Earlier this year, Pine-Richland High School baseball coach Kurt Wolfe received the phone call that coaches hate to receive. It came at about 10:30 p.m. and on the other end of the line was an irate parent whose son had been benched.
It wasn’t pretty.
“He called me every name in the book,” Wolfe says. “He said I was a piece of this and a piece of that and ‘F’ you and the whole deal … I had it on speakerphone and my wife heard it. She was irate. She said ‘are you finally done coaching? Why aren’t you mad?’ I said ‘sweetie, I have to think that he called out of love for his son. Now, did it turn into hatred for me? Yes. But that guy is lost. I need to pray for him.’’’
That’s a pretty unique way of looking at it.
Wolfe admits that 10 years ago, he might not have been so diplomatic. But after a seven-year ordeal with Stage IV colorectal cancer that included surgeons removing tumors — one baseball-sized — and going through chemotherapy, the man has a different outlook on life.
He beat cancer. A guy cussing him out on the phone is not going to rattle him. He had enough battles since fall, 2009, a few weeks after he turned 40.
For months, doctors told him that the rectal discomfort and bleeding he was experiencing were caused by hemorrhoids. They advised him to drink more water and eat more fiber. But when he did, he started to feel worse.
When Dr. David Medich discovered Wolfe’s large tumor in the fall, he said he would cut it out. But upon further testing, Medich found more tumors on Wolfe's liver.
“He put his hand on my knee and said ‘I can’t help you — there are too many tumors,’” Wolfe says. “And he said I needed chemotherapy. I said ‘when?’ He said ‘you need it yesterday.’ My wife and I were bawling and I’m like ‘it seemed like just a second ago I was coaching our team to a championship and now I have Stage IV inoperable cancer’ and a few days later I had chemo popping through me.’’
Wolfe found that medical facilities from around the country, including a facility that helped bicycle racer Lance Armstrong survive cancer, couldn’t help either. But with the help of Medich and Dr. Moses Raj, he got through a short period of uncertainty until he found Dr. David Geller in Pittsburgh, who told Wolfe he could help.
“When we heard that, we were bawling again,” Wolfe says.
Thanks to surgeries and treatments, Wolfe is tumor free, but he periodically gets scanned. His next scan takes place in October.
A Family Effort
While it’s been rough on him, his wife, Jennifer, has acted as his “guardian angel” and also carries a heavy burden. The experience has also been tough on their two children, 14-year-old-Kaitlyn and 12-year-old Josh.
“He is much better about not worrying than I am,” Jennifer says. “I do the worrying for the both of us. At the time, our kids were small and I hate that part where they grew up with this. This should not be a 4-year-old’s reality or a 6-year-old’s reality. They knew daddy was sick.
“Now that they’re older, there are a lot of serious questions. Harder questions about the reality of what cancer is and what it could be.”
Once he recovered from the shock of the bad news in 2009, Wolfe had mixed feelings. Jennifer did research and found out from one source there is an 8 percent survival rate. He says he became closer to God during this ordeal.
“I wasn’t in fear or feeling sorry for myself,” he says. “I don’t remember having that coaching mentality or player mentality like ‘I’m going to kick this thing’s behind!’ It was like, OK, this is the hand I am dealt. We’re going to make the most of this. But I told my wife I am going to fight as hard as I can because I want to live with her and my family until we’re in our hundreds.”
Pine-Richland won another WPIAL title in 2017, so Wolfe has come full circle on the diamond as well as in the hospital.
While he has a different outlook on life, he admits he is not perfect and will come out and give the umpires an earful when he thinks his team has been wronged.
“I’m still passionate, and at the end of the day your players have to know that you are there for them,” he says. “I’m still going to go out and argue for my players, but now I pull back a little quicker after they give me their explanation. But I want the boys to know I will fight for them and that I have their backs.”
He has not been very bashful about sharing his story with other cancer patients.
“I just want people to see hope,” he says. “I want them to know that you can beat this. It’s not a death sentence. I can’t tell you how many cancer patients I’ve talked to. Some tell me to go fly a kite because they look at me now and say ‘there is no way you were ever sick.’ They don’t think that I understand but I do.”