The announcement summoning the Archbishop Spalding football team to the school chapel early on a February morning last winter baffled the Cavaliers. What could be so important in the off-season?
Wide receiver Richard Gablemen and some of his teammates thought they would finally get their championship rings after winning the MIAA B Conference title the previous fall. Center Matt Wicklein and a few others figured they must be in trouble, but they couldn't figure out why.
The news was bad, far worse than anyone imagined.
The boys listened in stunned silence as then-principal Kathleen Mahar told them that their coach, Mike Whittles, had stage four pancreatic cancer.
"Everyone started crying," Wicklein said. "It was hard for our team to hear that, especially after the season we had, winning the championship. And he's like a father figure to us. We didn't want to lose him."
Whittles went to school that afternoon to show the players and the school community that "I wasn't just lying in bed." He wanted them to know he intended to fight.
Despite undergoing chemotherapy, the 57-year-old coach had missed only a few practices until last week, when stomach pain sent him to the hospital.
He missed his first game Friday and was still in the hospital Wednesday as doctors adjusted his medication to relieve the pain and smooth out his digestive system. Whittles said he hopes to be back on the sideline Friday night when the Cavaliers play at Leonardtown.
Diagnosed Feb. 22, Whittles continues to attack cancer the way he embraces life — with gusto and a heavy dose of humor.
"As long as I've got a life to live, I'm going to live my life," Whittles is fond of saying.
"I don't want to change the way I do things," he said. "I don't want my personality to change. You've got to laugh at yourself still. That's the best thing I can do."
Those around him marvel at his upbeat demeanor and confident outlook despite facing one of the toughest cancers to beat. According to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, only 1.8 percent of those diagnosed survive five years. Many survive only months with a disease that is expected to strike 44,000 Americans this year, according to NIH estimates.
"Mike is a miracle," said Gilman coach Biff Poggi, whose sister Betsy McAvoy died of pancreatic cancer in January 2010, just two months after diagnosis. "His outlook, I don't understand it. The courage he has, I know it's from his faith. It's inspiring. I just want our community to cherish this courageous act we're witnessing. I think this is such a teachable moment not just for the kids we coach, but for all the families too. What an unbelievable gift Mike is giving us all as a model for going through the tough things in our lives."
The No. 9 Cavaliers (5-3), in their first season in the MIAA A Conference after winning back-to-back B Conference titles, have adopted one of Whittles' favorite sayings as a theme for their season: "Make every day count."
For teenagers, thinking that way can be difficult, but the Cavaliers have learned from Whittles to consider today a blessing before moving on to tomorrow.
"We want him to know how much we love him and play our hearts out for him," Wicklein said. "Every single game, we talk before we get in the huddle, like, 'This is all for Coach Whittles. Just play like he's living his life every single game. Play like it's your last day.'"
Spalding's coach for 13 years, Whittles still exudes a Santa-like aura despite losing much of his gray hair and dropping a few pounds from his large frame. He's always surrounded by kids at Spalding. He laughs and jokes with them, but they know they can depend on him.
"He's our Papa Bear," Gableman said. "He's a second father figure to me. Whenever I struggle in school, I go to him. When I have a personal problem with my family, with my girlfriend, with my homework, I go to him. He always gives the best advice. Even if it's advice I don't want to hear, it's good advice."
The players respect his advice because Whittles lives it, said Mahar, now Spalding's president.
"This is a man who puts himself completely out there for the students, and I mean completely," she said. "He's authentic. He understands what they're going through in life, but he doesn't compromise. He doesn't care about being popular. He's not shy about telling them, 'I would have made a different choice.' Football is one piece of it, but really what he's teaching them is for life."
When Whittles couldn't make it to Friday night's game, the assistant coaches took the team on a little detour on their way to face No. 2 Calvert Hall. The bus stopped at North Arundel Hospital for a visit with their Papa Bear.
"We had a mixture of emotions," Gableman said. "We didn't know how it was going to be, because we didn't know what he looked like and we had only seen him when he was all cheery outside the hospital. He's still a beautiful man, but he was looking kind of down. When he saw us, his spirit just lifted up and that gave us a whole lot of confidence and we wanted to win it for him."
The Cavaliers lost the game, 26-23, but they rallied from a 21-0 deficit to make it a close game — one Whittles followed from the hospital through text messages from athletic director Lee Dove.
Nick Whittles, who played for his dad at Spalding and now plays at Salisbury, said football is one of the things sustaining his father through his illness.
"That team, I wish I could thank every one of those kids," Nick Whittles, 21, said. "I know they mean the world to my dad, each and every one of them, because that's what he looks forward to every day. He gets up in the morning and I'm sure the first thing he thinks about is, 'I can't wait to get to football,' because when he's out there I know he doesn't even think about cancer. He just loves it."
This fall, Whittles' inspirational battle has reached far beyond the Spalding campus. Coaches in the Anne Arundel County and MIAA football community have rallied around him.
Poggi, whose coaching staff wore T-shirts emblazoned with "Keep fighting Coach Whittles!" during Gilman's game against the Cavaliers earlier this month, donated $10,000 in Whittles' name to the Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research at Johns Hopkins.
The Cavaliers held a fundraising night last month during their game against McDonogh, and they continue to sell purple wristbands to support pancreatic cancer research. They've also sold T-shirts with "Make every day count" on the back.
Whittles, who has been undergoing chemotherapy since March, will begin radiation treatments next month. He said that doesn't mean he's gotten worse. It's just another stage in his battle against a disease that is almost always diagnosed in the latter stages.
He hasn't been shy about sharing his story and that has brought many prayers to a man whose Catholic faith remains as strong as ever.
"I think the more people that know, the more prayers I'll have," Whittles said. "I had a parent at a lacrosse game say, 'Coach, how can God say no to children? You've got all these kids praying for you.' Prayer is definitely powerful. It certainly has kept me where I am. I wish I could thank each and every person out there who has said a prayer. It's just been phenomenal."