It was on a clear day, crisp and cold, at Pop Keeney Stadium last December. The game’s final seconds were ticking off the clock. Bothell was the winner, bound for the state championship game. Woodinville's season was over. Falcon head coach Wayne Maxwell gathered his silent and sullen players together. He implored them to keep their heads up. He was proud of them and the season they had.
Heavy-hearted, I walked toward Maxwell for the final time. A few days earlier, before Thanksgiving, the new owners of The Woodinville Weekly sent me an email saying my services were no longer needed. The Woodinville-Bothell game was the personal end of an era.
I covered Maxwell’s Falcons for seven seasons. This post-game interview lasted a little longer than usual. Then I turned off my recorder and we shared a prolonged embrace, before saying goodbye.
But life is all about context and perspective, right? As I walked off the Pop Keeney field, little did I know that Maxwell had been diagnosed with cancer. Hodgkins Lymphoma, to be precise.
Maxwell hadn’t told anyone, except immediate family.
“I envisioned keeping it to myself,” Maxwell said. “Certainly, during the football season. Sometime in October we figured out something wasn't right and I went to the doctor. It was a little process figuring out what it was. I didn't want anyone on the team or coaches to know, as it would be a distraction. We were enjoying the season and the camaraderie. I didn't want anything taken away from that. And [the cancer] wasn't taking away from my ability to do my job. So I kept it to myself.”
Maxwell and I spoke again the other day. We looked back at the past ten months. Last October, as Woodinville steamrolled its way toward the playoffs, he suddenly felt strange bumps on his neck.
"I talked to my wife about it," he said. "[I] thought it would be good to go in right away and get it checked out. The doctors did a great job going through the process and figuring it out. We made the decision to go in and get it checked out during the busiest time of the year for me."
Week after week, Woodinville won football games. The Falcons entered the playoffs, and eventually faced #1 ranked Kennedy Catholic on November 23 at Renton Memorial Stadium. It was one of the great nights in Woodinville history. Josh Spencer's 95-yard interception return of a Sam Huard pass was a sparkling highlight. The Falcons built a 31-7 halftime lead, before winning 55-42.
You've never seen a happier locker room! Music blared, players shouted and were all smiles. Senior Cage Schenck, who always seemed to save the day when his team was in dire straits, came through once again. He covered the eyes of team trainer Angela Calicchio with his hands and guided her through the men-only part of the locker room so she could utilize a much-needed bathroom stall.
I finished up my player interviews and began saying my good-byes. As I headed for the exit, I spied Maxwell standing alone in the corner. His hands were on his hips as he gazed at the wall. I thought to myself, "Huh, he almost seems subdued or something."
The following week, Woodinville lost to Bothell in the State semifinal, and the season was over. Heading into the off-season, Maxwell quietly began chemotherapy treatments. He also knew that he needed to tell his players and coaches.
"My first thought was to go through it and don't tell anyone and beat it and that will be that," he said. "But then I was thinking that might be tough to do when my hair started falling out."
The time for the talk came in early February. Maxwell called for a team meeting. As he stood before them, he informed his players of his cancer prognosis.
"You feel responsible for them," he said. "For something like that there's the worry that they're teenagers and the majority of them haven't had experience with cancer and death. You hear that word and you think the worst. But I told them what was happening and how they would see certain things through the process, such as effects from the chemo."
Maxwell felt gratitude for the support he received from his coaching staff and athletic director Cathy Boyce. "We're very lucky to have someone like Cathy as an AD who is tied in with the athletes and cares about them," he said.
As springtime came, Maxwell was deep in chemotherapy sessions.
"Halfway through the process, the treatments started compounding on each other and the end was still a long ways away," he said. "For me, finding success was actually being in the moment and being successful that day. One of my goals was to exercise as much as I could. 50% of the time."
Through this time, Maxwell derived peace of mind from his faith. "I felt quite comforted knowing I was good hands moving forward," he said. "Trusting everything was going to work out in regards to whatever His plan was. Feeling that trust, that whatever was going to happen was okay. Any of the worry and anxiety of having cancer went away. I was thankful because it would be a long time going through the treatment and worrying about the worst, right? So I felt incredibly blessed to have that feeling [of peace of mind] throughout the process."
But of course, being 2020, there was an overarching story line impacting the entire world. A virus emanating from Wuhan, China soon made its way around the globe. It led to deaths, suffering, media panic and lock downs as attempts were made to stem the viral spread.
"Unique times for everybody," Maxwell said. "There were pros and cons for my situation. As my blood levels dropped from my treatments, I entered the `immune compromised' status. Under normal circumstances, I would have had to take time off. But of course, with the quarantine and being at home with the Covid, I was fortunate that I could still do my job from home and remote. Some of the toughest parts were put on my wife [Lara]. Going out, going to grocery store and doing chores, she had to do it all, as well as my daughter [Addison]. They were heroes within our household with everything going on."
As spring stretched into summer, the sense of isolation became more and more profound. Maxwell was either at home, at his sister's home, or at the doctor's office. He couldn't go anywhere else. His world shrunk profoundly, but that has been true for everybody to varying degrees. Through the wonders of technology, however, Maxwell has remained connected with his team.
"I miss working with the guys, both the players and the coaches," he said. "It's such a tremendous bond and camaraderie we have. It's certainly needed with everything going on in the world with the tensions and turmoil. Football is a tool that has allowed us to work with our youth to address some of the issues that have come up in the world. Our guys have had some outstanding conversations and dialogue... Our guys miss their teammates and football, and we have [communicated] via Zoom meetings."
Maxwell's last chemo treatment came in July. He rode in the passenger seat as his wife Lara drove him home. As they came off the freeway, Maxwell noticed a sign stuck in the ground off to the side. It featured the Woodinville team logo and "44 Strong" in reference to a former Falcon linebacker, the late Parker Moore. Attached to the sign was a cancer ribbon.
"Did you see that?" Maxwell said as they passed it. 'What was that doing there?"
"Oh?" Lara said with a shrug. They continued on toward home.
It was as their vehicle turned onto their street that Wayne Maxwell saw what was happening. Family members, assistant coaches and their families, and AD Cathy Boyce, were lined up along the street to welcome the head coach back home.
"That was a total surprise," Maxwell said. "Lara and my sister [Jenn] organized that. That's essentially what football is... We have our football family."
It was earlier this month that Maxwell received a clean bill of health from the doctors. He and Lara went to a favorite restaurant for a sushi meal. Lara captured the moment with a photo of Wayne at an outdoor table. He had a baseball cap on his head and big smile on his mug. He looked great.
As Coach Maxwell and I concluded our conversation, I asked him about the future. He paused for a moment. "I've been impressed with the players as far as how focused they've been," he said. "It has been anything but easy. We've talked about certain things being out of our control. and that we can only control the things that are in our control. We have done various character challenges, and they have responded... We have talked about preparing ourselves and being ready when the time comes to play again."
Maxwell wanted to add something and asked that I put it in the article. I had told him earlier about how this interview with him was going to be my last post on this Woodinville Sports blog.
I responded to Maxwell by saying that I wanted the article to be squarely focused on him. But he insisted and then I said okay.
"This is quite appropriate and deserving, since this is going to be your last post covering Woodinville sports," he said. "I want to make sure this gets in there.
"We appreciate everything you've done for covering high school sports," Maxwell said. "Because in the last ten years, the local coverage of high school sports has gone downhill. It's a fun time for these athletes to perform and see their performances recorded in the newspapers and media. Given the amount the coverage has gone down, all the years you were involved, you did a great job in covering all the sports, and all the athletes appreciated that. And you did it too, with great reporting in a fun way with your own style.
"You put the entertainment value in there, with the fun nicknames and slogans that you added with the story lines," he said. "Bringing the humor in there. We always looked forward to the times we got to talk with you after the games. Regardless of what the outcome of the games were it was always good to connect with you after the games. It will definitely be odd after our next game, when the game finishes up and to not see you there. All coaches love routine and we will definitely miss that.
"And your journalism ability trumps many of your competitors," he added. "You did an outstanding job of reporting throughout the years. The fact you had parents and everybody reaching out to you [last December], you know that you did a great job of doing what you did. On behalf of everyone at Woodinville we appreciate what you did with us through the years."