HARLAN, Ia. – Mitch Osborn awoke one August morning and reached up to find a lump on the side of his neck.
Tests confirmed the Harlan boys’ basketball coach and activities director had been stricken with mantle cell lymphoma.
The fit, healthy and active 52-year-old suddenly faced a life-threatening crisis.
“You do take things for granted, until your life changes in five seconds,” Osborn said. “It slaps you across the face.”
But Osborn is a fighter. The same positive, competitive attitude that has helped guide him to an Iowa record 18 state tournament coaching appearances and more than 600 victories is fortifying him as he juggles basketball and survival.
Osborn is undergoing monthly chemotherapy treatments during this season and will receive a stem cell transplant procedure in March.
He’s being sustained by top-notch medical care — his doctor is based at Omaha’s Nebraska Medical Center, the same facility that has treated ebola patients — and by a tremendous outpouring of support by coaches across the country and even rival schools in western Iowa’s Hawkeye 10 Conference.
“I savor challenges,” Osborn said. “I love being the underdog.”
Harlan junior Will Lansman attended boys’ basketball practice for years before he got a chance to play.
Since he was a third- or fourth-grader, Lansman grabbed a seat in the bleachers and gazed at the players running the court for Osborn, hoping someday he’d be out there.
“He’s a player’s coach,” Lansman said. “He cares about you as a person and not just what you do on the floor.”
Will is the fourth Lansman brother to play at Harlan — following Luke, Seth and Trey — in a community where athletic success seems to be a birthright.
Osborn, who came to Harlan in 1997, has overseen a powerhouse that has won 26 state team championships in various sports.
During that span, the Cyclones have filled the trophy cases with awards from seven different sports: football, boys’ and girls’ basketball, volleyball, baseball, girls’ cross country and boys’ track.
He entered the season with a 617-125 overall basketball record in 30 years, fifth best among Iowa’s active coaches. Success followed him to all three of his high school programs, including Elk Horn-Kimballton and Pomeroy-Palmer. He’s coached three title teams, at Pomeroy-Palmer in 1994 and at Harlan in 2004 and 2006.
In March, just after his induction into the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s hall of fame, he’ll undergo what he hopes is a successful stem cell transplant procedure that may keep the cancer at bay.
There were few signs that Osborn was ill when practice began Nov. 17. Only the presence of a cancer awareness T-shirt he wore, and a business-as-usual comment to the team at the end of the session made them aware of his cancer.
“If anybody can beat it, it’s coach Osborn,” senior guard Luke Hall said. “Day one this year was the same as day one last year.”
Osborn actively directed drills throughout the practice, from passing and shooting to the dreaded full-court sprints.
“He’s really not letting his cancer slow him down,” Lansman said. “He’s still going 110 miles an hour.”
A cluster of young boys still hang out in the bleachers, quietly observing the master at work.
Just like Lansman used to do years ago.
“I don’t want to play for anybody else,” Lansman said.
Stunned. That’s how Harlan superintendent Justin Wagner felt when he heard the news.
Osborn was diagnosed with cancer in August and tried to keep things quiet for a bit. It was the town’s worst-kept secret.
Within days, spread by word and online traffic, people in the tight-knit, sports-minded community had heard the terrible news. Reporters started calling and asking questions.
“When people hear it, they just have that blank stare,” Wagner said.
But since word spread, Osborn has been overwhelmed with support.
He comes from a family well-known for its athletic prowess — sons Joel, Kevin and Zach all had successful athletic careers at Harlan. Joel and Kevin followed him into coaching after college.
Osborn, who has given so much to his school, in turn received support from the Harlan administration.
“The reaction was, ‘I want to help. We want to do what he did for us,’ ” Wagner said.
While Osborn continues to run the boys’ basketball program, the coaching staff was beefed up to help in practices.
“It’s important now that we’re committed to him,” Wagner said.
Osborn’s favorite part of the day was lunchroom duty, when he could interact with all the students. That has been lifted from his schedule after concerns about possible germs kids might carry.
He’s been supported by his family, which also includes his wife, Nancy, a school nurse.
Students from Harlan — including kids from a cluster of area towns such as Westphalia, Panama and Defiance — have used Osborn’s fight to launch a cancer awareness movement.
On Nov. 2, the community held a “Light the Night” event that raised $12,000. There was a lymphoma walk to the school’s football stadium. People gathered on the turf at Merrill Field — usually a home for state championship squads — to watch the film “We Are Marshall” on the stadium video screen.
Osborn wore one of the Light the Night T-shirts during the basketball team’s first practice.
Rival schools are boosting him, too. Opponents such as Creston, Denison-Schleswig and Shenandoah have held cancer support events. Atlantic athletes wore lime green socks — the color used to create lymphoma awareness.
“On the court, we might be enemies, but off the court, we’re standing up for each other and wanting the best for each other,” Harlan junior Kyle Juhl said.
Harlan’s school motto, etched on the community’s water tower, reads, “joined as one, we get the job done.”
“With that motto, he’ll beat it,” Wagner said.
Zach Klaassen played for Osborn at Pomeroy-Palmer. Ten years ago, he received an unexpected phone call from his former coach.
Klaassen, who was teaching at Southeast Polk, was paged at his job. It was Osborn, who told him Harlan had an opening for a girls’ basketball coach.
“If I didn’t answer that phone call, I might still be there,” Klaassen said.
Klaassen became the girls’ coach. He led the Cyclones to the Class 4-A state championship last season and a No. 1 ranking this year.
He was happy to play for — and coach for — his mentor.
“He’s very intense, but intense in a way that he was going to get the most out of you,” Klaassen said.
Osborn has remained feisty, but he’s also yielding a bit, too.
“I’m a napper now,” Osborn said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever taken a nap before.”
Osborn said his cancer is treatable. His voice is full of confidence like that of a state champion coach.
His doctors tell him that even if his disease is pushed into remission, it will come back. It may be three, five or seven years, but it will be there, lurking.
The uncertainty is what worries him.
“At first, it’s scary,” Osborn said. “The worst is the unknown, that was scary.”
He added: “The worst thing you can do is go Google. If you go Google, there’s bad things out there.”
But Osborn puts on a smile every day, Klaassen said.
Osborn still has his hair, cut into a stubby flat top. He realizes, through his treatment, that many other people have things worse than he does.
His dedication to others remains visible when he’s at school, practice or games.
“These kids don’t get this year back,” said Wagner. “Even when he’s fighting through this, fighting for his life, he’s thinking about the kids. That’s what’s stuck with me.”
Osborn wants to continue to thrive. To see his sons compete and play. To keep coaching.
After a tough loss on the basketball court, Osborn will enter the locker room, patting players on the back and shaking their hands.
He tells them with a quiet reassurance: We’ll move on from this, we’ll get better.
The fight continues, with a smile.
“Every day’s a great day,” Osborn said.