Joe Kilby’s first reaction when he learned in June that he needed immediate heart surgery was to ask if the procedure could be postponed until after football season.
The Apex High coach’s surgeon told Kilby that was his decision, but it sure would be a shame if he had a heart attack.
A few days later, Kilby called his players together and told them he was going to miss summer workouts, but he would get back as soon as he could. He had to have a little work done on his heart.
“I was very surprised because coach seemed like a very healthy guy and hearing that he had heart problems caught me off guard,” said senior defensive end Miles Drayton.
No one was more surprised than Kilby. He wasn’t overweight. He doesn’t smoke. He watches what he eats. He exercises regularly. He does the right things. Heck, he’s even run marathons.
But what began as a little irregularity in a routine physical led to testing and each new test brought more bad news.
He had a heart murmur, a heart valve that was not functioning properly and needed to be replaced. Related testing revealed an aneurysm in his aorta. Another test found a 70 percent blockage in an artery.
“I’m 50 years old. I’ve got a wife and a 3-year-old son. I’m too young for this,” he said.
On June 2 he had the surgery. He knew all the stats about how routine this type of surgery is now and about the survival rates. There also were thoughts that he knew he would go into the operating room, but nobody knew if he’d come out.
His boys, his football players, remember it being an awkward day. Drayton and quarterback Grayson Boyd prayed for their coach and they think most of the team remembered him some way that day.
Linebacker Jacob Sizemore had an odd feeling all day.
“Knowing it was happening and there’s nothing you can do isn’t a good feeling,” he said.
Sizemore said he grew up some that day.
“It makes you take a step back and realize how sometimes you take people for granted,” he said. “It’s an eye opener to think someone can be a big part of your life one day and then potentially be gone the next.”
The surgery went smoothly. Kilby left the hospital with a seven-inch scar, 37 staples and his chest held together by what he calls chicken wire. The hardest part of his recovery, he said, was not being able to pick up his son and hold him. Kilby couldn’t lift anything heavier than 5 pounds, so young McCoy’s pleas to wrestle went unfulfilled.
He also thought a lot about his team. Football has been a big part of his life.
He grew up in Sarnia, Ontario, in Canada and was a fan of the Detroit Lions of the NFL and the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL. He played Canadian football at the University of Waterloo.
He was teaching and coaching in New York City in 1987 when he read “Friday Night Lights” and decided to move to Texas to coach high school football.
He had coached 17 years in high school and college in Texas, Kansas and Virginia before taking an assistant’s job at Leesville Road. He later was named head coach at Cedar Ridge High in Hillsborough.
Two years ago, he took the Apex job.
Kilby knows the importance of summer workouts and wanted to be with his team to share the steamy drudgery of the conditioning and voluntary workouts.
But his absence fostered some opportunities. Will Orbin, who was head coach at Holly Springs last year, joined Kilby’s staff as defensive coordinator. Gregg Thomas, the offensive coordinator, has 17 years coaching experience.
“They, and the other coaches, are the real story,” Kilby said. “Those assistants and the players did some incredible things.”
The players said in the absence of their coach, they sensed a need to make the team their own.
“I felt a greater sense to lead because we were without our head coach and that was a challenge,” Boyd said. “It was going to be on us as a team and leaders to keep everything running as usual and keep getting better as a team.”
Drayton took it as a challenge.
“We had to show that even though coach Kilby wasn’t there, we were still going to work just as hard or harder than we would if he were there,” Drayton said.
The first day Kilby made an appearance at summer workouts was emotional. Drayton said the players understood a little better that their coach not only loves football, but that he loves them, too.
Kilby said the experience has changed him as a coach.
He said he would have found a way to handle it if his doctors had told him the stresses and demands of coaching were too much for him to handle, but he rejoices every day that he still can coach. He said it is a blessing.
He looks at his son and envisions being able to watch him grow up, graduate from high school and go on to college. He looks at his wife with renewed appreciation.
And he values his assistants and his players more than ever.
“When I got back, I asked the coaches where we were in preparation,” Kilby said. “They told me that it had been a great summer and if we had to, we could play this week. We had gotten that much accomplished.”
Apex was 2-9 in 2013, but the players and coaches expect better things this season. Kilby said the team already has shown it is a special group of players.