Muskogee Phoenix: Feb. 12, 2007
Team effort: Team rallies around family’s tough times
VIAN, Okla.—On a particularly warm and sunny day last week, Jody Sloan tried not to look directly into the sun or at his son, Seth.
He wore a purple Vian football hat along with the visage of a granite statue as the high school’s grand stands served as background to a small photo shoot.
Seth, looking into the camera as well, opted for a slight smile.
“You’ve been giving them your football face, haven’t you?,” Jody asked his son, still in his stoic state.
“Some of the time,” he answered.
As one of the most prominent senior athletes at Vian High School, Seth Sloan has had to wear many faces during his four-year tenure at the school, but perhaps none more than this year.
While the Vian football team enjoyed its thrilling ride to the Class 2A state championship game, Seth wore the face of the standout quarterback and overall leader of the team. As his team prepares for the basketball postseason, he wears the face of a four-year starter at point guard who averages 10.5 points, 5 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game. When he becomes a preferred walk-on at either SMU or Oklahoma State next fall, he’ll play the part of the fiery-eyed freshman determined to prove his mettle as a Division I football player in hopes of earning a full athletic scholarship.
Yet in spite of all his roles and all the attention that has been mounted on his shoulders, Seth wore a face last semester that was forced upon him in early August—the one of a concerned son of a father with a cancerous tumor the size of a grapefruit located behind his sternum caused by non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Talk about a blindside blitz.
“It was weird,” Seth said. “It just hit me out of nowhere. I mean, my dad’s healthy. We throw the football in the summer.”
Seeing the signs
Paula Sloan, the matriarch of the Sloan family who teaches English at the high school and middle school in addition to serving as Vian’s cheerleading coach, noticed that something wasn’t quite right with her husband much earlier, noticing his incurable rashes, feeling out of shape, excessive napping and increased irritability.
“My wife told me for three or four months,” Jody Sloan said, “‘Jody’s something’s not right with you. You’re out of breath too much.’ And of course, me being a man, I’m OK.”
But he was far from it. After an incident while waterskiing at Greers Ferry, Ark., in late July, he began experiencing significant chest pains. After returning from a trip to Mexico with his family, those pains returned so severe they could not be pacified by Alka-Seltzer tablets. They haunted him the night of July 30.
Jody went to visit local physician Pat Sullivan the next day. After some X-rays were run, Sullivan ordered the patient to go to directly to an emergency room—in this case St. Edward Mercy Medical Center in Fort Smith, Ark.
“He called me and he was like, ‘Paula, can you take me to the emergency room? Do you have time today?’ I was like well yeah. Of course I have time to take you,” Paula said.
The initial diagnosis was lung cancer. Later it was determined that Jody was suffering from mediastinal lymphoma, a form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma located behind the sternum. The chest pain was actually a tumor 10 centimeters in diameter, which was putting tremendous pressure on his right lung.
“It was just horrifying,” Paula said of the news. “You talk about somebody feeling like they got cut off at the knees. Totally unexpected, unprepared.”
When he was able to comprehend what was going on, Jody Sloan came up with a rule that he wanted both Paula and him to live by.
“I didn’t want my situation to affect my three kids’ lives. I didn’t want Seth to miss practices or miss games or my daughter (Sydney, who is a sophomore at Vian) to miss any big cheerleading things,” said Jody, who also has a son, Sylas, a seventh grader at Vian. “My wife’s the cheerleading coach. I didn’t want her to take the season off because of me. There’s too many girls counting on her and I knew they had a chance to be good. And that was the main thing. I had coached some of those kids in youth football and they were like kids to me, my own kids.”
Vian went on to capture the Class 2A state championship in cheerleading later in the fall, but that other activity the Sloans loved had lost some of its luster, particularly for one family member.
“I didn’t know how to feel about it,” Seth said about his dad’s illness. “It was frustrating. Football is still important but it made me think about other things than football… (Jody) wanted me focused on football. It’s my senior year and he didn’t want me to worry about him. It’s hard not to worry about it. It’s always in the back of your head, but he just tried to keep me focused on my goals for the season.”
In spite of the distraction, Seth still went on to accumulate nearly 2,300 yards of offense and 32 touchdowns, including over 1,500 passing yards and throwing for 23 TDs. As a defensive back, he recorded 56 tackles and intercepted four passes on his way to making the All-Phoenix team.
Members of the football team soon experienced similar feelings after word got out about Jody’s condition. In the words of Seth: “It’s Vian,” he said about the town of 1,400 people. “Word travels pretty fast.”
“When I found about it, I totally dedicated my season to Jody,” said senior defensive end Jarrett Tyler, one of Seth’s best friends who was part of the team nucleus that began playing together as third-graders under the guidance of Jody in the Sallisaw Youth League. “We’re like family and I tried to get us (seniors) to dedicate our season to him because he’s just like another dad to us.”
And the overall reaction of the town?
“Totally devastated,” said Joe Paul Simon, who owns Simon’s Ace Home Center in Vian, who with Jody, Don “Duck” Christie and Billy Tyler, Jarrett’s father, shared duties coaching that group of third-graders. “He’s given so much of his time but I knew the type of person Jody is. He’s not a person that’s going to let that get to him. If anyone is going to survive, it’s going to him. He’s a fighter.”
Paula Sloan had a similar response.
“I know he got sick of us asking ‘How are you doing today? Are you having a good day?’ He didn’t complain a lot,” she said. “He’s a fighter.
“And I get teary thinking…”
A collection of tears fell.
“You don’t realize the emotions until you talk about it.”
Help is not far
Midway through the season, Jody Sloan started to go the Hembree Regional Medical Center in Fort Smith for six chemotherapy treatments, once every three weeks. He would schedule his treatments on a Monday on purpose so he that would be feeling well enough to attend Vian’s games on Friday. He ended up not missing a game.
On those days, different culinary delights were prepared by Shawna Rogers, the mother of one of Seth’s best friends, Zach, who plays on Vian’s basketball team as well.
“The bad part was usually I was not feeling very well. I never got to eat anything but the rest of the family did,” Jody said. “Chemo messes up your (sense of) taste and so everything tastes like steel or iron or something, so it didn’t make any difference to me. I didn’t get to enjoy it.”
But the rest of the Sloans did.
“All the kids would come home,” Paula said. “They knew it was daddy’s chemo night. They were like, ‘Momma, did Shawna cook?’ Which was really cute.”
The dinners were just one of the several ways in which the town embraced the family during its time of strife, a period made even more difficult financially by the droughts, increased gas prices, rising productions costs and even the recent ice storm which led to one of the worst farming years in recent memory. The Sloans carry on a family tradition of tending to nearly 1,100 acres of wheat, soybeans and corn south of town.
Paula talked about how Neal Rogers, Zach’s uncle, took a family portrait the Wednesday before Jody started his chemo treatments—when the elder Sloan still had a full head of hair.
“We have been humbled and overwhelmed at the support and love from this community,” Paula said. “We’ve just sat back and said ‘Oh my God. I can’t believe these people have done this.”
Jody remembered how one of his best friends, Bill Anderson of Gore, had some of Jody’s cousins, who also live in Gore, harvest 250 acres of corn at a time when he was not physically able to do so.
Then there was the school itself, which took up donations for the family and let Paula take off with no questions asked when Jody needed her the most.
Paula recalled what the principal of her building, Carla Wortman, told her one day when she asked for additional time off.
“She said, ‘Paula you don’t get do-overs. You go and you set priorities. And Jody’s the priority,’” Paula said. “I mean, just priceless.”
Added Seth: “People gripe about being in a small town all the time but there’s a lot of new things about living in a small town like Vian. Everybody did know the situation and everybody did try to help any way they could.”
A newfound appreciation
The once 10-cenitmeter tumor was last measured at 1.9 centimeters. Following the chemo treatments, Jody started radiation treatments for 20 days (weekends excluded), beginning on Jan. 19. It is the hope that the tumor will be in full remission—the live cancer cells should be dead or at least stopped producing—later this week.
Jody, who was 43 when the tumor was found, has become a walking public service announcement, alerting everyone he knows to see a doctor if he or she experiences anything suspicious.
“I tell my friends to go get checked out if something’s wrong,” he said. “You never know. Who would have thought I’d have a grapefruit in my chest?”
Although Jody is not completely out of danger’s way, the family’s overall disposition bares a strong resemblance to that bright day when the father and son squinted at the sunlight.
“It makes you appreciate everything,” said Jody, whose hair has returned. “Everybody says that, but it makes me appreciate not just my life but my family a lot more… My kids even seemed like they were better during this period of time. Anytime Seth would come home after football practice he’d go help on the farm and he had his own lawncare business. He really stepped up and became the man of the house.”
“Our kids have been fabulous,” Paula said. “And I watched Seth become a man through this. It was almost like he went out of his way to not give his dad anything to worry about. I don’t know how he did it.”
When Seth, who recently found out that he will be the co-salutatorian of his class, decides whether to play for either the Cowboys or Mustangs, chances are he’ll use the determined mindset to secure a full athletic scholarship. After watching his teammate and good friend, Londell Taylor, sign with Oklahoma last Wednesday, Sloan has no problem waiting his turn and no lack of confidence when it comes to where he will be in a few years.
“I felt like I got looked over some (by Division I schools) but it’s not going to be any big deal for me to go prove myself,” he said. “I don’t mind that.”
The words from the coaches of the 18-year-old have also served as a testament to his intestinal fortitude, given the adversity he handled earlier in the year.
“There was a lot of burden on him and his family but he’s a heck of kid,” Vian football coach Brandon Tyler said. “On the field, he never let it bother him and if it did bother him, he never did show it.”
“Seth is a strong kid. His mind, his self-confidence is outstanding so he’s health with (the situation of his father) a lot better than a lot of kids would. I don’t see anything out of Seth at any time that indicated he’s worried about it,” added Vian basketball coach Leeland Williams. “And I know he is. He does a good job of concealing and not showing that emotion.”
Some of the time.
“It made me,” Seth said. “appreciate what I’ve got.”