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McKee shows Canyon how to keep fighting
ANAHEIM – One of the most feared offensive forces in Orange County football will loom across the field for Canyon and coach Brent McKee on Friday night.
The rebuilding Comanches (1-1) play host to No. 6 El Toro (2-0) and record-setting quarterback Conner Manning at El Modena's Fred Kelly Stadium. But as daunting as the challenge appears, Canyon is well-equipped to handle whatever results surface.
The Comanches gained new-found perspective on football and life after watching McKee defeat an even more menacing opponent last fall.
With Canyon in the midst of a winless 2011 season, McKee returned to the team for the final two games just weeks after having surgery for kidney cancer in early October.
"I didn't want to let cancer end the season for me," McKee, 44, said. "Coming back early was kind of like punching it in the mouth."
Canyon finished 0-10 but learned an important lesson from its coach.
"We had to learn how to work through adversity," senior running back Troy Kurtz said. "If he (McKee) can go through cancer, then we can go through a football game."
McKee's first sign of trouble arrived in August 2011, just before the opening of the Comanches' fall camp. After an outing to the beach and a barbeque, he experienced severe stomach pain. McKee felt bad enough that he went to an emergency room, thinking he had gastritis.
A seemingly precautionary ultrasound told a different story: McKee had a mass on his right kidney.
Later that day, he began researching kidney cancer and read about a 25 percent survival rate.
"Now, I'm just floored," said McKee, who is married with two young children. "Dying didn't scare me. I'm a strong Christian. I have faith. I'm not worried where I'm going to go.
"But the scary part was: Is somebody else going to raise my kids?"
McKee shared his news with the Comanches before their second game of the season, on Sept. 10, 2011, against Laguna Hills. He continued to coach — admittedly distracted about his future — for three more weeks, through the team's Century League opener against Foothill.
McKee said he faced two possibilities for his surgery Oct. 6, 2011.
"If (the cancer) is still in the kidney when they take it out, your chances of surviving are pretty good," he said. "If it has already left the kidney, there is no cure."
McKee's cancer was contained in the kidney, and he remains cancer-free.
PASSING THE WORD
News of McKee's cancer reached the coaching fraternity quickly.
McKee said Santa Margarita football coach Harry Welch, a prostate cancer survivor, called him just minutes after the news broke on OCVarsity.com.
Opposing coaches throughout the season also checked in with him before games.
League rival Esperanza gave him enough money to cover his medical bills, a gesture McKee called "amazing."
McKee also was touched by the supportive messages he received from former players and parents. He still reads them now.
"It reminds me why I coach," he said.
McKee didn't return this season without making changes.
He gave up working on football on Sundays, focusing more on the quality of his coaching than quantity. He now makes Sunday a family day with his wife, Jill, who he said was a "rock" during his cancer fight, his son Nathan, 5, and daughter Molly, 2.
He also decided to teach in the district's home hospital program, which sends teachers to students who can't attend school.
McKee, a math teacher, said last week that he will be assigned a student fighting cancer.
"That's not a coincidence," he said. "We're here to teach life-lessons."
REASON TO RETURN
A poor season doesn't mean the program is poor. That's how McKee viewed 2011.
His mantra for 2012 is for the Comanches to work toward reaching their potential. They responded in their opener by defeating Fullerton, 35-28. Canyon lost last week at San Juan Hills, 21-17, but had chances to win in the final two minutes.
"That's why (the Fullerton) game was such a relief," McKee said. "I knew we were better."
Canyon also knows how to keep the winning and losing in perspective.
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