Cancer was the furthest thing from Marc Lubick’s mind.
As a 28-year-old former college football player, he was in ideal physical condition. So he ignored the pain. He convinced himself that maybe it was just an infection that would be cleared up with some antibiotics.
But when that didn’t work, and the pain simply became too much, Lubick finally relented.
“It took a while,” the Buffalo Bills’ offensive quality control coach said . “I was going through something for two or three months. Finally when it was a struggle walking, a struggle getting around, I’m not sleeping at night – I had to go see the doctor.”
A biopsy determined that the previously unimaginable was a reality. Lubick had rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer that mostly affects children. According to the American Cancer Society, only about 350 cases of it occur each year in the United States.
“It usually presents in kids from about 3 to 10 years of age,” said Lubick, who was diagnosed in 2006. “When I was diagnosed with it, the oncologist I saw, who is world renowned for this cancer, said I was one of the oldest subjects she had ever heard about having it.
“Once I heard that word, ‘cancer,’ everything else tuned out. It was just a shock. My mind was going a million miles a minute, but I could only just think: ‘Cancer, cancer, cancer.’ It was nothing I expected or prepared for. It knocked not just myself, but my whole family, it turned our world upside down.”
Lubick was in his second season as the wide receivers coach at Colorado State, working on the staff put together by his father, Sonny.
“We just thought it was something that we can't figure it out, but it's not too big of a deal,” Lubick said of his reaction to first feeling sick. “I was able to function. I was able to do all my normal daily activities. I was just in a lot more pain than I'd like to be, but I really didn't think much of it.”
An 'eye-opening' experience
Lubick’s father, “had a tough time. Everyone was trying to be strong around me, but I could see it. If a relative or my brother was talking to my dad on the phone, I could hear him breaking down in the background,” Marc said. “It was a tough experience for our whole family. The hardest part for me was watching them go through the agony and the pain. Going through the treatments, getting sick, seeing me not being able to move, just the look on their face made it tough on me and it inspired me to prove to them that, ‘hey, I'm going to be ok. I'm going to get through this.' It was a joint effort on getting me through the whole ordeal.”
Unfortunately, Lubick’s story is one that’s shared by far too many families. The NFL’s “Crucial Catch” campaign is working to change that. The initiative, which is taking place throughout October, seeks to encourage early cancer detection and screening, along with raising awareness for seven screenable cancers – colon cancer, breast cancer, general cancer, cervical cancer, prostate cancer, childhood cancer and lung cancer.
As part of the campaign, the Bills will honor a group of survivors on “Stampede Row” during Sunday’s pregame ceremony prior to kickoff against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That moment promises to be an emotional one for Lubick, who will be on the Bills’ sideline.
“No question,” he said. “It’s very inspirational. It makes you really appreciate what you have be thankful for every day, because it really is a gift.”
Lubick was treated by Dr. Carola Arndt at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He went through three surgeries, one of which was a lymphadenectomy (the dissection of lymph nodes).
For that, they “cut me from right below my sternum to below my belly button and kind of pulled all my insides out to go look at the lymph nodes. There were 13 lymph nodes in my back, and half of those were infected.”
The surgeries were successful, and Lubick did six months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. In the first year after treatment, he went for screenings four times, and now more than 10 years later is still checked annually.
Because the type of cancer he had predominantly impacts children, those screenings are at a children’s hospital.
“You go there and you see young, innocent children and you can't believe what they've gone through,” said Lubick, who is now 39. “They don’t necessarily know all of what they’re going through, but you do. So that’s really tough.”
An inspirational fight
Lubick’s battle even inspired his sister to make a career change. Michelle Boyle is 5 years older than Marc, and at the time was working as a teacher. She looked at her younger brother as her “third kid.”
“He would come over for dinner all the time and play with the kids and he seemed invincible at that stage,” she said. “Then he got struck with this really tough diagnosis. To watch him go from being this 28-year-old on top of the world to having the weight of the world on his shoulders was so hard. Watching his body deteriorate with the treatments, I wouldn't wish it upon anybody.”
After a particularly grueling round of chemotherapy, Michelle was at Marc’s side in the hospital when he had a request.
“I remember vividly, he said, ‘hey, if I don't make it, please tell me you'll give back.’ There were all these volunteers coming in doing different things,” she said. “I looked at him and said, ‘you will make it, and I will give back.’ ”
That moment became the inspiration for RamStrength, a non-profit charity that provides financial assistance for all types of cancer survivors in Fort Collins and Northern Colorado.
“That's really how the whole foundation got started. It's Mark's story that inspired me,” said Michelle, who is now the executive director. “I never dreamed I'd run a cancer foundation that would help local cancer patients, so blessings do come out of it. We've met a lot of wonderful people and been able to help a tremendous amount of people with their bills at a time when they most need it.”
To date, RamStrength has raised nearly $2 million and helped at least 2,000 cancer patients with their basic needs while they go through treatment. That includes providing scholarships to Colorado State students who have fought the disease and otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford tuition.
“You realize everyone has a story with cancer. People would come and want to support us, even if they didn't know Marc personally or my family,” Michelle said. “They'd say, ‘I want to do something because my mom went through it, or my brother or sister or a neighbor. If you go into a room and ask who's been touched by cancer, there's never not a hand that doesn't go up.
“For Marc, it was touch and go. We didn’t know if he was going to make it. His treatments were so intense. It was the scariest time we’ve ever had as a family. I couldn't imagine my life without my brother.”
In his blood
Sonny Lubick is regarded as the best coach in Colorado State history. Over a 15-year run that started in 1993, he led the Rams to six conference championships and nine bowl appearances. An anonymous $20 million donation was made so that Colorado State’s new, $220 million stadium will carry the name “Sonny Lubick Field.”
Lubick’s passion for coaching was passed on to both of his sons, as Marc’s older brother, Matt, is currently the co-offensive coordinator at Baylor University.
“Really since I was born, it’s all I've known growing up,” Marc said. “Being a coach's kid and then pursuing coaching when my playing carreer was over, it's all I've been around. I've seen the good times in the profession and I've seen also the bad times in the profession. For me, it's the most fulfilling thing that I could be doing.”
After playing four seasons at Fort Collins High School, Lubick was a safety at Montana State. He earned his bachelor’s degree in health and exercise sciene from Colorado State in 2001, serving as a student assistant for two years and a graduate assistant for one.
After graduating, Lubick spent two years with the St. Louis Rams as a scouting assistant, learning the personnel side of the game. He got back into coaching in 2005 when he joined his father’s staff, spending five years with the Rams.
“You can see it,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said of the influence Sonny Lubick had on his son. “He's a darn good football coach. He's got a professional way and manner about what he does on a day-to-day basis, not only in the office, but on the field. He's got a good rapport with the players, a good understanding of the offense.”
From Colorado State, Lubick went back to the NFL with the Houston Texans. He was an offensive assistant and later the assistant wide receivers coach from the Houston Texans from 2010-13. It was there that he first worked with Rick Dennison, who is currently the Bills’ offensive coordinator.
“This will be my seventh year with Rick, so I know him very well,” Lubick said. “I really know what he expects or wants. It's made the transition very smooth.”
Lubick followed Dennison to Denver and served as the Broncos’ assistant wide receivers coach for the previous two seasons. That included a Super Bowl victory in 2015.
“It was an amazing time,” Lubick said. “We had a lot of great coaches and great people on the staff. Great players. It really was a group effort. Being around Peyton Manning for a season, seeing how he worked and operated. He knew every single person in the building, right down to the people who worked in the cafeteria. He was absolutely the most considerate person.
“It might have been a late night or you’d be a little tired, and you see him still there trying to get an edge or an advantage, it's pretty impressive to see. You know why he is the person he is and why he's as successful as he is.”
Lubick has brought that work ethic to his current role with the Bills, which involves making sure the playbook is organized, breaking down film and otherwise making sure Dennison has everything he needs to present at team meetings.
“Marc is a very tireless worker,” said McDermott, who didn’t know Lubick before Dennison recommended him for the job. “He's here very early in the morning and stays late into the night. I really appreciate his work ethic, the type of person he is off the field.
“He's paid some dues, and he's continuing to pay his dues, which is the right way to go about it. You add to the fact that he comes from a football family – where I'm sure it's easy to jump some rungs on the ladder – and he hasn't done that. He's earned everything he's gotten in the right way. He’s well on his way to great things.”