Westfield football coach Kyle Simmons sits alone in front of the TV, absorbing painkillers and game film on another hot August afternoon.
The drowsy mentor tilts his head back gingerly to let another sip of the 10-milliliter dose slide slowly down his scorched throat, his eyes never leaving the screen. His right hand reaches for a pen to jot down a missed block near the sideline, his left for a sip of ice cold water that he ends up spitting back out, a precaution against coughing fits triggered by saliva buildup.
To Simmons, 10 milliliters of medication is 30 minutes of prep time. By then the flames burning his throat have died down to allow passage for another liquid meal. The shake always contains some combination of heavy cream, full fat yogurt, full fat milk, raspberries and protein powder, a high-calorie concoction that takes him over an hour to work through.
Soon enough he rises from his chair and puts on his shoes. Nothing can keep the coach from the place he belongs, not the radical tonsillectomy operation that won’t let him speak, nor the lymph node dissection that left 10 staples snaking down his neck.
Kyle Simmons is heading to practice, cancer be damned.
A startling diagnosis
“How long did you say it’s been there?” the doctor asked Simmons as she felt the small lump on the right side of his neck.
Another lump began to form at that moment, this one at the bottom of his throat. Dread crept in with the realization that six months was far too long to get the thing checked. The impetus for this late-June checkup wasn’t even the lump — it was a minor skin irritation lingering from sun exposure during spring break. Simmons had dealt with the issue before, but he couldn’t remember whether he needed a prescription for treatment. A follow-up question about the lump was merely incidental.
That week brought several more doctor’s appointments, each one sparking a cascade of questions, paperwork, tests and more questions. Sonograms and CT scans led to a fine needle biopsy, which finally revealed the worst: Simmons had cancer in his lymph nodes.
At the time doctors couldn’t confirm the extent of the cancer, nor could they tell when or where it originated. They told Simmons to go ahead with his planned vacation the following week to Myrtle Beach with his wife, Janet, and their 11-year-old daughter, Summer. Lab results would be further scrutinized while they were gone, and a course of action would be ready for him at some point after they got back.
Kyle and Janet endured the next few weeks in a fog of uncertainty, not wanting to tell anyone — including their daughter — about Kyle’s condition until they knew what he faced.
“Those are really some surreal moments,” said Simmons, 46. “For me it was just thinking about my family and what if I’m not here and money and them being okay. That was really a tough time for her and me.”
At the end of July, Simmons went in for a PET scan, then came back to review the results with a doctor. The scan showed hot spots in the neck mass and tonsils. They had caught the cancer before it spread to any vital organs.
A wave of relief washed over Simmons. His cancer was treatable.
“We just feel so lucky,” Janet Simmons said. “People say, ‘How can you feel lucky? Your husband has cancer.’ I’m like, ‘Because it could have been so much worse. How could we not feel lucky?’”
‘We just need to push through it’
On the morning of Aug. 18, every player in the Westfield football program, all 136 of them, lined up to give their coach a hug. The line stretched nearly the entire length of the field, a chain of teammates eager to bestow luck on the man about to begin his battle in earnest.
Simmons headed 17 miles east to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where he was to undergo a neck dissection to remove the infected lymph nodes. The outpatient procedure lasted four hours, sending him home that evening with a staple-laden scar that rendered talking a needless discomfort.
Despite her protests, Janet ended up driving her quiet husband to school early the next morning. The man couldn’t say much, but he didn’t need to. His presence at that 8 a.m. practice told his players everything they needed to know.
“I think it shows us that even if we’re hurting during the game, what he’s going through is a lot harder than what we’re going through on the field,” Westfield senior offensive lineman Joe Kenney said. “We just need to push through it and get our work done.”
Doctors didn’t sugarcoat the radical tonsillectomy operation Simmons would receive three days later. Along with the tonsils, they needed to remove some surrounding healthy tissue to make sure all the cancer was extracted. The deep cut would make swallowing his own spit a daunting task. It was going to be very painful.
Simmons underwent the procedure that Thursday afternoon and spent the night in the hospital. On Friday evening, he was back on the field coaching his team’s season-opening scrimmage against DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md.
“Honestly, the man is a machine,” senior tailback Evan Gray said. “I have no idea how he’s doing it.”
Simmons roamed the sidelines with whiteboard in hand, whispering instructions to his assistants and jotting down whatever he couldn’t project. He wrote down a series of reminders for his players before kickoff, things like “Keep competing,” “Get better” and “Have fun.”
His speedy return was something to behold, but Simmons is careful to clarify that he hasn’t pushed his body into unreasonable territory. He didn’t need all the medication they gave him the day after surgery, instead feeling strong enough to take care of himself at home during the day and make his presence felt on the field that night.
Above all, he looked at Friday’s scrimmage as a microcosm of his entire ordeal — an opportunity to show his players how to handle adversity.
“Not only was I doing it for myself personally, but it was also to show these guys, ‘I ask you to fight through a lot of things. We ask a lot of you, and I want to show you that I’m willing to make that commitment too,’” Simmons said. “It would be easy for me to take work off for a whole day, not coach football and sit at home, but that would go against everything I’m here for.”
The going gets tougher
Reality set in after the Dematha scrimmage. Saturday, Sunday and Monday brought Simmons excruciating pain, a level of discomfort intensified by his need to force as many fluids and calories into his system as possible.
Doctors encouraged him to use a feeding tube, but Simmons — always one to go against the grain — refused any such assistance. He wanted to work through liquid meals on his own.
“I always thought he was a pretty tough guy,” Janet said. “I guess I’ve learned that he’s even tougher than I thought he was.”
Simmons did his best to consume as much as he could, but he still ended up losing 12 pounds over the next few days. His energy levels were lower than ever, leaving him ready for a nap 30 minutes after getting out of bed in the morning.
Of course, none of that stopped him from being at practice on Monday.
“I would walk by him going from one group to another and ask him how he’s doing,” Westfield linebackers coach Derek Donahue said. “He would just give me a thumbs up or a thumbs down, but he just kept moving. You could sort of tell he was in pain, but around the kids, the kids couldn’t tell.”
Simmons’s third surgery involved two wisdom teeth, which they removed last Monday to prevent complications with his upcoming radiation treatments. Naturally, he opted for local anesthesia, which seemed like a fine idea after the top tooth came out fairly easily. The bottom tooth didn’t want to leave his mouth. The dentist yanked it so hard that Simmons was sure the left side of his jaw would come dislocated before they finally resorted to a drill.
Practice resumed the next afternoon and, to no one’s surprise, Simmons was right on time. He ran special teams, monitored drills and even yelled a few times.
“The one thing I know from having been friends with Kyle for a long time and working together is that he’s a very strong person and very resilient,” said Tom Verbanic, who served as head coach at Westfield for 10 years while Simmons coached the defense. “His idea is, ‘Let’s get to work and get things done.’ Talking with him he’s kind of approached this the same way. It’s, ‘Okay, this is what I have to do. I’m going to beat it. Let’s go to work.’”
Simmons knows there are people wondering about the prudence of his quick return, but he wants to make sure his players think otherwise. At a practice leading up to the team’s 56-7 win over South Lakes earlier this month, he told his guys what kept him going.
“I’m on a lot of medicine right now, but the best medicine I’ve taken is being out here with you guys,” he said.
Getting better together
Nowadays Simmons is getting back to his cherished workout regimen and looking fitter by the hour. The obsessive strength and conditioning teacher has gained those 12 pounds back, though he still isn’t close to pushing the kind of iron he did before the surgeries. He lifts three days a week and does rehab on his right shoulder, which experienced slight nerve damage when they took the lymph nodes out of his neck.
Simmons’s personal ambition runs parallel to the common goal shared by his entire team: He wants to be peaking when December hits. He starts radiation treatments on Monday, 30-minute hospital sessions that he’ll undergo five days a week for six weeks. He’s uncertain about the toll those treatments will take on his body, but he hopes to be back to his old self by the time winter approaches.
The same goes for his team, which is coming off last Friday’s 36-23 loss to Lake Braddock. Every year starting in January, Simmons formulates a plan to get his kids in top shape in November so that they’re performing their best when the playoffs arrive.
“I told them that’s kind of my plan, too,” said Simmons, who was given a 95 percent chance of beating lymph node cancer and never dealing with it again. “I’m going to get through these treatments, and hopefully we’re playing in December. When that time comes, hopefully I’m as far as I can get.”
There’s no shortage of people hoping he’ll get there. Even as he’s tried to deflect attention away from himself, Simmons has been floored by the support he, Janet and Summer have received from the community surrounding them. Cards sent to his mailbox and encouraging words left on his Caring Bridge page have buoyed his spirits, and he’s received more bowls of soup than he cares to remember.
“We’re both just very thankful and feel a little unworthy of the support because we’re a couple of the lucky ones,” Janet said.
Simmons will reflect on the magnitude of it all at some point down the line, but today his mind is fixed on the gridiron. It’s time to get to practice.
UPDATE: Simmons’s 2014 Westfield team fell to local rival Centreville, 21-17, in the region championship that December. The following year, Simmons won his first state championship as a head coach. He is now cancer-free.