High School Football

Cancer can’t stop this Idaho football coach. ‘I look at it as a positive, to be honest.’

Emmett football coach: His cancer is a life lesson for students

Rich Hargitt had a tumor removed from his tongue in March. He's using the experience to teach and motivate.
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Rich Hargitt had a tumor removed from his tongue in March. He's using the experience to teach and motivate.

Coaches in every sport teach largely the same message — toughness, character, overcoming adversity.

But Emmett High’s Rich Hargitt doesn’t just preach it to his players. He got to practice it this spring.

The Huskies’ first-year football coach was diagnosed with tongue cancer Jan. 11. But after three months and two surgeries to remove the cancerous growth and check for any spreading, the 38-year-old father of two is back where he belongs at home, in the weight room and at the head of the Emmett football program.

Now he’s turning his cancer battle into a teaching tool and showing the lessons he ministers go beyond football.

“I’ve told people since I got diagnosed, I don’t see this as a bad thing,” Hargitt said. “My mission is helping kids and trying to grow young men into grown men. I guess this is just an expansion of my mission field to see if I can help some more people.

“So I look at it as a positive, to be honest with you.”

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After a bout with tongue cancer, Emmett football coach Rich Hargitt has returned to the weight room and the team. During the football team’s weight workout class, he leads students in lunges and endurance drills outside. Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

‘A MATCH ON YOUR TONGUE’

Hargitt first noticed a thin, white discoloration on his tongue two years ago. He changed mouthwashes and the painless spot came and went, so he considered the problem solved until it came roaring back in November.

“You’d be standing there brushing your teeth, and if you touched that area with your toothbrush, it was like somebody stuck a match on your tongue,” Hargitt said.

The spot swelled and started to bleed in December, convincing Hargitt to visit an oral surgeon on the final day of the Christmas break. A week later, the biopsy results showed he had squamous cell carcinoma, a cancer that typically shows up as a skin cancer but remains the most common tongue cancer.

Hargitt’s grandfather died from prostate cancer and his father was diagnosed with the same cancer five years ago, so he always kept an eye out for it. Tongue cancer never entered the mind of someone who doesn’t smoke or chew tobacco.

His doctors told him he’d never find a cause. He was just unlucky.

“You run every day. You lift every day. You stay in good shape and you think, ‘OK, I must be good,’ ” Hargitt said. “And then, bang. This shows up. It’s an unexpected deal. I would never in a million years think I would get something like this.”

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After a bout with tongue cancer, Emmett football coach Rich Hargitt has returned to the weight room and the team. Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

PROFESSIONAL SPEAKER TURNED MUTE

Hargitt travels the country to speak at football conferences and detail his Surface to Air spread offense, which coaches in 42 states use. He already had booked several clinics when he received his cancer diagnosis, so he convinced his doctors to put off surgery until March.

He avoided radiation. But while waiting, the tumor doubled in size to 4 millimeters, forcing surgeons to cut out 20 percent of his tongue March 7 to ensure they got it all. The surgery required doctors to fold over the top of his tongue and sew it to the bottom to let it heal, leaving the professional speaker mute for four days.

“I had to write everything down on a notepad to even talk to my wife and kids,” Hargitt said.

But that surgery only removed the obvious growth. Hargitt had to wait 12 more days for an overnight surgery at St. Luke’s in Boise, where doctors sliced open his neck from his Adam’s apple to his left ear to remove 21 lymph nodes and see if the cancer had spread.

Left unchecked, squamous cell carcinoma can spread to the trachea, lungs and bones, eventually proving fatal. Testing the lymph nodes took another week, leaving Hargitt dangling while he researched horror stories and survival rates.

But the test showed the cancer hadn’t spread to any lymph nodes, giving Hargitt a clean bill of health — for now.

“You’ve got this two or three weeks of excruciatingly painful surgeries, of hospitals and tests and IVs and all this stuff,” Hargitt said. “Then, bang, it’s go back to work and let’s see how you do.

“It’s very transformative.”

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After a bout with tongue cancer, Emmett football coach Rich Hargitt has returned to the weight room and the team. Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

BACK TO WORK

That transformation didn’t rob Hargitt of his boundless energy. Emmett High Principal Wade Carter implored him to take time off to recover. But the weightlifting and health teacher wasn’t having it. He craved the normalcy of his routine, missing just six days of school by scheduling his surgeries around the weekend and before spring break.

He returned to the weight room the Monday after his tongue surgery with only 25 percent of his speech back, so he wrote the day’s plan on a white board and relied on his team leaders to fill his void. He even stopped by the school a day after his throat surgery with a drain tube still jutting out of his neck to let his team know he was fine.

“I’ve got too much energy to sit around the house and watch soap operas,” Hargitt said. “I can’t live that life. You can only watch old game films at 10 in the morning so many times.

“I needed to get back there. I needed to get back around my kids.”

The 6-inch scar around his throat remains the most visible reminder of Hargitt’s cancer battle. But he said the rehab from the tongue surgery proved a tougher battle, forcing him to relearn how to speak, how to eat and how to swallow.

He couldn’t eat for five days, losing 15 pounds to drop down to his high school playing weight. He lost taste buds in the surgery and could only start consuming his favorite foods again at the start of April. He still battles to restore his speech to its pre-surgery levels. But even with all the struggles, Carter said Hargitt remained upbeat and positive throughout the entire time, a trait his students and players pick up on.

“Even when you get down, you’ve got to get back up. That’s a good lesson,” Emmett sophomore nose guard Miguel Lara said. “You can’t quit.”

A LARGER LESSON

Hargitt moved to Emmett from South Carolina in June, leading the Huskies to a 1-8 record during a rebuilding season. Even though he’s yet to finish his first school year in Emmett, Carter said he’s made an immediate impact in the community and the news sent ripples throughout the town.

“We’ve lost a couple teachers the last few years to cancer, very popular teachers,” Carter said. “So when this came out, it was pretty devastating.”

Emmett boosters scrambled to arrange meals and get the coach’s 9- and 7-year-old sons to and from Shadow Butte Elementary. Rival coaches reached out to offer help. And teachers at Vallivue, where his wife, Lisa, teaches, collected restaurant gift cards to help feed his family.

“It really did my heart good to see how many good people there are,” Hargitt said. “That’s why my wife and I moved to Idaho, honestly. We heard a lot of good things about the quality of life here and how good the people are.

“... This experience has more than proven that with all the good people I’ve interacted with. You couldn’t ask for people to care more and have good, Christian feelings toward you. It’s been a really touching experience with how many people have reached out.”

Soon, former players and coaches from around the country reached out. Some said he inspired them to get their own health issues checked out. Others detailed how they beat cancer several times and shared tips.

Hargitt realized all those lessons he preaches — never giving up no matter the score, turning positives into negatives and focusing on what you can control — aren’t just coaching cliches. They go beyond the football field. He didn’t need to look any further than the mirror, his team or his weight room for proof.

“I got to go live that, and they got to see that,” Hargitt said. “That was a good experience for them to see somebody not just saying it, but going and doing it.”

‘I’M WINNING’

Hargitt knows he isn’t out of the woods yet. His cancer has a high return rate, forcing him to return for checkups every two months for the next five years. After five years, he’s no more likely to develop the same cancer as someone who never had it.

Hargitt avoids calling himself a cancer survivor. Instead, he phrases his cancer battle in — what else? — football terms. He knows setbacks are inevitable. But he’s focused on the task in front of him.

“What I tell people is I’m currently ahead. I’m winning,” Hargitt said. “I don’t know when in this process you can say, ‘I won.’ I don’t like the term survive because survive implies it had a shot at me. I don’t look at it that way.

“I’m winning right now. We’re ahead in the game. But we’re only in the first quarter.”

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Michael Lycklama has covered Idaho high school sports since 2007. He’s won national awards for his work uncovering the stories of the Treasure Valley’s best athletes and investigating behind-the-scenes trends.

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