John Clay

Fighting cancer, Kentucky’s John Schlarman leans on the game he loves

Think it was John Lennon who famously said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” I don’t if know John Schlarman is a Beatles fan but I’m guessing Kentucky football’s offensive line coach would agree with the sentiment.

The 43-year-old former UK offensive lineman was busy preparing this summer for his sixth season on Mark Stoops’ staff when he was diagnosed with an undisclosed form of cancer.

Consultation with doctors at UK Health, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lexington and MD Anderson in Houston followed. A plan of attack developed. Chemotherapy treatments began. Schlarman received his second Friday morning.

Friday afternoon he was back on the practice field teaching, coaching. Then after Tuesday’s practice, four days from Saturday’s opener against Central Michigan, Schlarman spoke to the media for the first time about his situation.

“We’re at the start of the process, really,” he said. “Everything has gone really well. Feel a lot better now than I did probably in the middle of June before we started this treatment stuff. That’s a good sign.”

Still, it’s a scary deal. Those of us who have been around Kentucky football for a long time have known John Schlarman for a long time. He’s a former Ft. Thomas Highlands star, a former four-year starter at UK (1994-97) with a degree in mathematics and a love for football and coaching, first at the high school level (Bourbon County) and then college, first at Troy and now his alma mater.

He’s also one of the brightest, down-to-earth people you’d ever want to meet, the epitome of a, well, a football player. He’s married to LeeAnne Federspiel, daughter of former UK linebacker great Joe Federspiel, with three young sons and a daughter, all running around the practice field on family night.

“Obviously, it’s a probably a little bit harder on my wife because I’m away from home and she’s worried about me a lot and thinking about me every day,” Schlarman said Tuesday. “So I know that’s a little bit harder on her than it is for me, because when you come in and work and you’re at work, you’re just working, you’re not thinking about things.”

John Schlarman, a former Kentucky offensive line standout, has been on Mark Stoops’ UK staff since the beginning in 2013. Britney Howard UK Athletics

He has football. To be sure, his health is much more important than football. But right here, right now, with the season starting, around his players and a supportive staff — “I couldn’t work for a better head coach in America,” Schlarman said — football is a helpful distraction.

“I’ve been able to maybe not sit around and worry all daggone day about things,” he said. “I’ve been able to just go to work and do what I would do on a regular basis. I think that’s refreshing mentally.”

To his players like starting center Drake Jackson, it’s inspiring. Jackson said Tuesday his position coach has been so low-key about his situation some of the players on the team didn’t even know until recently. Jackson said that it even slips his mind sometimes.

“It teaches you how to be a man,” said the sophomore from Versailles. “He’s literally out here going through all that stuff and doing his job the way he’s done it since I’ve known him. And he doesn’t let you get emotional because then he’ll get on you. ... It just shows you, this is how you do it.”

How this plays out, no one knows. Schlarman said he will continue to receive treatments throughout the season. He hopes not to have to take any time away from the team, but “I don’t know what’s in front of me with this stuff, but nobody with cancer probably does. But the reality of the situation is you take it day by day. That’s what I’m doing: Taking it day by day.”

You can root for the Cats or you can root against them. It’s a game, after all. What John Schlarman is facing is a much different battle. And in that one, you need to be rooting for him.

“It’s really important to me to do the job that I’m here to do,” he said Tuesday. “That’s something that really motivates me every day. I want to keep on doing that for as long as I can do that, and hopefully that’s a long, long time.”

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