By John Shimer
---- — GEORGETOWN — When describing the qualities athletes need to become great football players, there are many varying opinions, but the reflections of two great coaching minds could very much depict one special Georgetown Royal junior.
Six-time national champion-winning Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant once simply said of what he looks for in players: “There’s no substitute for guts.”
Another legendary coach, Lou Holtz, who helped Notre Dame win its last national title in 1988, was also quoted as saying, “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it.”
Georgetown’s Tommy Coye embodies everything those two football men stated — character, determination, work ethic and a never-say-die mentality.
Ironically, Coye’s battle with his guts, or more specifically with his colon and the ulcerative colitis (UC) condition he was diagnosed with at age 4, is what makes his story so poignant.
Coye’s UC diagnosis — which causes ulcers in the colon — could not be treated with the usual medications gastroenterologists would typically prescribe because his body reacted adversely to nearly all those medications, especially Advil.
After four years of trying varying gastrointestinal medicines, his parents determined that a strict diet avoiding wheat and gluten-based products seemed to put the UC into remission.
However, in early September of 2011, Coye complained of an earache and feeling sick at practice, and was sent home. What his coaches and parents thought was simply a bug turned into a four-month ordeal of lengthy hospital stays, dreadful bouts of pain and a life-altering surgery.
Coye was initially diagnosed with a double-ear infection and allowed to return home, but after a week of diarrhea and vomiting, he returned to the doctors, who sent him to Beverly Hospital.
From there, he was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, and because it caused a major flare-up with the UC, he was sent after one night by ambulance to Children’s Hospital in Boston, where he was soon admitted to the Intense-Care Unit because of the seriousness of the situation.
For two months, the pancreatitis ravaged his body. Most serious was the time when his liver began to fail because a main duct to the liver was being crushed by swelling. Coye began to turn yellow, even his eyes. A stent was then inserted through surgery to get that situation under control. After three weeks, he was able to return home briefly, but even after the pancreatitis was controlled, the UC was still very much a major issue. So he returned to the hospital, this time to Mass General, where his original gastrointestinal doctor was located.
Two more months of excruciating pain followed, as did weeks of long hospital stays, and waiting to see what would work, only to run into roadblocks and deadends.
Coye was in and out of the hospitals for four months, and he could not eat solid foods. He had such long stays, the intravenous fluids were not enough nourishment to keep his body healthy.
So on three separate occasions, he had procedures where he was consciously sedated to be hooked up to PICC-lines, where thick liquid nutrients were pumped into veins just above his heart. These procedures gave him an intense burning sensation of pain. In total, Coye dropped to 115 pounds, having lost over 60 pounds from the 6-foot 2-inch, 180-pound frame he stands today.
Coye and his family were left with a major question: Should he proceed with the total colectomy to entirely remove his colon (large intestine) and Jpouch surgery?
The answer was not simple. The surgery was incredibly invasive and could last from six to 10 hours. Just the length alone offered numerous risks of complications, and if something was not hooked up exactly right, there would be no going back.
But the potential benefits for a successful surgery ultimately outweighed the bad and were too much to pass up. Assuming everything worked out with the complete removal of the colon, the UC would be 100 percent gone, and the Jpouch created from his small intestines would act as the new colon. Additionally worth noting is that most people who suffer from UC ultimately get colon cancer, and so that risk would be eliminated as well.
“I looked in the mirror, and I didn’t see myself,” Coye remembered vividly. “I was skinny, so I lost almost all my muscle and I was skin and bones.
“I was just sick of trying all the medicines and waiting around for something that might work,” he said of the horrific experimentation. “I just knew if I got (the colon) out, it would all be over. I was just sick of being in the hospital, and even now, going back to get checkups, I can’t stand it.”
In the end, Coye made the brave decision to have the surgery, and last December, underwent a successful eight-hour operation. After two more weeks of intense rehab at the hospitals, he began to get better and was able to be released.
“I have huge respect Dr. Daniel Doody,” said Coye’s mother Kelley. “Everyone, all the nurses and doctors said they would have him do surgery on their kids. There was another surgeon as well, but Dr. Doody was there start to finish. .
“So, how do you get through an experience like this basically unharmed? Deep faith, strength of character, strong will and of course the village. We have had a great village, from the nurses, surgeons, doctors, hospital staff, family, church, neighbors, friends, teachers, teammates and coaches,” said Kelley with further praise. “They have all done their part and we are so thankful.”
Slowly Coye’s life began to return to normal. For most of his life he had never been able to eat wheat products. Less than a month after the surgery, he was able to go to the Olive Garden and eat spaghetti and meatballs with three different chocolate desserts without issue.
After having been absent from school since the start of the year, by late February to early March he was able to finally return. Tutors worked diligently with Coye at home to keep him on point as much as possible while he was sick and then recovering. Remarkably by May, he was entirely caught up in his honors schedule, finished the year with a great report card and without summer school.
“The biggest thing I’m proud of him for is that he had tutors, and after surgery they came consistently,” Kelley said. “I was amazed he got caught up before the end of the school year and did very well because he was in honors classes. They wanted to drop him down and I said no. I know my son, he’s very driven. I knew that would give him confidence to get back on track, and that he could do it. I knew this would be much better if he didn’t lose anything by not dropping classes that he had started.”
Having conquered the academic component of the student-athlete part of his life, he was finally able to dive into the physical activities he had longed for and began lifting weights with his football teammates after school.
In August, he was able to return to the practice field with his teammates and continue on with his football and the sport he loved most.
“I went to the lifting at the school almost every day I could from 5-8, and it was surprising what I could do compared to before,” said Coye of how he began to overcome the muscle atrophy. “I could barely lift the bar, but I worked my way up pretty quickly. It was tough getting all my core strength because they literally cut my stomach open. A few days after the surgery, it was impossible to get myself up from bed, but they kept me moving because they were worried about fluid getting into my lungs and being in bed too long could cause pneumonia, so I did laps around the hospital.
“I’ve played football since I was a little kid way back in the second grade,” Coye said. “I didn’t want to stop playing.”
Still, Coye is fighting. He has continued to battle common infections associated with the aftermath of such a serious surgery. Three times, including a three-day trip in September, Coye has had to return to the hospital for heavy antibiotics.
“It took a lot of work, there are just so many kids that are bigger than me and have more energy,” Coye said. “I feel like I have to try a lot harder to be half as good as them, but when I’m out there, I’m just glad to be out there, and I try to work my hardest.”
Despite a setback just a few weeks ago in which he suffered a knee injury that prematurely ended his season, Coye played in one very special game to start the season — a victory over West Bridgewater.
“The first game was the one we won against West Bridgewater,” Coye said. “It was great coming back. The bus took a long time to get there, and it was like an hour and a half ride back, the best bus ride ever.”
From being gravely ill eight to nine months back to being back out on the field with that never-quit, never-give-up mentality, Coye’s coach Paul Sobolewski said the junior is the most inspirational young man he has ever been around.
“When he first came back on the field, it was very inspiring to me as a coach and to our kids, and emotional, too,” he said. “To see where he was at six to nine months ago when I first walked in, I didn’t know what to expect when I first went to the hospital back in the fall of 2011. It’s a memory that’s going to last me a long time. I never want to see a kid in that kind of pain ever again. It’s heartbreaking, and my brother and I visited as often as we could. It was tough to deal with, and to see him on the field, and see him play a sport that he loves that he wasn’t sure he was ever going to be able to do again, it was very inspiring to me and our entire program.”