WILLIAMSTON — With the seconds dwindling in the Class B district championship game at Williamston High School on March 10, Jason Bauer was up on his feet in the stands, applauding, towering over the sea of green behind the Williamston boys basketball bench.
Shortly after the horn sounded, the Hornets rallied together at half court and hoisted their second straight district championship trophy. As the celebration began to wind down, the 6-foot-8 Bauer walked down the steps of the bleachers and onto the court. Williamston players and coaches, posing for a photo, waved in his direction.
Bauer attached himself to the edge of the group, holding up one finger. He was wearing his green Hornets shirt and a hat that masked the reason why he’s no longer on the sideline.
“I wasn’t at the district (last year),” the 37-year-old Bauer said. “To see them, as joyful as they are, it’s tough. It’s good, but it’s just tough.”
The Williamston coach and former Grand Valley State University basketball player was diagnosed with two cancerous brain tumors and underwent successful surgery — which forced him to watch from the sidelines last season as his team made a surprise trip to Michigan State’s Breslin Center — a year to the date of him walking onto the court to celebrate Williamston’s second straight district title.
The past year has been a whirlwind for Bauer and his family, filled with ups and downs as he tries to get back to the life he and his family once had. However, these past few months, he said, have been the best since he unexpectedly had to walk away from coaching.
Bauer started driving for the first time since the surgery a month ago. He’s back “pumping iron.” And his four young children are starting to see their father return to the high-spirited form that he was in before everyone’s life changed.
He’s in a good space.
“Mentally, I think I’m there,” he said. “Things started to get better. Mentally and physically, just a lot better.”
His wife of five years, Dawn Bauer, said that her husband was uncharacteristically hushed for months after the family returned home in May from a month-long stay at a treatment center in Houston where doctors removed one of the two tumors. Their children — who are ages 13, 12, 5 and 3 — were used to having a massive, playful friend, someone to watch their every move. They weren’t used to the silence.
“In the beginning, he didn’t talk much,” Dawn said. “He just slept all of the time. He didn’t want to eat. He lost like 35 pounds.
“With the little ones, I kept it simple. I just said, ‘Daddy had an owee and had to have surgery and go to the doctor and take medicine.’ The big kids know. They’re scared because they didn’t know if Jason was going to make it or not. They didn’t want to lose him. They wanted him to be around. It hurt their feelings because he was here, but he wasn’t really talking or communication.”
In early June, just months after the initial operation, Jason’s inoperable tumor doubled in size. He began slurring his speech and misusing works, Dawn said, much like he had when he was initially diagnosed. She knew something was wrong. Jason, too, could tell that he wasn’t right.
“It’s tough, because I’m standing there in the kitchen and I tell them to bring me (something),” he recalls. “They’re like, ‘What?'”
Jason underwent chemotherapy and radiation. There was no change in the tumor’s size.
The family went a different route. He began taking Temodar, a chemotherapy pill, and intravenous Avastin treatments. After a month or so, the tumor began to shrink and has continued to do so.
Jason’s health seemed to be improving. Then, in October, he suffered two seizures at his home, the second of which caused panic.
After an x-ray and CAT scan, a doctor in the emergency room at Sparrow Hospital told Dawn the cancer had spread across his entire brain and into his neck.
“I called our pastor, and we were kind of talking about things,” Dawn added. “I was thinking of how I’m going to tell my kids this.
“They had him sedated for almost three days.”
It was a false alarm. An MRI later showed that the cancer had not spread.
And after Jason left the hospital, things began to look up.
“He just decided that he was going to fight and be positive,” Dawn said.
In the middle of November, the Williamston basketball program and community raised about $35,000 for the family for an all-expenses paid, week-long trip to Disney World right before Christmas.
Dawn said the trip was “much needed” after the strain of the previous eight months. It was the family’s first vacation since Jason was initially diagnosed.
“It was a turning point,” Jason said. “To see all the kids and what they were doing, being happy, it was definitely a good thing.”
The family had gone through financial woes. Jason left his job at UA Local 333 Plumbers & Pipefitters. He is now on disability. Dawn, who was on leave from her federal job with the Army National Guard from the day of his surgery until August, medically retired in November. She has medical issues, as well.
Jason has to take five chemotherapy pills a month. He does an intravenous Avastin treatment every two weeks. He and his wife travel to Grand Rapids every two months for MRIs. It’s part of the process, and it’s allowed him to get back to everyday life.
Jason went hunting — his second passion behind basketball — in January with a group of friends and family near Michigan’s thumb. The family recently returned home from a trip to Arizona, where his parents have a home. And, most importantly, the bond with his kids has returned to form.
“He’ll go to the (oldest) kids games,” said Dawn, who is back at work in a contractor position with the Michigan Army National Guard. “There was a time when I was sick and he took everybody to church, got everybody around, took (the kids) to school…”
Jason even stepped back onto the court at an open gym not too long ago.
“I can’t shoot worth a crap right now,” he said.
But he misses coaching. Being away from his team has been one of the most challenging things during this past year, he said.
Jason admires the job interim head coach Tom Lewis has done in his absence. He attended a good number of Williamston’s regular season games, but he keeps his distance from the program because he doesn’t want to interfere.
He’s also been there for most of the Hornets’ games this postseason. Williamston will return to the Breslin Center if it can take down No. 2-ranked River rouge for the second straight year in Tuesday’s state quarterfinal showdown at Chelsea High School.
Jason has the itch to one day return to coaching. If his health holds, he believes he’ll be able to in the near future.
“It’s been eating at me,” he said. “Teaching the kids (is what I miss the most). Teaching them and guiding them in the direction that I want to them to go.”
Contact James L. Edwards III at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JLEdwardsIII.