Living with leukemia, Sheffer finds 'calmness' in coaching
Story By: Taylor Nichol
Rodney Sheffer remembers the moment he was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) in 2004. Hearing the word “leukemia” echoing around him, he found himself feeling scared, confused and overwhelmed. He was processing the news that he had a rare form of blood cancer.
Sheffer thought of his wife Rhonda and their two children, Alexis and Dechlyn. As a husband and father of two children, he knew developing a negative mindset was not an option. He wanted to be there for his family, teaching career and coaching position at Rocky Grove High School.
Determined to move forward with life as he knew it, he began taking medicine as part of the treatment plan. “I did have the summer time to ‘attempt’ to get accustomed to my medicine,” he recalled. The medicine made him feel very tired and periodically nauseated.
Fortunately, he was able to return to his volleyball coaching position. That Fall, he was back on the court in time for the girls season. “I did have to take some time for myself to just rest and recover and the district was wonderful about working with me and the situation.“
Sheffer’s persistence in being strong for his family has inspired his daughter, Alexis. “I have learned to never allow something small to affect my day,” she said. “My dad wakes up every day and takes a handful of different medications that allow him to be with us today. If he wakes up and does that, I have to remind myself that an inconvenience in my day won’t impact my life like my dad’s diagnosis did to his.”
15 years after his diagnosis, Sheffer now resides in Seneca, PA and remains on a cycle of medication as part of his CML treatment plan. Despite facing days where he feels very sick, he has been able to balance a full-time job with coaching. He has been the 6th grade Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at Titusville Area School District for 22 years. He may call coaching his part time “hobby” but it is an essential outlet for him. “Coaching seems to bring a calmness to my life,” he said. “It allows me to work with student athletes that I do not see in school on a daily basis and gives me something to look forward to.”
Throughout the years, he has coached a variety of sports at different levels. His experience includes girls and boys volleyball at both the junior high and varsity levels. He also coached 7th grade girls and boys basketball. He is currently an assistant softball coach at Cranberry Area School District, which he hopes to continue for many years.
Though he has many years of experience to choose from, he can easily name his proudest moment as a coach. “Seeing Alexis get so much recognition for softball,” he said. Knowing all the years of hard work she put into the sport, he was over the moon to see her receive a lot of attention from colleges when she was a high school athlete. “It was a proud time for me both as a coach but, more importantly, as her father... many high school athletes do not have the personal drive to push themselves to the next level and to see her do that was extremely rewarding.”
Alexis ultimately chose to play at Westminster College. Sheffer then decided to take a four year hiatus from coaching at a district. He wanted time to attend her softball games and enjoy the experience. He was still able to spend some time on his hobby. “Over the past 15 years, I have given private hitting lessons at our house and usually do anywhere from 6-10 a week.”
One of the coaching principles he really loves is promoting teamwork. He enjoys seeing players come together as a team to accomplish a common goal that they did not think was attainable. He acknowledges that bringing very different personalities together in a group setting can be challenging for a coach. With Sheffer’s background as an educator, he understands that athletes have different learning styles.
“Most players are very receptive to trying new things and learning different ways to hit, while others, not so much. It is these different personalities that I enjoy working with on a daily basis, although some days can be trying.”
Behind every great coach is a mentor that impacted their coaching principles. Sheffer admired a man named Ed Brannon. Brannon currently serves as sports editor for The Derrick and the News-Herald in Venango County. “As a young child, I watched him play softball with a true love of the game, interact with others with such class, respect and true admiration,” he said. He recalls wanting to be like him, not only as a coach, but also as a person. “Ed always treated everyone with the utmost respect and fairness-- sometimes it is very difficult.”
Sheffer’s daughter Alexis says he certainly is a coach and person that inspires others the same way. “If you were to meet him, you would never know he was diagnosed with a chronic illness 15 years ago,” she said. “He has such an amazing outlook on life and never takes anything for granted.”
While a lot can change in 15 years, Sheffer’s positive spirit has not wavered. He still has days where he has a difficult time functioning, but he manages his symptoms. “I have learned some limitations and therefore know what the warning signs are, so I am able to avoid any major incidents from occurring.”
While living with CML has changed his life in many ways, Sheffer does not view his diagnosis as unfortunate. “To be honest, being diagnosed with CML was one of the best things that ever happened to me, beside my marriage and children,” he said. “It completely changed my outlook on life, helped bring the more important things into focus better and, in my opinion, has made me an overall better person, husband, father and teacher.”
He is grateful that modern medicine, health insurance and a good support system make it possible for him to keep enjoying life. He wishes to make more memories with those he cares about and plans to welcome each day with a grateful mindset.