Hazard, Ky. - For a year now, we've been following the story of Hazard High School's assistant football coach Chuck Fugate, who was diagnosed with cancer last year. It has been a long journey for the coach, but one that found its ending at the team's season opener Saturday night in Pikeville.
Great leaders often inspire us to be strong and courageous - to sand up to whatever challenge life throws our way. For more than a decade, folks say assistance football coach Chuck Fugate has been that and more for the Hazard Bulldogs.
“Coach Fugate is this football team. He puts more into this team than anybody, and I think the kids all play hard for him,” says Mark Dixon, head football coach at Hazard High School.
“I mean, [he is] one of the best guys I know. If anybody has a problem, he's there; he'll be there for anybody, anytime,” says Hilton Dixon, a senior for the Bulldogs this seaon.
But on August 4th, 2013, Fugate was diagnosed with Leukemia, bringing with it shadows of fear and uncertainty.
“The first thing you think of is death, I mean who doesn't; that’s the first thing that goes through your mind is death, and you start thinking, what about my wife, what about my friends, my family, what about them?” coach Fugate said.
Treatment required months of chemotherapy, and weeks in a hospital bed. During that time, hundreds of students and members of the community gathered to send him messages of support.
“As a teacher you have a role in kid’s lives and as a coach, but until something happens you don't understand exactly how much you mean,” Fugate told WYMT back in August of 2013.
Last fall, Fugate says doctors gave him strict instructions to follow between hospital visits, but there was one rule he says he simply had to break.
“I was told not to go to practice, and of course the first day I drove up and just sat in my truck and watched practice a little bit. [I] got out and walked around the field a little bit and I just couldn't handle it, I had to go out,” he said.
“I look down and he's on the sideline, running and jumping around like nothing was wrong, and this was the day he had just had a bone marrow biopsy too,” says Melinda Fugate, his wife.
To some, such a decision might appear crazy or even reckless, but coach Fugate describes the choice as a major turning point for his attitude towards his illness.
“I had five more rounds of chemo after that and didn't dread any of them, because I knew it was just going to take a week or a little bit longer, and I was going to be out and I was going to be around my friends again. I was going to be all right,” he said.
That brings us to August 30th, 2014, where coach Chuck Fugate found himself on the football field for the season opener against Pikeville High School. It was his first time on the field since he was given a clean bill of health.
“I love it. We were actually just sitting in the stands talking about how great it was to see him down there coaching, and you could hear him across the field too. It was like yep, this is where he loves to be,” Melinda said.
At the end of the game, the scoreboard had Pikeville beating the Bulldogs 49 to 36, but folks say there was nothing about Saturday’s game that could be described as anything but a big win for Hazard High School, and a triumphant return of their beloved coach.
Coach Fugate says, “You talk about a football season being a journey, not a destination, which you can relate to anything in life. It’s not about where you're going; it's about how you're getting there.”