By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Jeff Porcaro (MapleMountainSports.com)
It’s not a story he tells much, even with his own athletes, but if it can help someone else out there, Maple Mountain track and field coach Darrell Wyatt is happy to share what he has learned from his own life experience. He shared his story with me and in passing it on to you, I believe there is someone out there who will be inspired, as I was.
“When I was in high school, my junior year, I was diagnosed with cancer,” Wyatt said. “I missed a term of school for surgery and treatment, but I was able to bounce back and come back from all of that and continue to run and here we are today, now a survivor of cancer.”
The time period during which he was being treated was a few months for Wyatt, who was a sprinter at Mountain View High in the late 1990s, but he learned a lot about cancer and also a great deal about life.
“I don’t tell people that much,” Wyatt said. “When I talk to some of the kids, I tell them my priorities in high school were football, girls and track, in that order. Then I got sick and it was God first, family second, friends third and it changed everything. It really did change my approach to life and how I viewed everything. I don’t really share it much. I have a neighbor, a teacher across the way, Coach Miner, and he says I need to share that story every year.”
Though he doesn’t bring this up except in situations where he thinks it will make a significant impact for a specific student, when he shared it with me, it was with emotion, and that let me know he understands its significance. It has played a role in who he is and the things he is doing every day to make a difference for everyone he meets.
“People beat cancer every day,” Wyatt said. “We found out in the beginning of my junior year. In August was when we discovered the tumor and by the time October was over, all the surgeries were done and the chemotherapy was coming to an end. It was death and painful and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
“We have come a long way. It’s weird to sit here and say if you’re going to get cancer anywhere in the United States, Utah is the best place to do that. I had phenomenal doctors and they were incredibly supportive and phenomenal. I owe my life to them. They did a wonderful job.”
His family, coaches and teammates played a huge role in helping Wyatt get through a tough time in his life. The very mention of “cancer” can be overwhelming for a teenager but that support network provided the one thing that carried him through – hope.
“As a junior, you don’t expect any of that,” Wyatt said. “Having to go through that and having the support of coaches and teammates who wanted to see me back running, they gave me hope to come back running. My junior year and senior year, there was a lot of hope given to me by coaches and teammates and I’ll be forever indebted to them.”
The impact his coaches had on him at that time, and during other challenging days of being young played a major role in Wyatt’s decision to get into teaching and particularly into coaching. He just finished his 16th year of coaching, a career that started at Lakeridge Junior High in Orem and continued at Mapleton Junior High until Maple Mountain opened, when he took charge of the Golden Eagle track and field program.
“It’s been nice to see this program grow and develop and become what it is today,” he said. “It’s been great and I’ve enjoyed the ride with some great athletes along the way.”
Those athletes have benefited from the experiences Wyatt had with the mentors who helped shape his athletic experiences, even though many of them don’t know nearly the whole story.
“For me, I had an incredible coach in Dave Houle over at Mountain View,” Wyatt said. “He’d come and visit me in the hospital and he’d bring me my homework. He didn’t have to do that at all, but it had a huge impact on me. I see the impact that he had on me and we can continue that in high school that you can make a difference in the lives of others. I was lucky in high school. I had some incredible coaches, all throughout, in all of my sports.”
His experiences with those coaches along with the fact that his health crisis came while he was a high school student shape the way Wyatt understands and interacts with the athletes he coaches now.
“As a coach, I am more understanding of the whole athlete and the whole aspect of life and that there’s more to each kid than just what you see for that hour and a half,” he said. “It has definitely given me as a coach a perspective on the challenges these kids face on a daily basis and that has definitely helped me to be able to relate with them better.
“Life is hard, but there is always hope that it gets better. There is always that idea that the best is yet to be and as long as we keep working towards that best is yet to be, we can learn a lot with what life gives us and we can help others. How we respond to what life gives us tells us a lot about ourselves and how we then can help others and that’s really what I’ve tried to do as a coach, to help others find out how to become better with what they face on a daily basis.”
It’s really the essence of coaching and the reason so many fine people decide to put in the long hours and deal with the politics involved with coaching high school sports. They know the young people with whom they are working are following a path similar to the one they traversed themselves.
Wyatt not only coaches the high school team, but on the day I sat with him to talk about his story as well as the stories of a few of his athletes, he was at the school preparing to work with a group of young kids in a track and field program. He’s sharing his love of the sport with kids of all ages.
“Track and field has always been a big part of my life. It has given me hope,” Wyatt said. “When I was sick, the idea of running again gave me hope to keep going. I have learned so many lessons for life from this sport that I see coaching is one of the ways I can try to give back to a sport that has given me so much and to help others become better and to hopefully pass along life lessons.”
The coach believes that teachers and coaches have a unique opportunity to create an environment for those lessons, whether they are taught through track and field, football or any other program in which young people have an interest.
“I’m convinced teenagers will learn the life lessons they need to in whatever sport or whatever activity it is,” he said. “It could be marching band, it could be robotics, track and field, softball, baseball, football, you name it. I’m convinced they will learn those life lessons that they need to and whatever coach is there at the time, if they’re worth their salt, is providing those life lessons.”