LINCOLN — If it’s August, I’m driving to Lincoln to see Milt Tenopir.
But this one’s different.
This is not 1983, when I was a sports writer in Kansas City driving up I-29 to do a piece on the Nebraska offensive line juggernaut. That was the first time I met Milt. He was sitting at his desk during lunch hour, just him and the country song playing on the radio. Reporters weren’t allowed up on the second floor of the old South Stadium football offices. But Milt told me to come up, and so I sneaked up the stairs and turned right to find his office. I did this every summer.
He would wax philosophical on his “boys,” those mammoth technicians who beat the tar out of every defender in sight. I would soak it up. We hit it off. As a reporter, you try not to get close to the people you cover. I broke the rule this time.
This was not that trip to Lincoln, where Milt invited me to his house after a KU game in the late 1990s, when he hosted his annual O-line BBQ. All of his boys were there, wolfing down red meat and acting like crazy brothers, with the proud papa watching.
This was not that trip to see Milt at his private booster meeting, the “Bugeaters.” He had invited me to listen. When I got there, I was chased out by the members. Milt went after me. Hilarity ensued.
This was not like my trip to see the coach last August, when I met him at an east Lincoln restaurant to talk about him joining Barry Switzer’s “Coaches’ Cabana,” where he would do live reactions to a Husker game on a computer and on camera. He was excited about it. Coaches may leave the game, but the game never leaves them.
No, this was different. On Wednesday afternoon, I found myself driving through central Lincoln, tooling down 40th Street. With a lump in my throat.
When I found Milt’s house, I parked and walked up to the front door. There was a Husker sign that read, “29 glory years.” Gotta be him.
The front door swung open. There was the coach.
He’d lost a bunch of weight, to be sure. He was wearing a Ben Hogan cap. To cover up his bald head.
His tired body moved slowly. His voice was a little raspy. He looked and sounded like a man who was going through chemotherapy four days a week.
Uncle Milt is sick.
He has leukemia. Specifically, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a disease that plows through bone marrow, preventing it from making red and white blood cells. It’s a cancer more common for children under 15. Milt is 74.
“I first noticed it on May 1,” Tenopir said. “I was out mowing the back yard. I couldn’t finish. I was just wiped out. I had to come in and lay down. I thought, well, it’s just the flu or something.
“A week later, I was out back, going to plant some tomatoes. It hit me again. I went to my doctor here in Lincoln and got my blood checked.
“I got a call later from my doc. He said my hemoglobin quit working. I said, ‘Let’s take a shot and get it fixed.’ They said it was leukemia.
“Needless to say, I don’t have much of a garden this year.”
His doctor then gave him this bit of news: It was bad enough that without treatment, he might make it to Thanksgiving. After that, well ...
He recommended that Milt see two specialists in Omaha, with the Nebraska Medical Center.
So now, on Thursday and Friday, he is driven up to Omaha to get chemo treatments in west Omaha. On Saturday and Sunday, the treatments come at the Med Center.
On Monday, he crashes.
“You’re just pooped,” Tenopir said. “You can’t do anything. The way they treat it is, they fill you full of chemo, all kinds of drugs. You keep doing that until you get rid of the bad cells, so the good ones can grow back.”
He used to tell me about trap blocks and cutting. Now the coach is giving me lessons on how to beat cancer.
I saw hope. I saw it in the twinkle in those blue eyes. The cancer changed his body, but not his spirit.
It made me think of the Milt who used to talk with passion about lining up and kicking Oklahoma’s butt. It reminded me of the Milt who, the night before a KU game at the team hotel in Overland Park, Kansas, got up on stage in the hotel bar and sang karaoke.
He belted out “My Way.”
He’ll do this his way, too. Fighting. Scrapping. Milt’s offensive lines were relentless. That was always him coming out.
“Got the heart of a lineman, buddy,” Milt said. “I have a lot of support.”
You bet. The boys are there for him. Dean Steinkuhler and Mark Traynowicz, Zach and Erik Wiegert, Rob and Jon Zatechka, and so many more former linemen, have called or come to see him. Some of his former players from his days as a high school coach in Colorado called, too. Tom Osborne comes by once a week to check on his offensive line guru.
Then there was the gathering. Brenden Stai recently had a bunch of the old linemen together at the dinner for his annual golf tournament that benefits the “Tiny Hands” Foundation. It officially became a reunion when Milt showed up.
“All but one of the kids were bald,” Milt said, laughing. “So I got up and said, ‘I don’t know whether you guys shave yours or it’s natural, but I got mine from chemo.’ And I took my hat off.”
There were stories, there were jokes, and there were tears and lots and lots of hugs that night. Lots of big tough guys telling their old coach how much they loved him.
At one point, Milt got up to speak. He told a story about each lineman, about when he first recruited them. He told them that the friendships he has with them now mean more than anything.
And he said, if he did nothing else in his career, he hoped he made an impact on the lives of the young men he coached.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“You know, I hope I did (make an impact),” Tenopir said. “Every one of them was hugging me, thanking me, telling me they love me. I love those guys, too.”
They know he’ll fight. Tenopir was like the rock of the NU program for so long. But cancer is one tough customer. So even Milt had to ask his doctor, what if the chemo doesn’t work? What if the cancer doesn’t go into remission?
The doctor told Milt he might be 74, but his organs were in good shape and he didn’t have high blood pressure. A bone marrow transplant could be a possibility. But that’s way down the road.
“Right now I’m supposed to do chemo until January,” he said. “But there are signs that it’s already going into remission.”
Thank goodness it’s August. Football. Switzer called him, to check up, but to also enlist him in the Cabana program again. He’ll do it. Milt has also stopped by Nebraska practice once. He met Alex Lewis. Told him he coached his daddy, Bill.
“They’ve got better players down there,” Tenopir said. “I texted John (Garrison). I told him if he needed some help to tell him who the better players are, to let me know.”
Tenopir coached the best players. Six Outland Trophies under his watch. There’s a painting atop his fireplace of Tenopir and his Outland winners, and Jake Young, the All-America center who died in the Bali bombing over a decade ago.
All these things keep him going. But nothing like another picture atop the fireplace. It’s a portrait of his wife, Terri, their five children and 10 grandkids all lined up with Milt sitting in the middle.
He brought the picture over to me, and went down the row, one by one, on what each of his kids and grandkids was doing in work, school and sports. What a team.
“I’ll be around,” Milt said. “I hate not to be around. Too many things I need to do, too many kids I need to see grow up.”
With that, he needed some rest. I gave the old coach a hug. Until next time.
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