Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Once Again, Pell Faces Tough Odds

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Once Again, Pell Faces Tough Odds

Article excerpt

The coach who laid the groundwork for Florida to win its first Southeastern Conference football championship, which was later stripped away by a vote of SEC presidents, was sitting in a large room Wednesday filled with about 70 people.

A couple of decades ago, he regularly found himself in this cramped-type situation on fall Saturdays when he addressed Gator players in the locker room before and after games. Only now, the crowd around Charley Pell wasn't a bunch of healthy, college-age athletes waiting on his words of inspiration.

They were men and women. Young and old. Rich and poor. Like Pell, they're all sitting in a wing at the Kirklin Clinic on the University of Alabama-Birmingham campus. All consumed by the thought of whether they'd win or lose.

Not a football game, but their personal, one-on-one battle with a much bigger opponent -- cancer.

"The waiting room where I go for chemotherapy and visits with the doctor is packed every time and it stays packed," Pell said by phone from his home in Southside, Ala. "It's easy to start a conversation because we're all in the same boat, feeling the uncertainty, the anxiety, the faith, the hope.

"And you know what? I get to talking with people and it makes me feel so small. I think my problem is big until I see what other people go through. I walk out of that clinic praying for people because a lot of them are in a heap worse shape than I am."

Pell's perspective is impressive considering that the lung cancer which has spread to his lymph nodes is at level 3B, the second worst stage for those inflicted with the disease. The doctors have given him a 30 percent chance of surviving.

Coincidentally, that just happens to be Pell's specialty -- surviving.

The ability to fight just may be the saving grace for the man who played under one of coaching's ultimate competitors, Paul "Bear" Bryant at Alabama, then forged a coaching career of his own by fighting to revive downtrodden football programs at Jacksonville State, Clemson and Florida. If anybody has a right to expect a miracle, it's Pell, who almost took his own life while living in Jacksonville six years ago before finally getting the help he needed to deal with his depression.

Ward Pell began to wonder a couple months ago if that illness had somehow gotten a hold on her husband again. She noticed after they moved 80 miles away from Birmingham to Southside that Charley was losing energy. He bought a tractor to help landscape the three acres adjoining their property, but showed no interest in using it or doing yardwork. He did nothing beyond his work as vice president of business development for a national real-estate marketing company.

"All of a sudden, he just quit," said Ward. "I thought, 'This is not like him.' "

She finally pushed him to go get a checkup in early October. …

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