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The Age of Excellence: Dave DeLong, the coach’s purpose and drive

DeLong has helped Canyon cross country, and the sport has helped him weather personal adversity

Posted: December 20, 2009 11:09 p.m.
Updated: December 21, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Canyon cross country head coach Dave DeLong has helped the program reach elite heights. But the sport has also been a welcome distraction for DeLong, who lost one son to cancer.

 
Coming from Dave DeLong’s mouth, it may have sounded strange.

DeLong is a man who has lost one son to cancer, and has another who recently came off chemotherapy.

Losses of that nature are immeasurably more important than any losses on the cross country course, where DeLong has coached for 23 years.

Yet there he was, at Canyon High School’s cross country banquet in early December, telling the audience how fortunate he was.

“I compared myself to Lou Gehrig when he gave his ‘(luckiest man on the face of the earth)’ speech,” DeLong says, referring to the former Yankee great’s farewell speech at Yankee Stadium in 1939. “How could he say that when he was faced with one of the toughest deaths people could face? People asked me how could I say that, and I said, ‘the team.’”

Under DeLong’s watch, Canyon has won a pair of CIF state team championships and finished in the top five in the state on seven different occasions.

The program produced a CIF state individual champion when Lauren Fleshman won the 1998 state title, and runners have finished in the state’s top 10 individually on 12 different occasions since DeLong took over.

“Cross country is my distraction and has created so many great memories and relationships,” DeLong says. “I think teenagers are the greatest age group the world has to offer. Being with them has been therapeutic because they make you laugh and they make you proud.”

Perhaps DeLong was most proud in November of 2001, when the boys cross country team won the CIF State Division I championship in Fresno.

That team ran the race in 80 minutes, 42 seconds and finished a sizeable 65 points ahead of second-place Royal of Simi Valley.

But most importantly, it was an incredible triumph that came just 16 months after DeLong lost his oldest son, Justin, to cancer in July of 2000.

DeLong says he was crying after the meet, partly because he was thankful for the experience and partly because Justin wasn’t there to experience it with the runners, several of whom were his friends.

The team was conscious of DeLong’s family situation, yet it was never a big topic of discussion at practices and meets.

Rather, it was something that drew the team closer together.

“There was lots of bonding going on in the team,” says Ryan Morgan, who was a scorer on the 2001 state championship team. “Coach DeLong was like a father to us. DeLong kicked our butts out there every single day to do what we were capable of doing, and the only reason we were able to do that was because of Coach DeLong.”

Being able to focus on cross country helped DeLong cope with Justin’s passing, which might be as frightening a situation as any parent can imagine.

Justin’s cancer was identified early, and he underwent chemotherapy at a very young age. DeLong says that once a patient goes off chemotherapy, the chances of the cancer returning are greatest within the first six months to a year, and the chances are very slim after that.

Justin’s cancer returned after almost nine and a half years.

“We were so much younger at that time,” DeLong says of him and his wife, Lisa. “Because we couldn’t fathom that our little boy could die, you just didn’t think about it much.”

Justin passed away at age 15, and DeLong’s younger son Jacob was diagnosed with cancer almost six years later.

Jacob has now been off chemotherapy for about three months, and he had a port placed underneath his skin, a device that helps draw blood and infuse drugs without repeated use of needles.

DeLong says the port is his last tie to the disease, but given what happened to Justin, Jacob’s monthly visits to the doctor are much scarier.

“He goes in once a month for blood tests and we hold our breath,” DeLong says. “Our whole life is tied up in that vial of blood.”

Fortunately for DeLong, the Canyon boys team finished fifth in the state this past season, a result that surprised the coaches.

He was able to channel his anxiety into coaching and supporting them – much like he did in 2001.

“When you experience that kind of stuff, you feel sorry for that stuff,” he says. “You feel like, ‘Woe is me,’ and life is terrible. You need distractions. The team allowed me to have that purpose and that drive.”

In some cases, it’s DeLong who gave that purpose and drive to his runners.

Take Alysia Johnson.

By the time Johnson left Canyon, she was a two-time Foothill League champion and a key figure for a program that made four state meets during her career.

When she first came to Canyon, cross country wasn’t in her plans.

“My freshman year, I was coming in and was going to be playing soccer and basketball, and I had no interest in cross country,” she says. “(DeLong) told me to come out for basically the first six weeks. We just had so much fun. It started becoming like a little running family.”

It’s been that way for DeLong ever since he began coaching the Canyon varsity team in 1988. He only coached the girls in his first year, and he’s coached both the boys and girls since 1989.

Also a math teacher at Canyon High, DeLong says coaching is one of the coolest jobs someone could have.

“Most people go to work every day, and they put their hours in and they have their relationships at work,” he says. “That’s kind of what makes it work, in a sense. As coaches ... you get to be excited about winning and losing and trying to get a team to reach their potential.”

When DeLong ran cross country at Burroughs High in Burbank, he says his team came up short of its potential.

He says the boys runners regularly talked about winning a CIF championship, but he suffered a stress fracture at the league finals in his senior year and the team fell short of the CIF title.

“I don’t know if a day went by for 10 to 15 years that I didn’t think about letting my team down,” DeLong says.

But DeLong maintained his passion for the sport, and he has helped lead the Canyon boys and girls to a total of 24 league championships, including a 12-year run by the girls from 1994-2005.

DeLong has grown close to not only the runners he’s coached, but also the coaches he’s worked with.

That group includes Paul Broneer and George Velarde, who also coach the track and field team with DeLong.

This past summer, DeLong says the three coaches went to Eugene, Ore., to watch Johnson compete at the 2009 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

Fleshman couldn’t take part due to injury, but DeLong says she was a gracious host.

“It was kind of like this bucket list thing,” DeLong says. “We were gone 10 days together, and then we were gone another 10 days with the team. When we came home, I asked George Velarde’s wife, ‘Do you know I’ve slept (in the same room) as your husband more than you have?’”

It’s a light-hearted comment, but it also reflects the truth.

DeLong has focused a lot of his life on cross country, and he’s made a positive impact on a lot of lives.

Johnson, who went on to a successful track career at the University of California, Berkeley, says she wouldn’t be where she is without him.

Morgan says the Canyon program would be much different without him.

“I know it wouldn’t be anything like what it is,” he says. “Everything that’s built was built because of DeLong. It’ll be interesting to see what will happen when he takes off.”

For the time being, DeLong has more important issues to address.

Jacob continues to see the doctor every month, and thankfully, DeLong’s daughters Jessica and Joelle are very healthy.

But after going through Justin’s ordeal, the family is cautiously optimistic.

“Because of that whole situation and the way it manifested, (Jacob) will have a cold when he’s 45 years old and we’ll be worried about it,” DeLong says. “Even though it was a terrible experience, we may be better parents because we went through that.

“People say you can’t live in fear. Well, if you put yourself in my shoes, I’m pretty sure you can live in fear. We put faith in God and that he won’t let it happen a second time.”

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