Archbishop Spalding football coach Mike Whittles, whose inspirational 16-month battle with pancreatic cancer touched many far beyond the Severn school's community, died of the disease Thursday. He was 58.
Diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer on Feb. 22, 2011, Whittles continued to coach the Cavaliers, remaining upbeat and confident that he could beat it.
"This is the day that I knew was inevitable but didn't want to face," Spalding athletic director and long-time Whittles friend Lee Dove said. "He just was so courageous in his personal battle and so inspirational to everybody. You couldn't help but believe that he was going to beat it. He believed it, and it was contagious."
Whittles and his wife Diane went to the Bahamas in late May for alternative treatment, his son Nick Whittles said, but last week the coach grew weaker and they flew back to Johns Hopkins on Tuesday morning. He returned home Thursday, where he died soon after surrounded by his family.
"We were right there with him," Nick Whittles, 21, said. "I'm grateful that he's in a better place now. He's not in pain and he's happy. He was at peace with God, we said our goodbyes and he was prepared."
The Spalding football program he built from a winless team into a Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference power, debuted in the A Conference last fall and made it into the first-ever four-team playoff. The Cavaliers finished 7-4 with the No. 10 ranking in the area. Whittles did not miss a practice or a game until the last few weeks of the season when he had to be hospitalized to adjust his medication.
Gilman football coach Biff Poggi, whose sister died of pancreatic cancer two years ago, was among many who were constantly amazed by Whittles' ability to keep laughing and joking as he continued to live life to the fullest.
"Mike taught us all a lot about class and grace under fire," Poggi said. "But [there were] two main things. Mike's kindness never wavered. As a matter of fact, it remarkably and inexplicably increased during his last 16 months and that was just amazing to me.
"The other thing was in his kindness and gentleness, his toughness to withstand what he had to go through — not only the disease itself, which is ravaging, but the treatments are ravaging also. In his toughness in that, Mike continued to be a teacher to his kids, his school, the boys who played for him and his family, all of those who were his peers and our kids too that competed against him. Mike left a 16-month teachable moment for our community. What a beautiful gift to give through that suffering."
Whittles, who was inducted into the Cavaliers' Hall of Fame in January, took over Spalding's football program in 1999 and built it into a B Conference champion by 2005. He coached the Cavaliers to four B Conference titles between 2005 and 2010.
"He was just a true gentleman," said Boys' Latin football coach Ritchie Schell, one of Whittles' top opponents for 12 years in the B Conference. "He was just a remarkable man. Like most of us, he really just cared about the kids. [The Cavaliers] had not been good before he got there and it took him a while to change the culture. He was a good football coach and he was a good person. He just did it the right way."
"His legacy will certainly run in his success in building a football program," Dove said, "but more importantly, his legacy will be the mantra he left the kids — 'Make every day count' — because it can all be taken away from you, and I think that's what's going to carry forward for Mike Whittles. You talk about sports and life lessons. There's a life lesson you just can't create in the classroom."
In addition to his wife and his son Nick, Whittles is survived by son Mike, daughter Jessica Goedeke, son-in-law Christopher Goedeke, grandson Michael Goedeke and parents Jim and Marion Whittles.
Services will be held Thursday in the new gym at Archbishop Spalding with a celebration of life at 10:30 a.m. followed by a funeral Mass of Christian Burial at 11. A reception will follow.