During a recent interview before practice, Kent Decker is interrupted by Glendale Mountain Ridge softball player Riley Seegan.
She asks what he wants the team to do next.
“Tell the pitchers to get loose,” he says calmly.
Out of reflex, Seegan yells out, “Pitchers, get loose!”
Seegan can’t help herself. She was her coach’s voice last season when Seegan was the team manager while battling an injury, and Decker was battling borderline stage 4 throat cancer.
Late in the season, in the midst of his six-month radiation and chemotherapy treatments, eating through a feeding tube, sometimes in the dugout during games, he had completely lost his voice.
That pushed the players harder. They leaned on each other, pushed each other and made a late run to get into the Division I playoffs, pulling out one-run wins against Surprise Willow Canyon and Phoenix Greenway, finishing 16-13.
“They were unbelievable,” said Decker, whose brother, Steve, is the head football coach at Peoria Sunrise Mountain. “They battled as much as I did.”
No giving up
Decker, 54, runs a successful landscaping business while coaching his Storm baseball and club programs.
Nothing ever got him down.
But after six months of feeling run down, he finally went to see a doctor. Tests were run.
A biopsy came back in mid-January 2016. He was diagnosed with throat cancer. It was two weeks before the start of his first season leading Mountain Ridge’s softball team. He had just accepted the head coaching job and only had the previous year’s public-address announcer so far on his staff to help him out.
“The doctor said, ‘My choice for you is don’t leave the house, but I know how you are, and you’re going to do things whether I give permission or not,’ ” Decker said.
The doctor was right.
Decker went straight to Mountain Ridge’s principal and athletic director and told them, “Hey, this isn’t going to get me down.”
They told Decker if he had to miss some days, they would understand. He didn’t.
There were scary moments, like during the Sunrise Mountain game, when he had become so dehydrated he had to be rushed to Urgent Care.
“After that game, we waited for him to come out,” said Mckenzie Zaitz, who played on Decker’s Storm club team.
Everybody pulled together.
The players became nurses, coming to his home, taking care of him. Seegan would make routine runs to Sprouts to fetch soup for Decker. They watched after him when his only nourishment came through a tube in his stomach.
“We all got stronger together,” Seegan said.
The season no longer was about coaching softball. They were learning about life, how to cope, how to care, how to rally for each other.
“After he got his feeding tube, it was difficult for him to be loud,” senior outfielder Ashley Williams said. “We would pick up his slack and pick each other up.”
In the midst of the every-day, six-minute radiation sessions, strapped in, wearing what he described as “a Freddy Krueger mask,” Decker became so claustrophobic, nauseous from the medication that was to help relax him, that he felt he was going to die in his own vomit. He was supposed to consume 10 cans of protein-packed nourishment through a feeding tube, but could only get down maybe three.
When he went four days without food, he lost 15 pounds. He had gone from 240 pounds to 189 in a season that was going downhill for him, but uphill for the players who took on the tasks of caring for their coach.
“They came to the house, they called me on the phone,” Decker said. “I couldn’t talk, so they texted me. They did whatever I needed.”
Said Seegan: “We wanted to win for him, go the extra mile for him.”
Decker made sure he would be the first patient through the doors at 5:30 a.m. for his radiation treatments. He would come in wearing bright orange or green colors, then go directly to chemo, where it was a revolving-door of patients, a waiting room sometimes 50 deep.
He was even coaching there.
“They would say, ‘Why are you so positive?’ ” Decker said. “I said, ‘Why should I be negative?’ If I pass away and I’m negative, it’s only going to make the next six months of my life terrible. So let’s be happy about it.”
Decker’s son, Jaff, who was a first-round Major League Baseball draft pick by the San Diego Padres in 2008 when he was the Arizona high school baseball Player of the Year at Sunrise Mountain, held on to his dad’s no-quit attitude even more so last year in spring training. Although there was a void on opening day, the first time in his eight-year pro career his father was not in attendance for his opener.
“Right when we found out he had cancer, I had to leave for spring training in Florida,” said Decker, an outfielder, who spent last season in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, playing 19 games with the big club. “At the same time, it was extra motivation for me.
“I’ve seen him work harder than anybody. For him to show up for this, it meant a lot to me. On the days I was tired, he would be the first person I’d think about. If something is knocking me down, I think of him getting up. When he does something, it’s 110 percent.”
Now, Kent Decker gets out of his truck and looks 10 years younger than his age, a robust 187 pounds, his voice strong and proud as he leads the Mountain Ridge players on the field.
His first body scan, he said, came back “clear” of cancer. He will be going in for his second scan soon.
He is back in the gym working out, and when he recently ran into some old high school classmates, they were amazed by how great he looked.
“They say, ‘What are you doing?'” Decker said. “I tell them, ‘I’ve got a great diet for you. Cancer.'”