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High School Coach Finds Strength When Life Throws Him a Curve

http://www.theledger.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20040503/NEWS/405030353/1004

Monday, May 3, 2004
Roy Fuoco
The Ledger

It looked like a normal high school practice on a sunny Florida afternoon. Pat Garrett, the Frostproof baseball coach, was hitting fielding practice.

It is the old small-town story where the local high school hero -- Garrett was an All-State baseball and football player at Frostproof in the late '80s -- returns to his alma mater to coach.

The first twist in Garrett's story was how his college career got sidetracked for about 2 1/2 years before he got back on track. You see, while it was not a given that Garrett would be a high school coach, he always had an idea that he would.

It is in the family. His father, Gary, is an assistant coach at Webber and was his high school coach at Frostproof. His maternal grandfather was an assistant coach under Woody Hayes for a number of years. (He was also a pallbearer at Hayes' funeral.) And then there are the uncle, brother and cousins who are also coaches.

So perhaps it was just a matter of time before Garrett, especially considering his love for baseball, finally became a teacher and coach. Except for spending time with his wife and children, Garrett cannot think of a better place to be than on a baseball field.

But how long he continues to coach is a question. The bandages on his fingers barely give an indication that this normal scene of a baseball coach hitting fielding practice is not so normal.

The bandages are because his fingers will swell up. The temperature now is only in the mid-80s, and when it gets hotter it will wear him down physically, and not because he is not in good shape. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Garrett works out hard in the weight room three times a week bench pressing 315 pounds and squatting 315 pounds.

The reason? A year ago, Garrett was diagnosed with MS - multiple sclerosis.

William Patrick Garrett was born Jan. 18, 1971, in Lake Wales. He grew up with a love of sports, especially baseball, and was a star athlete in high school. He graduated in 1989. It was during those years when Garrett learned to not let obstacles stop him.

"You could see his hand-eye development at an early age," his father said. "He always had a bat and ball in his hands."

When he was 3, Garrett and his family moved to Alabama, and Gary Garrett always knew that his son could be found down at the baseball field that was near their house.

NO STOPPING FOR PAIN

They returned to Frostproof when Garrett was in the third grade, just after he received 47 stitches after being injured in a car crash. He starred in youth baseball and had one of his first experiences in not letting pain stop him from playing the game he loved.

Gary Garrett remembers it well. He was at the high school when a mother of one of Pat's teammates ran to the school and told him that Pat had been hurt. Pat, playing shortstop, had been hit in the face and his lips were caught inside his braces. After his father checked him out, Pat played the last inning before going to the doctors.

"The only time he cried was when he thought he was going to miss an inning of playing baseball," Gary Garrett said.

After starring in high school, Garrett earned a baseball scholarship to Troy State. He later transferred to Auburn University at Montgomery. He played two years there, never hitting below .300.

His career at UAM ended when he let his grades drop below a 2.0 grade-point average and he lost his scholarship. Garrett said it was not until later that he realized he could have stayed in school, got his grade-point average back up then regain his scholarship.

Instead, Garrett went Texas. He earned "good money" driving a truck delivering dog food to Greyhound tracks Monday though Thursday and ran a pressure-cleaning business with a friend on weekends.

He never forgot his love of baseball. His only fix was going to about 30 Houston Astros games.

"I missed it," he said. That was a difficult time for me. I grew a lot as a person maturity-wise when I was out there. That old adage, you live and learn."

A call from his father got him back on track. Webber was just starting a baseball team. Garrett played two years at Webber for the fledgling baseball program.

"He was a very good athlete," Webber baseball coach Brad Niethammer said. "He was the type of player who could play a few different positions."

After two years, Garrett got his degree.

More important for Garrett, it was at Webber where he met his future wife, the former Molly DeGolyer.

"My wife has been my biggest source of strength," Garrett said. "My wife has been my rock."

NEW CHALLENGES

The first symptom was a numbness in his lower lip. Garrett shook it off, thinking it was the after-effect of being hit in the mouth. The numbness, however, spread until the side of his face was numb.

After falling down a couple times at practice, he went to his doctor, who referred him to Winter Haven Hospital. He had two MRIs and the doctor told him the news. He had multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects the central nervous system.

It was Feb. 21, 2003.

By then, Garrett, who teaches at-risk students at Roosevelt Academy in Lake Wales, was in his fifth year as head coach at Frostproof, a career highlighted by a district championship and a trip to the regional finals in 2000. He was enjoying coaching and his young family -- his two children are now 5 and 3.

And now this.

"There are things you can control, and things you can't control," Garrett said. "I didn't choose to have this, but I can choose how I react to it. I can choose to let it defeat me, or I can choose to fight it. Anyone who knows me knows I'm a fighter. I choose to fight it."

And it is a fight.

Every day, he wakes up knowing that something is going to hurt. After being diagnosed, he was put on an IV for a week to control the symptoms. He has changed his diet -- low fat, no fried foods -- and every week he must give himself a shot. It is not quite as simple as it sounds.

The shot causes flulike symptoms that last 12 to 16 hours -- fever, muscle spasms, shakes and nausea. He normally gives himself the shot Saturday night and feels lousy until just after church on Sunday. There have been more than 70 of those shots.

SOURCES OF STRENGTH

The only change in his career so far is that he has given up being an assistant football coach.

"I've been told several times that I should get out of coaching," Garrett said. "You've got to avoid heat, fatigue and stress. Think about that for a moment. I live in Florida, I coach baseball in the spring, I coach high school athletes, and I deal with high school athletes' parents."

Besides his wife and his team, Garrett draws strength from many sources. His paternal grandfather was a sharecropper who died of Lou Gehrig's disease. His maternal grandfather, the one who coached with Hayes, drove a landing craft during the Normandy invasion on D-Day during World War II.

"I look at myself sometimes as a coach, I try to measure up to my grandfathers," he said. "If I can look in the mirror and say I've made them proud and I'm a quarter of the men they were, I feel like I'm doing all right."

This spring's team enters the upcoming district tournament having won just one game this season. But Garrett is more proud of this team than any other he has coached.

Not one player has quit.

"I think they have a grasp of the bigger picture in life," Garrett said. "I'm proud to say that maybe I've had a little bit to do with that because they know what I go through on a daily basis with MS and on a weekly basis with my shots. They might feed off that, but they don't know how much I feed off them. I draw strength from them."
 

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