest for life and bountiful enthusiasm have defined his persona and made him such a towering figure to many.

“ I’m staring death in the face,” he said Thursday in a telephone interview from his home in San Marcos. The chemotherapy, radiation and surgery — nothing’s worked. I’m running out of choices, but I’m not giving up. Wacker’s going to fight.

“ You hope for the best, hope for that miracle. It’s in God’s hands, not my hands. It’s not in the physicians’ hands, either. They tried everything they could and were great, but it’s beyond all that now.”

Wacker, 66, was diagnosed with cancer of the thymus, a gland located in the chest just under the breastbone, in November 2000. During surgery, doctors discovered a softball-sized tumor attached to Wacker’s heart.

The cancer went into remission after radiation and chemotherapy treatments, but the tumors reappeared in January and have spread to his lungs.

Given the grim prognosis, Wacker returned home from Hays Memorial Hospital in San Marcos last month.

“ When you are down and everything looks bad and you’re told you’re not going to make it, you ask, ‘Why me, God?’ But once you walk around M.D. Anderson (Cancer Center in Houston) and see people a lot younger than you, little kids with no hair, being treated for cancer, then the question is ‘Why not me, God; why not me, God?’

“ You find people that have it a lot tougher than you. The worst thing is self-pity. You have to fight through it. It’s not going to be easy, of course, but you have to live life and go down the road.”

Wacker became a local icon after leading Texas Lutheran to NAIA Division II national titles in ’74 and ’75, and SWT to NCAA Division II crowns in ’81 and ’82.

He went on to coach at TCU and Minnesota before retiring from coaching in ’92. Wacker returned to SWT in ’98 for a three-year stint as athletic director and retired last year.

Wacker, who grew up in Detroit, compiled a 159-131-3 record in 26 seasons. But his sphere of influence on everyone around him went beyond the victories and the losses, transcending the field on which he imparted his wisdom.

“ He loved coaching,” said Jim’s wife, Lil, who has been a pillar of strength throughout his illness. “He was always enthusiastic and positive. That’s how he lives life. He’s just a beautiful, incredible man.”

Since Wacker returned home from the hospital, former players and coaches have visited, called or sent cards.

On Sunday morning, Harms, former Judson coach D.W. Rutledge and Texas Lutheran coaches Tom Mueller and Bill Schade, plus their wives, were at the Wacker home to read Scripture with him.

“ Basically, life comes down to faith, family, friends and, in my case, football,” Wacker said. “It’s means so much for me to have coaches I’ve worked with and players I’ve coached come by or call. I am so blessed.”

“It humbles you, and you’re so appreciative that they want to share some time with you and give you strength. What a privilege it was to be a football coach and share the highs and lows with so many fine people.”

Cancer may be getting the best of Wacker, but he isn’t really dying. He’s living — and teaching us how to do the same with dignity and integrity.

He’ll always be a coach.