Friends, family rally in support of coach battling cancer
Les Rice has coached one St. Ignatius sport or another for the past 33 years. This season marks his 22nd straight year as the girls’ varsity basketball coach, but this year he’s facing his toughest challenge yet: cancer.
Doctors discovered a tumor in Rice’s chest in July. Currently undergoing chemotherapy to reduce the size of the tumor, Rice has continued to work and coach throughout his treatment.
“I don’t feel like I have cancer,” Rice laughed.
To be fair, it would be difficult for passers by to guess anything was wrong with Rice at all.
On Saturday at the Ninepipes Lodge, more than 50 friends, family, coworkers and supporters attended a cribbage tournament and fundraiser in his honor. Standing before the bracket in a room full of friends, Rice ran the tournament almost single handedly by calling out names, winners and losers, new match-ups and bracket results over the cheerful voices of his friends and family. He could just as easily have been on the basketball court projecting instructions to his team over the roar of a crowd.
Rice’s coworker Chris Vassar stood back from the action and watched Rice work with a smile.
“I worked with him a lot,” Vassar said. “It’s pretty hard to see him (like this) after so many years.”
Vassar was interrupted by Rice shouting instructions and the name of his next opponent.
“He’s still got the fire, though,” Vassar laughed.
Rice’s stepfather, Luke Savage, was in attendance and said the news of Rice’s illness was hard to take.
“Anytime something hits close to home, it’s hard. I’ve lost a lot of friends to similar things, but you never expect to find it in family,” Savage said. “Yet, here it is.”
Even so, Rice said the prognosis is good, and while he does have a long fight ahead, he feels good and said he is confident in his doctors.
“Everybody has been really helpful and kind. It’s actually been a really cool experience — other than having cancer,” Rice laughed.
First, second and third place in the tournament went to Fred Gariepy, Casey Krantz and Cody Phelps. Every winner donated his prize money back to the cause. Event organizer and lifelong friend to Rice, Frank Rollins, said the tournament raised approximately $1,400, which will go towards covering Rice’s expenses in the future.
“It went great,” Rollins said.
Rice said the best part of the event was getting together with many of his friends. At one point, he looked around and saw enough members of his former softball team to play a game.
“That was pretty cool to see,” Rice said. “It was really just a big family event for us ... I don’t know the word to describe (how it felt) — humbled.”