Kentucky coach Mark Stoops stood in the middle of a crowded visitors locker room on Sept. 8, 2018, and surveyed the postgame celebration. Coaches bear-hugged one another. Players grinned and bobbed their heads to the music thumping in the background. Everyone, it seemed, was screaming.
It had taken them too long to get the job done — 31 straight games, to be exact — and now the fourth-longest losing streak in NCAA history was over. Kentucky had gone into The Swamp and beaten Florida 27-16. Instead of popping champagne, they unscrewed plastic tops and sprayed one another with bottled water.
“That is the epitome of a team victory!” Stoops told his players. “Every single person in this locker room contributed something, and that’s what it takes. We took a giant step forward tonight!”
He then raised both hands in the air.
“Listen!” he shouted.
Stoops said there were 100 different people who could get a game ball that night. The offensive line and tight ends blocked their tails off. The defense was relentless.
“But we’re gonna give two out,” he said. “And who are they for?”
It was a rhetorical question. Terry Wilson and his three touchdowns didn’t stand a chance. Neither did Benny Snell and his 175 rushing yards. Everyone knew exactly whom those mementos belonged to: A player who couldn’t be there and a coach who by sheer force of will was.
“Coach Schlarman and JP!”
On a night full of raucous celebration and joyous relief, this acknowledgement led to perhaps the loudest roar of all.
Only six weeks earlier, Stoops was leaving a defensive-staff meeting, when one of the team’s trainers told him he needed a minute. Stoops didn’t think anything of it.
Things were looking up. Stoops’ first three years on the job, a labored rebuilding effort during which time the team went 12-24, had given way to back-to-back 7-6 seasons and a roster with future pros at key positions. There was hope now — and the expectations that come along with it — that this once-disregarded program, forever stuck in the shadow of its counterparts at Rupp Arena, had finally turned a corner.
Stoops found the nearest empty office and motioned for director of sports medicine Jim Madaleno to join him inside. What Madaleno told Stoops left the coach’s head spinning. What they thought was a simple blood blister for second-year linebacker Josh Paschal turned out to be malignant melanoma, and it was potentially life-threatening.
Stoops was shocked as he left Madaleno and made a beeline for his office at the end of the hall. But, before he could reach it, someone else told him, “You need to go see John.” And eight doors from where he stood, offensive line coach John Schlarman broke more news. That discomfort he’d been feeling? That indigestion he’d told him about? Well, the doctors had run some tests and it was more serious than they’d imagined: He had cholangiocarcinoma, a rare cancer of the bile ducts. It was too far along to remove with surgery.
That one-two punch, delivered in a span of minutes, had Stoops seeing stars as he finally sunk behind his desk overlooking the practice field. He couldn’t believe it. He took a breath and called his wife, Chantel. In his nearly three decades as a football coach, he had never dealt with anything like this. Paschal was one of the most dependable guys on the team. Coaches thought he might actually be more talented than fellow linebacker and future first-round pick Josh Allen. And Schlarman? There’s a reason the staff called him “The Great American.” He had four children at home and is so steadfastly upbeat it’s hard not to love the guy.
“It’s not about me,” Stoops decided. “It’s not about Kentucky football. It’s about what in the world can we do for Josh Paschal and his family and what in the world can we do for John Schlarman and his family?”
On that historic September night against Florida, Paschal watched the game on TV with his sister, Kristian, and one of his roommates, pumping his fist, shouting and barely containing his emotions with each swing of momentum. When the game was over, they all piled in Kristian’s car and drove up and down State Street in Lexington, Kentucky to watch Wildcat fans celebrate in the rain.
But it hurt missing out.
Until then, Paschal had never had anything bad happen to him. He was a star recruit in Washington, D.C., and chose Kentucky from dozens of scholarship offers. As a freshman, he played in every game and earned his first start in the Music City Bowl against Northwestern. That was supposed to the beginning of something special.
A few weeks later, he spotted what appeared to be a blood blister on the bottom of his foot — no bigger than if you took a red Sharpie and barely tapped it to the surface of your skin. If it weren’t for trainers routinely taping his feet, he might not have noticed it.
He went home that May and showed it to his mother, and neither of them thought it was a big deal. But during summer workouts, he sometimes felt a small sting.
As camp approached, he went to a podiatrist to make sure everything was squared away for the season. They thought it might be a plantar’s wart at first. Then they looked closer. A biopsy revealed abnormal cells.
Still, nobody panicked. There would be a routine procedure, and he’d be in a walking boot for a few weeks.
“They just said they’d take it out and I’d be fine to play the first game,” Paschal said.
But his parents didn’t like the sound of it, and they made the trip to Lexington just in case. They crowded around the doctor’s office for a follow-up appointment, cracking jokes to lighten the mood.
Then came the prognosis, and the air was sucked out of the room. Suddenly they were hearing about Stage 2 or possibly Stage 3 cancer. The affected area was relatively small, but the cancer had traveled to his groin and there were traces of it in his lymph nodes.
Paschal tried to remain calm.
“I didn’t know enough to be scared,” he said. “When I thought about my fears, I never thought about getting cancer.”
His parents stayed with him for a month, and when they left, Kristian, who was already living in Lexington, moved into his apartment and became like a second mom. There would be multiple surgeries, and Paschal would smile through them all. When doctors removed a large chunk of skin from his foot — his bone showing through — he was more amazed than disgusted by what he saw. Then, the doctor barely touched a nerve and it felt like he’d been shot.
Every four weeks, he got immunotherapy treatments. He found it humbling, seeing patients in worse shape than him.
“It sounds weird, but when people talk about the cancer center, it’s like a depressing type of thing. It was more positive,” he said. “The people in there are so amazing — the nurses, the doctors. They’re so loving and make sure you feel welcome. I know this might sound bad, but you enjoy being in there.”
At home, Josh would watch “Criminal Minds” on Netflix and play Fortnite for hours. Sometimes, he would get on YouTube and study old football games — a random Cotton Bowl and Sugar Bowl caught his eye, as well as the 2011 Alabama-LSU game. He barely showed signs of struggling.
The struggle was there, though, just below the surface. He was more frustrated than anything, not being able to do what he had always done when presented with a problem: work harder and push through it. He would go into the weight room and power-clean 330 pounds, leaving teammates slack-jawed. Offensive lineman Drake Jackson would ask incredulously, “What did they give you?!”
But Paschal would watch them leave and would stare out the large, glass windows as they ran onto the practice field. They were all out there having fun, in the midst of a historic 2018 season, and he felt a twinge of resentment over his situation.
He chastised himself for it, calling those thoughts “selfish.”
Kristian witnessed her brother truly get down on himself only once. She had gone to his girlfriend’s place to pick him up and take him home. He was unusually quiet. And when she asked him what was going on, he wouldn’t answer. She kept asking, and he kept silent, and it went on like that for a while. Then, finally, he spoke, and the dam broke loose.
He started sobbing, his shoulders heaving. He had been so excited to get his boot off that day and rejoin his team, and instead, the doctor had told him to give it some more time. Kristian pulled over. Through tears, he told his sister, “I just want to play football.”
Football had always been the way Paschal expressed himself. Back when they were young and shared a bedroom, Kristian would wake up in the middle of the night to a thud. She wouldn’t get scared, though. She’d just turn over and go back to sleep, knowing what she heard was the football Josh slept with rolling off the bed and onto the floor.
“It’s always been a part of him,” she said. “And for him to not be able to do something that was really part of his identity, it really hurt me to see him hurt. I hadn’t seen him that emotional.”
Coaches hadn’t seen it, either. Then came his first practice back, on Oct. 18.
He was so excited to be out there again, but the minute he started, he felt something was off. They hadn’t just taken a chunk of flesh from his foot, they’d taken the nerves along with it. And because of that, he didn’t have the feel as before. He was slower, less agile.
“That particular day, I was feeling sorry for myself,” he said. “It was a reality check.”
Stoops saw Paschal sitting on the taping station after practice, his shoulders slumped and his eyes glazed over. So Stoops walked over and put an arm around him. The coach said, “We’ll get through it. You have to believe and trust that we’ll get through it.”
“And I say this now: That didn’t last very long,” Stoops said. “He is remarkable. I mean that, seriously.”
The next morning, Paschal said he woke up with a different kind of feeling: motivation.
When John Schlarman raised the game ball high above his head in Gainesville, you might have thought it was the closing scene of a feel-good movie. Stoops hugged his friend’s neck and demanded that his players listen to him for a second.
“This is the honest-to-god truth,” Stoops told everyone in the locker room that night. “That man is sitting there taking five, six hours of chemo and he’s at every one of your damn practices!”
Schlarman chimed in: “I wouldn’t have it any other way!”
That’s it. Roll the credits, right? The underdog wins and the good guy is safe and sound. Right?
Well, it has been two years since Schlarman’s initial diagnosis, and he’s still not out of the woods. The cancer isn’t just in his bile duct; it spread to areas of his liver, lungs and peritoneal cavity. He’s still fighting a disease that, according to Dr. Robert A. Wolff of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, typically takes the life of a patient within about 12 months.
Schlarman has had regular chemo treatments and gone through clinical trials. Wolff said Schlarman has never complained. Maybe a little fatigue here and there, but that’s it.
“He’s just a suck-it-up kind of guy,” Wolff said. “Part of it is he’s got grit. I have no doubt he’s had bad days.”
It’s that drive, that ability to put his head down and go back and forth to Houston and run around to get CAT scans and submit to endless lab work, that has helped him do as well as he has. He’s currently stable. The last set of tests showed no growth and even a minor shrinkage of the cancer.
A people person with a big personality, Schlarman has become a favorite of the staff at MD Anderson. His fundamental optimism, Wolff said, is always a positive in a patient.
“He’s not checking out anytime soon,” Wolff said. “But this is not something we know how to cure. He and his wife still hope that the science continues to evolve and allows him other options for treatment down the road.”
Schlarman doesn’t like to predict the future. When he first got his diagnosis, he immediately wondered, How much longer do I have? Would it be a month, six months, a year? He thought, It’s an automatic death sentence.
But turning his attention to the various treatment options available changed everything. He chose instead to focus on a plan of attack. He and his wife decided not to get too high or too low with each new treatment or test result. They understand, fundamentally, that things can change in a hurry.
“Obviously, the ultimate goal is to get rid of all of the cancer,” he said. “But a big goal is being able to live your life and have as much normalcy as possible.”
He likes his routine, and that’s why he keeps going to work every day. When he broke the news to Stoops back in 2018, he never once mentioned leaving the job. Stoops asked him to take some time away, maybe go on vacation with his family and think about it. Schlarman decided to come back to the office.
“I’m not the type that can sit around all day and lay around in a bed,” he said. “That’s not going to be a good situation. For my children, seeing Dad get up and go to work provides a certain level of normalcy: It’s not too bad. Dad’s doing what he always does. So I think it was really important for my mental well-being and the family.”
Jackson, the same senior offensive lineman in awe of Pachal’s resilience in the weight room, remembers the shock of hearing Schlarman explain his diagnosis during a position meeting. But what stands out most was how matter-of-fact he was. Schlarman gave them the lay of the land and then stopped on a dime. Jackson said Schlarman told them, “But you know what? Screw that! I’m not here to whine and moan and drag you guys down with me. I’m going to make you forget I’m going through this.”
“And he did,” Jackson said.
He couldn’t recall a single missed practice. There was that one time when Coach ran to the sideline and threw up in a trash can, but he was right back running the drill seconds later as if nothing happened.
Unless you were looking closely and you’d been around him for years, you might not know anything was wrong. The only time he missed a work obligation was because he was in Houston getting treatment. In 2018, his line allowed the third-fewest sacks in the SEC. Last season, it helped produce the No. 1 rushing offense in the conference.
“I thought I’d been around some people,” said fellow assistant coach Vince Marrow. “But John Schlarman is the strongest man I’ve ever been around in my life. You talk about dude being in two-a-day practice, go get chemo, come back and then have another full practice and you’d never even know it? Nah, man.”
He later added, “John Schlarman is my hero.”
But like any offensive lineman, Schlarman is not a look-at-me-guy. He’ll cringe when he reads this. In fact, he wasn’t all that comfortable with his story being told in the first place.
He’d tell Kentucky’s public relations staff that Paschal should be the one in the spotlight, not him. He agreed to be interviewed, he said, only because he knows what it’s like early on when you’ve been given a diagnosis and you’re faced with so many unknowns. You’re scared. You think your life’s over. But it’s not. Look at him: two years in and still going strong. Still doing what he loves. Still playing with his kids and going out to eat with his wife.
“Time is going to come to an end at some point for all of us,” he said. “I don’t know that I ever thought about it that much, to be honest with you, until I had to face this. It made you look at every day a little bit different than you used to. It’s a blessing to have the day.”
It has been a blessing for Schlarman and Paschal to have each other. Because cancer has a way of shutting you off from people when you need them the most. Not only do you have to go get treatment on your own, you’re typically left alone with your thoughts. Friends and family can say all the right things, but the truth is no one knows what you’re going through.
“It’s isolating,” Paschal said. “Like, they don’t understand what I’m going through, so how are you going to tell me to do this and do this and feel like this and feel like that when you’re not going through the same things? But Coach Schlarman was going through it worse than me. That’s the one person I could go to and say, ‘I’m feeling like this. How are you feeling?’
“I asked him every day, ‘How are you doing?’ and it’s not a routine just ‘How are you doing?’ greeting. It was more like, ‘Be honest with me: How are you doing? Are you struggling with anything?’ And he’d ask me the same thing.”
They found themselves comparing notes and having genuine conversations. Paschal remembers Schlarman telling him early on, “If there’s two people on the team who can handle it, it’s us.”
“It’s shock at first,” Schlarman said. “And then you go through some of the same stages at the same time, and all of the sudden we had a lot in common. I think that helped us bond and form a relationship where we helped each other in the process. I know he helped me with the way he handled it at his age. It helped my mental approach to it. And hopefully, there’s something I did at the time that helped him, as well.”
And now, Josh Paschal is cancer-free.
There are going to be periodic checkups, of course, and anything can happen to anyone at any time. But everyone is confident he’s in a good place now. Paschal said his faith has grown and he counts himself lucky for it, recalling how the team’s trainers considered waiting until after the season to get the spot on his foot examined.
“They found a trace of it in my lymph nodes,” he said. “So if it would have went on for another six months, lord knows what would have happened.”
The past year has been a whirlwind. Last summer, when the team opened camp, he started feeling like himself again. In 2019, as a redshirt sophomore, he was named team captain, started every game at linebacker and tied for second on the team with 9.5 tackles for loss. He made the dean’s list, too. And in March, he made the trip to Atlantic City for the Maxwell Awards, at which he was named to the inaugural 2019 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Team.
Seeing him become cancer-free has been an inspiration for Schlarman, who started a new trial drug in April.
“It gives someone like me hope to keep on battling and there is another side that exists out there,” he said. “You have to keep fighting to get through to that and hopefully be on that other side with him.”
Like everyone else in the world, Schlarman spent the past couple of months at home during the coronavirus pandemic. It was weird, he said, but he was grateful for the time with his family. His degree is in education, so he stepped in as his kids’ math teacher.
Getting through this strange predicament felt a lot like his approach to cancer, he explained: You do what you can, and you don’t try to predict the future.
Maybe there will be a day when the treatments won’t work or they’ll have adverse effects and he can no longer go into the office, he admitted. But there’s no way of knowing.
“All you can do is take it one step at a time.”