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Community is stepping up to help beloved football coach

Luther Welsh had it all figured out this summer.

The 78-year-old Thomson football coach would retire after his 56th season on a sideline mentoring young men. Then he and his wife of 50 years would finally get to enjoy some quality time with family in the childhood homestead in South Carolina they've been fixing up for the purpose.

"I really need some peace," Welsh said in November, in the final weeks of his tenure at Thomson.

Peace is hardly what Welsh and his wife have had since hatching their retirement plan. On Sept. 13, Ann Welsh had half of her right lung removed because of cancer. Now Luther has his own cancer battle to wage and win, with an exhaustive treatment plan postponing their plans for moving home to their farmhouse in Bishopville, S.C.

"We got it fixed up. I hope I live long enough to enjoy it," Welsh said. "I thought I was going to enjoy it a little bit but they caught me before I could really enjoy it. I'm going to have to deal with it a little bit."

Cancer is always cruel to its victims, but the timing seems particularly dastardly for Welsh. He's beaten lymphoma already in the past 10 years, and now he has an even trickier fight against cancer in his esophagus.

"The devil is trying to get us," said Ann, who also fell several weeks ago and broke her hip.

The coach's latest struggles began on the same day his wife had surgery in Augusta in September. He went to the hospital with her, but he started feeling too sick himself to even see a doctor that day. He scheduled an appointment for himself for the next day.

Over the next couple of months he made repeated trips to Augusta for tests and scans and all matter of scrutiny to figure out what was ailing him. Welsh continued coaching his Bulldogs despite severe, unmanageable pain that one day would be in his back, the next in his stomach or his side. It made pinpointing the problem a challenge.

By the time his Bulldogs were competing in the Class AAA playoffs, Welsh was struggling to swallow food. He has lost 20 pounds in the past two months. About the only sustainable thing he can handle now is Ensure.

"I'm trim now and ready to go play football," he said with a laugh.

The only thing not surprising about the whole way he dealt with it was that Welsh continued about his business coaching Thomson without missing a beat. He had not missed a day of practice in 56 years, despite military service, marriage, kidney stones, chemotherapy, pacemaker installation and a knee replacement. A lot of pain wasn't going to stop his final season.

"It was toward the end of the season and I just wouldn't say nothing to nobody because you know how kids are," he said. "I get on them for dragging sometimes and saying they don't feel good. I was hurtin', but I never would complain because I didn't want the kids to hear me complain. So I just kept my mouth shut."

The Welshes spent Christmas with family at their South Carolina farmhouse and then returned to Thomson. The coach and his doctors in Augusta have decided on a treatment plan that involves daily radiation, starting Monday, and weekly doses of chemotherapy to try to shrink the tumor to a more manageable size before performing surgery to try to remove it.

"They think they can do something about it, so I'm going to let them try to hit a home run," Welsh said.

For all Welsh has done for the community in 19 years of coaching the Bulldogs, it's the community's opportunity to pay him back. With his wife unable to drive him to Augusta for appointments, Thomson radio announcer Ralph Starling has gathered up volunteers to chauffeur him.

"Ralph Starling called and told me not to worry about getting him there," Ann said. "He took him yesterday and twice last week. He says he's got a chalkboard up at (Queensborough National) bank with 12 names of people willing to take him."

It's an outpouring of support that Welsh finds overwhelming.

"It was more than I thought, to be honest with you," he said. "It's a good town with good people in it. And when things happen, they try to help you. It's kind of been that way since I've been coaching here."

When the Welshes will get the chance to move to their retirement home is uncertain, but they're in no hurry. Welsh just shrugs off the inconvenience and unfairness of the setback.

"That's part of life," he said. "I look back, and a lot of my schoolmates in college and high school are not living. So I'm fortunate to still be struggling with it. I hope I can get another round."

Web posted on Thursday, December 30, 2010

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