A memorable coach, a memorable team

THIS PAST FALL proved unforgettable for Larry Athen. For starters, he became a head football coach for the first time - at 61.

The Ellicott City resident's team of 10-to-12-year-old newcomers and players still working on basics had not won a game in the Western Howard County Warhawks youth club's first two seasons.


But Athen's team finished with a .500 record and earned a berth in the National Division championship game in the Central Maryland Youth Football League.

His players, in Athen's opinion, learned a lot about life in the process, a concept he has long viewed as a benefit of sports. But this past fall proved unforgettable for Athen in another way, too.


For Athen, an outdoorsy guy who for years has been a ski patrol worker on a Pennsylvania mountain, learned that serious indigestion around the time Warhawks practices began in late August was far more serious than an upset stomach.

It was liver cancer.

He told his 28 players and their parents straight up that he wanted to continue coaching. He did, too.

"The doctors told me that staying busy was good, that if I got tired, that was good, too, and that if I got too tired, to sit down," said Athen, who is hoping a scan this week will show the disease to be under control. He sat for only a couple of football practices, a side effect of chemotherapy, but missed none through November.

"He was always upbeat with the kids," said Bill Grau, a fellow coach and friend from the Warhawks' earliest days.

Athen said his team proved to be an asset, not a chore, despite his aches and fears.

"I found unexpected inspiration about dealing with cancer from my players," Athen said, adding that "the football family, and it has been that, has been extremely supportive."

It turned out that many players from the team's first two seasons were encountering an adult's cancer for the third time in their brief time together, although at least one parent, Jill Wood of Glenwood, said last week: "It's important for kids to know that adults get sick, too."


Many, in fact, are wearing those yellow "Live Strong" bracelets that Lance Armstrong's cancer-fighting foundation sells. Team parents got them in time to hand out after a temporarily upsetting, 7-6 loss in their division title game at Rockburn Branch Park.

Athen said he never expected to coach, although he played the sport in high school in Missouri and was an early, ardent flag-football player in the Department of Recreation and Parks' league.

"I played until I was 44," said Athen, a one-time Marine who is regional sales manager for a computer forms company.

His involvement with the Warhawks began as a volunteer after his son, Andrew, now 12, began playing three seasons ago.

"I saw they could use some help, so I offered," Athen said. He was an assistant coach that first season, a co-coach in 2003, and got the top role last fall for the first time with Terry Burns-Heffner, Joe Neubauer, David Dove and Randy Clifford as assistants.

"I guess I'm the 'Gramps' of the whole program," said the man the boys refer to as "Coach Larry."


This is a guy, other adults with the team say, whose openness, positive approach to the game and to life, and communication skills weighed a ton for their boys. After every loss, for example, he called each player to point out positives to build on.

"It's probably one of the most rewarding things I've done," said Athen of coaching. "Each little piece of progress that you see really turns you on."

His perspective has others turned on, too. This month, Athen will go to Annapolis to be awarded the Mid-Atlantic Recreation and Parks Alliance's first Sportsmanship Award. The alliance is comprised of rec and parks departments throughout Maryland and Northern Virginia. Grau nominated him for the honor.

Athen has another tribute to savor, as well. It came from Justin Wood, 12, one of his players, who the night of the team's tearful playoff loss sat at his home computer and wrote the coach:

"You taught us kids what it means to be a team player and try your hardest - 120 percent. ... Everybody on this team would like to thank you for making this group of boys into men."

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