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As Niagara basketball coach battles cancer, 'We're fighting with him'

LEWISTON — Marc Rybczyk’s back was killing him.

But he just figured he was getting older. Maybe he worked out too much and tweaked something.

An assistant men’s basketball coach at Niagara University, Rybczyk isn’t a guy who often goes to the doctor. He was trying to fight through the discomfort.

Team athletic trainers suggested certain exercises, but the pain only worsened.

When he finally saw a doctor, it was summertime, during the live recruiting period, and Rybczyk was committed to building the Purple Eagles’ program. He was committed to Niagara head coach Chris Casey. And he was committed to his fiancée, Siena women’s basketball coach Ali Jaques, and their planned trip to Italy.

Rybczyk surprised her with an engagement ring during a trip to Miami on July 4, and she surprised him with a plane ticket for his birthday, transforming a planned recruiting trip of her own into a European vacation.

Continue the exercises for a few more weeks, he was told.

But the pain only worsened.

Rybczyk called his doctor again in August, before the flight to Venice.

“What do I got to do to be more comfortable?” he asked.

Exercise. Ice. Advil. It all helped so little. But that was the advice.

Once Rybczyk returned from overseas, the relentless intensity became debilitating.

He couldn’t walk. X-rays revealed three herniated discs.

But a follow-up MRI, followed by a visit to a radiologist, followed by weeklong barrage of tests, revealed something far more sinister.

Rybczyk’s back was, in fact, killing him.

Specifically, the tumors eating his spine, hip and pelvis.

The growths were the handiwork of Non-Hodgkin's Diffuse Enlarged B-cell lymphoma, an aggressive and common blood cancer that requires an equally aggressive treatment and is mostly seen in patients at age 60 or older.

It had advanced to Stage IV.

There is no Stage V.

“They gave me two months,” Rybczyk said. “They said, ‘If you don’t do anything, you have two months to live.’ ”

Niagara University played Canisius on Jan. 27, 2018. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

'You're in denial'

The diagnosis came Oct. 19, only weeks before the start of Niagara’s basketball season.

Rybczyk couldn’t believe it.

He was a high-energy guy, a record-setting basketball player at Central Connecticut State, a man who, as a coach, often jumped into practice with college kids less than half his age.

He lifted weights.

He expected a cortisone shot, not a death sentence.

“You’re in denial,” Rybczyk said. “Like, ‘How do I have cancer? And, ‘This hurts. I don’t want to go through this. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be that person.’”

He was resigned to dying.

“When this first came out, I looked at myself and said, ‘You want to know what? I’m 48 years old. I had a pretty good playing career. My life has been good. I don’t really want to do anything. I’m going to take the — if I’ve got two months, I’ve got two months,’ ” Rybczyk said.

But there was no way that was going to happen.

Jaques wouldn’t allow it.

They had a wedding to plan.

“I know the man he is,” Jaques said. “And I knew if he had a chance, he was going to beat it.”

She lined up an appointment at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Casey, the son of a military man, encouraged Rybczyk to think about how much life he had to live and offered marching orders.

“Your only job right now is to get healthy,” Casey said. “You have no other job.”

Rybczyk thought about his own father, like him a star basketball player in college who became an assistant college coach and died 20 years ago this September, at age 54, nearly a quarter-century after he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic intestinal cancer.

The survival rate for Rybczyk’s blood cancer was much higher than the grim prospects his dad faced.

Rybczyk thought about his sons, both college students, and his players at Niagara.

He’d never allow them to shrink from a challenge, no matter how daunting.

“Just from the people around me and the love that I felt, and just knowing what my father went through, after that I said, ‘You want to know what? I’m not a quitter. Let me attack this and let’s see where we go from there,’ ” Rybczyk said.

“It was hard at first, because I was really in, when I say pain, it was pain I can’t even describe. I tried to describe it, because they’d say, on a scale, is it 1 to 10? And it was higher than that. For what I thought, it was pretty bad. And it was bad with no breaks. It would not stop.”

Marc Rybczyk was instrumental in recruiting Niagara University forward Dominic Robb (32) shown here during a game against St. Bonaventure on Nov. 12, 2018. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

Treatment challenges

Rybczyk began chemotherapy Nov. 1, less than two weeks after the diagnosis. The treatment requires numerous three-week cycles, beginning with a day of tests, followed by a day of drugs.

“It’s getting a little shorter now,” Rybczyk said, “but the first day was a 10-hour treatment of them just putting a bunch of poison in your veins.”

A few days after that, his condition improved. Then he was sick for a week, unable to get out of bed, let alone to the bathroom. Once he recovered, they’d do it again. Every three weeks. Every 21 days.

His hair fell out. He lost 25 pounds. He didn’t want anyone to see him like this.

Jaques became his full-time caretaker and moved him into her place near Albany, not exactly the start of the life together they envisioned.

Casey and his family offered to care for him, as well.

Players called and texted well wishes.

“He was the main guy who recruited me since I was way back in prep school,” forward Dominic Robb said, “so I have a connection with him and wanted to make sure he knows that I support him through all of it.”

“Every time before his treatment we all send a text message, individually, to let him know we’re with him and to keep fighting, to never stop fighting,” forward Marvin Prochet said. “We’re with him and we miss him. We’re trying to keep him in good spirits. He’s fighting, but he’s not really fighting by himself. We’re fighting with him.”

Strength in numbers

Rybczyk watches most every Niagara game. In his absence, his usual seat on the bench beside Casey is always left unoccupied.

“Strength comes in numbers,” Rybczyk said. “It definitely does. And having the games to look forward to, there’s days I’ve slept 16, 18 hours knowing that if I can get up at 7 o’clock and watch them play till 9, like the Pittsburgh game, and they win it, the way you feel, to have some kind of positive energy come through you, it definitely helps you get through it.”

Rybczyk returned to Niagara around Thanksgiving, despite his weakened immune system, against his doctor’s advice, hobbling into the gym on crutches to watch games against Grambling State and St. Francis Brooklyn.

It was a big mistake.

“I tried to get up there and be part of my extended family and it was great and uplifting being there, but I really paid the price after,” Rybczyk said.

He made it to the victory at Army on Dec. 22.

And to games within the last week at Manhattan and Fairfield, where the Stags honored Rybczyk on Monday during a Coaches vs. Cancer event. Fairfield’s athletics director, Paul Schlickmann, used to have the same job at Central Connecticut.

Rybczyk walked in without crutches, a major breakthrough.

“It was really uplifting for me to be there,” Rybczyk said. “It was uplifting for me to be around the team. It was uplifting for Coach Casey — he’s like family to me, so to actually be able to see him in person and just get a hug felt really good. And the players, when I came into the locker room for the first time, the way they responded was just heartwarming. And anything that can give you uplifting energy really kind of gets you through this."

“Without the team, I don’t know where I’d be right now, without that to look forward to. My whole mindset is, ‘When can I come back? When can I come back? When can I be part of this? When can I help again?’ ”

Rybczyk has at least two more cycles of chemo remaining.

He plans to attend Niagara’s game at Siena on Thursday.

He is hoping to attend the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament in Albany in early March.

By Valentine's Day, he and his fiancée hope to have resumed wedding plans.

“His last treatment is February 12,” Jaques said. “So hopefully on February 14, we’ll start having a discussion about it. But we don’t want to get married until he feels great and he’s ready to dance.”

In the meantime, Rybczyk can’t shake the notion that he’s shirking his responsibilities as a coach.

“I have an emptiness inside me that feels like I’m not carrying my weight of what I need to do,” Rybczyk said. “And if I can come back tomorrow, I would.”

He fears he’s letting the kids down.

In fact, he’s teaching them far more than he ever imagined.

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