The call came about 9 p.m. on the Thursday after Christmas.
Floyd County High School girls’ basketball coach Alan Cantrell and his wife, Gayle, listened anxiously on speaker phone when they heard the familiar voice of their son, Travis.
They found a spot, Alan Cantrell remembers his son and assistant coach telling them. This was the result of a CAT scan on their 3-year-old grandson Joshua Cantrell.
The Cantrells couldn’t help but think of the two spots discovered on Floyd County boys’ basketball coach Brian Harman’s son days earlier.
The spots on Chance Harman’s brain were malignant, an MRI had revealed.
Alan and Gayle Cantrell raced for Carilion New River Valley Medical Center. Joshua was transported in an ambulance to Carilion Roanoke Community Hospital the same night. His grandparents drove behind.
More bad news came the next morning.
“The next thing we know, the words ‘tumor,’ ‘MRI’ and ‘surgery’ were coming out of people’s mouths,” Alan Cantrell said.
An MRI indicated the spot on Joshua’s brain was a tumor, requiring emergency surgery. On Dec. 29, a day after arriving in Roanoke and the same day the undefeated Floyd County girls were to play Christiansburg, Joshua went into surgery. School officials canceled the game so the Cantrells could be with Travis, his wife, Laura, and their daughter Melissa, who came in from Louisville, Ky.
Coincidentally, Joshua’s surgeon had been scheduled to operate on 4-year-old Chance the same day.
The Harmans had a bit more time to prepare. Brian Harman took a leave of absence from his coaching duties in mid-December when tests revealed the two brain tumors. More tests indicated two more tumors on Chance’s spine. The Harmans moved the surgery to Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, rather than Carilion, and went to Norfolk on New Year’s Day. He underwent surgery Wednesday.
Two families — already knitted together through their ties to basketball and Floyd County High School — were suddenly facing an eerily similar fight.
“One, you’re in shock,” said Floyd County Athletic Director Clay Moran. “Then, when you have two in that short of time, you don’t know how to describe it. It’s freakish.”
Or as Harman put it: “Beyond rare.”
Alan Cantrell has coached and taught at Floyd County for 23 years and won three basketball state titles. Brian Harman was an assistant coach under Cantrell on the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams. Travis Cantrell and Brian Harman played on the same team for Alan Cantrell in 1995. Harman took over the boys’ job when the girls’ and boys’ seasons overlapped. Travis Cantrell moved his family back to the area last summer. He became his father’s assistant.
These days, the Harmans and Cantrells live about 15 minutes apart in Floyd County. Cantrell called Harman the Wednesday after Christmas.
“I said, ‘Brian, words can’t describe how we feel, and I can’t imagine what you’re going though,’ ” Cantrell said. “Within hours it happened to our family.”
A week earlier, Joshua had begun vomiting and complaining of a headache. The Cantrells hoped it was no more than a common stomach virus. When Joshua didn’t improve, his parents took him to the emergency room at the New River medical center. Alan Cantrell left Roanoke Carilion and held basketball practice in Floyd on Monday after a conversation with Travis convinced him he should be on the sidelines for Floyd’s game with Radford the next day.
“When this happened with Brian’s son, the cheerleaders made a little sign to put up in the gym there on the wall, ‘We love Chance.’ I go in Monday to practice and there’s a sign saying, ‘We love Joshua,’ ” said Cantrell, fighting back tears. “It’s like a bad dream. You feel three feelings: Either you’re numb or you’re really angry or you’re really sad.”
Cards, phone calls and text messages have poured in from the time both boys were hospitalized. Concern led a group of students and faculty members to hold a special prayer around the flagpole one morning.
Chance received autographed cards from NASCAR drivers Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer of Richard Childress Racing. Alan Cantrell has received offers from people offering to feed some horses he trains. Even those outside of family and the Floyd community have provided support.
“The worst things happen to the best people,” said Giles boys’ basketball coach Mitch Reed, who once coached alongside Harman in Floyd County. “That’s a perfect example. I just can’t imagine. My son’s 3. It just tears me up when he has a stomach bug.”
Sunday night the entire Floyd girls’ team visited Joshua in the hospital. Then on Tuesday, with Melissa Cantrell beside her father on the bench as a temporary replacement for her brother, Floyd County obliterated Radford 90-56. Every Buffalo scored, heavy hearts notwithstanding.
“Joshua, he’s such a cute little kid,” said center Adrienne Womack. “He’s well-known with the team. … You would hate for that to happen to anybody, but coach, he’s like a father to us. To see him down brings the team down. … It’s just the time for the team to come closer together.”
Cantrell praised his players.
“Everybody wants to try to do something. … ‘Can we help out with food, money, cards or flowers?’ ” Cantrell said on Wednesday. “These kids, they don’t have outlets like that. Last night was their way of showing, ‘This is how much we care.’ I told them after the game when we walked into the locker room that was probably the best medicine I could get.”
Joshua went home Wednesday after surgeons removed 95 percent of his tumor. Joshua is meeting with an oncologist today in Roanoke, and may go to Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center or St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis next, according to Gayle Cantrell.
Chance may have more of an uphill battle. The surgery removed about 50 percent of the big tumor on his brain. Harman said his faith has sustained him.
“I don’t know why it’s happening. It’s happening for a reason. We’re going to get through it good or bad,” Harman said. “We’re all going to win out of this.”
Cantrell said his priorities have changed.
“I’ve got sometimes pretty, I guess, thick skin or rough exterior sometimes about things. I’d sit at the house, and the phone would ring and I wouldn’t answer it sometimes,” Cantrell said. “Since this has happened, if I get to the phone, I’m answering it. I want people to know these boys’ story. Everybody that I see that I know that has children or grandchildren, I want them to hug them a little bit more and don’t take things for granted.
“… Whatever I can do to make something good come out of this I want to do.”
This article was originally published at Roanoke.com on January 4, 2007