CRIPPLE CREEK – One by one, Jim Bertrand broke the news to his fellow teachers and administrators. He asked just one favor, keep talk of his condition under wraps until he had a chance to tell his players.
Then, with four soon-to-be senior captains in his room last May, the Cripple Creek-Victor athletic director, history and civics teacher, football and basketball coach – the embodiment of so much of the town’s sports landscape – revealed that his body had broken down.
“He got choked up a little bit,” senior James Linenberger said. “But he told us straight up what was happening and said things might be a little different.”
“Then,” added Jared Bowman, “he said, ‘I’ll see you next season.’”
And true to his word, Bertrand, 65, has been back this year despite learning last spring that he had bone cancer in 65 percent of his body.
“What was I going to do? Sit around and count the Styrofoam balls on the ceiling?” Bertrand said. “I think that’s 90 percent of it is just going into it with a positive attitude. Yeah, times were tough, but you’ve got to go into it with a go-for-broke type of attitude.”
There was no doubt Bertrand would face cancer with a head-on, simple approach. That’s how he does everything.
This is a man with four basic rules posted outside his classroom – starting with “knock” – that he’s clung to for most of his 47 years in education. If you don’t follow all four, it’s right back out the door.
He named his children Brent, Brett, Bradley, Brian, Brandon and Brenda. Clearly, creativity is not his strength.
But unwavering determination – finding what works and sticking to it – that’s what he does.
And by staying active, staying at work and staying away from negativity – “I can’t get too hacked off or I get too tired” – he has reduced the cancer to 3 percent of his body. His doctors tell him he’s a medical marvel and that only 1 percent of patients recover in such a way.
Bertrand learned of his cancer after an accident while cleaning his chimney. One foot was on his roof, one was on a ladder when he lost his footing and plunged about 10 feet, landing on the ladder.
He checked himself for major injuries, didn’t find any and completed the job. Over the next few days, however, the soreness didn’t go away, so doctors ordered an MRI to check for internal bleeding.
What they found was cancer. Everywhere. The doctors didn’t understand how every bone in his body didn’t shatter.
“It’s just a blank stare,” Bertrand said of learning the news. “I thought I would die of a heart attack or a stroke on the sideline or something like that. I had never even thought about cancer.
“It probably took me literally just a few minutes to get over the shock and I decided I wasn’t going to let this thing get me down.”
Bertrand seems almost to delight in some of the comical misadventures that have resulted from his diagnosis.
After undergoing chemotherapy, hair has returned on parts of his head and body that didn’t have it the first time around. Once, when he sped through recovery sooner than expected after an operation, he had no place to go because his sons were in the process of renovating his house and thought they had more time.
Other than fatigue and weight loss, the primary side effect from the chemo is that food has lost its taste.
“I can still smell, like, a hamburger, but when I go to taste it it's just kind of pasty,” Bertrand said. “But they tell me that should correct itself over time.”
The cancer itself can be managed, but there is no cure.
“It will probably catch up with me eventually,” said the recently divorced father of six with 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. “But this may give me 20 more years. And after 20 more years I may want to check out anyway.”
He jokes about this because that’s what he does. Bowman said Bertrand is always ready with a good story and is legendary for his “Polish Proverbs.”
But Bertrand has another side; a softer side that made fellow teacher Debbie Morrill call him a teddy bear hiding behind a gruff voice.
When a female student learned her father’s cancer had returned, Bertrand was the one there to offer an embrace. He promised to do whatever he could to help, and then he backed it up. A few weeks later several students started a push to get the school involved with Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation. It was Bertrand who produced a $400 personal check to start the process.
“Everyone was in tears,” Morrill said. “I think he’s an inspiration, personally.”
This athletic year has been fairly lousy for the Pioneers, but that’s the way it goes in small communities. Sometimes the talent is bountiful, sometimes it’s not.
Bertrand’s football team went 1-8 and the basketball team is 3-14 with a distict game Monday in South Park.
Losses aren’t easy to take for someone as competitive as Bertrand. Watching him reluctantly boil over on the sideline, it’s clear that a laid-back approach just doesn’t fit his style, though he’s trying to keep his cool.
“He’s not lenient, but he has fun with us,” Linenberger said. “That’s kind of new.”
Bertrand keeps working and plans to do so until “they carry me out feet first.”
And his hours are hardly of the 9-to-5 variety. In late January he took his basketball team on a road trip to Sanford, returned home after 11 p.m. and was back at the school the next morning by 9 a.m. to set up for a radio broadcast of the homecoming game. He then coached and stuck around to help at the dance.
That was his Saturday.
This is the only routine he has ever known – he jokes that he has six kids only because there were six cancelations – and he needs it now more than ever.
He also needs the relationship he’s built with the Cripple Creek community through his high-profile position.
And the community needs him right back.
This senior class was in first grade when he arrived in town 11 years ago after stints in Arizona and Colorado, including Woodland Park. He is all this class has ever known when it comes to the school’s two biggest sports.
“I was really happy that he was going to be here for my senior year,” Bowman said. “I wouldn’t have wanted anybody else to be here.”
“He’s one of those figures in our school and our community that when he talks, everybody listens,” Linenberger said.
So the cancer can do whatever it’s going to do, but expect Bertrand to keep doing what he’s always done.
“As soon as this becomes a job, I’m going to quit,” Bertrand said. “I’m still having fun. It gets to be hectic, but the kids keep me young and I appreciate what they do. I can ask them to do just about anything and they’ll do it for me. That rapport is worth it all.”