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Central's Roland on road to recovery after life-threatening illness

Everything was dark.

It might have been a clear day outside, but no sunlight was splashing through his hospital room. No blue skies could be seen from that bed.

It was just the old football coach, lying there with a disease that was eating away at him.

"There was a time last fall where I thought I might not live," said Dennis Roland, now preparing for his first season as the head coach at Central Gwinnett. "The battle was to get myself well. As a Christian, I'm prepared for what comes next, but that doesn't mean I'm going to lay down at the bus stop and wait to get on."

Some other people in Roland's life - most notably the president of Southeastern Louisiana University, Randy Moffett - apparently thought he already had one foot on the bus.

It was May of 2005, just a few months after Roland had left North Gwinnett High to be the head coach at Southeastern, when he was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

And he took it on like he did everything else in his life: head-on. By September he was declared cancer-free by the doctors and was stalking the sidelines of the Lions' football games that fall.

But as is the case in almost every horror movie ever made, the bad guy wasn't really dead. He was just lurking. And in the early fall of last year, the non-Hodgkins lymphoma came back with a vengeance.

In late October, Roland was forced to take a medical leave of absence from the football team and entered Emory University for treatment.

Then, in a move that was almost as crippling to the coach as the cancer itself, Moffett announced in early December that Roland had been reassigned to another position in the athletic department - something called the interim special assistant to the president of athletic affairs.

For the first time in almost 30 years, he was not a football coach.

"That was probably my low point," Roland said. "I'm still dealing with my health issues and then I'm dealing with my career ... I found out later he thought I wasn't going to make it and decided to move on."

In the statement Moffett released in early December of 2006 he said: "No doubt this is a difficult time for Dennis and his family, as well as for Southeastern. We believe this move is in his best interest and allows him and his family to focus on the health challenges he faces. In addition, we believe this move will allow the football program to move forward with some stability and continuity."

Stability.

It's a word that wasn't exactly a part of Roland's life during those months. When he woke up each morning, he didn't know if it was going to be a good day or a bad day - although when he was going through his chemotherapy treatments, he had a pretty good guess.

"I lost almost 100 pounds when I first got sick," he said. "The medicine and the chemo plays havoc on your taste buds and on your appetite ... but like my wife said, it's a good thing I had some weight to lose."

Diane Roland, the old football coach's wife, is the heroine of this story.

When he talks about the role she has played in his ongoing recovery, you can hear the emotion in Roland's voice. The gratitude and the awe are overflowing.

"I can't imagine how tough it's been for her," Roland said. "It was tough on me, but I can't imagine how tough it was on her. I saw it on her face. I saw it every day. Not only did she have to worry about me and if I was going to make it, but she had to assume the role of everything - she was my chauffeur, my nurse, my cook - and she fought for me with the doctors to make sure I was getting the right treatment.

"I hope God gives her 10 times what he gives me. She's incredible."

Not just as a wife, but as a motivational speaker, too.

"I don't want to be a widow at 50 years old," she told her husband on one memorable day.

"That got my attention," Roland said, "not that I wasn't trying to fight anyway, but it was definitely a motivator."

So were his kids, former University of Georgia lineman Dennis Roland, Jr. (now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and daughter Dana.

"I tried to keep a lot of things from (my kids), but they're no dummies," Roland said. "It was funny, too. It was almost like a role reversal in a sense. They almost became the parents. They would say, 'Have you eaten today?' And 'how much weight have you gained?' They were very supportive."

As was the leadership at Central Gwinnett High School.

When Bradley Warren left earlier this year to become the head coach at Gilmer County, athletic director Tally Johnson and principal Valerie Clark approached Roland about the job.

He still wasn't 100 percent, not even close actually, and he still had to undergo a complicated stem-cell transplant in April that would keep him hospitalized for three weeks. But on Feb. 8 of this year Roland was named as Warren's successor.

Forget that interim special assistant to the president of athletic affairs stuff. Dennis Roland was a football coach again.

"There were two things that really attracted me to Central," Roland said. "No. 1 was the leadership from the principal and the administration. You have to have good leadership at the top and Central does.

"And the second thing that impressed me was one day when I was over there, I went down and stood outside the locker room and watched the players come down after school. I watched how respectful they were ... and that's why I took the job. It was the caliber of the leadership and the caliber of kids. If you get a group of guys that love each other you can do a lot."

Roland can't say enough good things about his new players, from how they've adapted to their coach and the new "Air Raid" offense to how they responded for the three weeks he was in the hospital getting the stem-cell treatment.

The head coach remembers that last day of his April stay very well, the one where he got to walk right out the front door.

"It was like freedom," he said with a laugh. "Coming out of there and going home was like freedom. But I can't say enough about the people that worked with me down there (at Emory). They were really great.

"But there's nothing like finally getting out of the hospital."

Except maybe finally getting back on the football field, where Roland recently ran the Black Knights through their spring practice.

"I've come a long way," he said. "I still don't have 100 percent of my energy, but that's to be expected ... and I was happy to be back on any sideline. And just to get out on the field again was really a lot of fun."

Especially considering where he was a few months ago, and how the word spreading around the coaches' community in Gwinnett County was that he might not live to see 2008.

"A lot of people were led to believe I was gone," Roland said. "And I may very well have been close a few times, but it's like what Mark Twain said: the rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated."

It's June, 2007.

Dennis Roland has much less hair and weight than he used to, but he can joke again, he can eat again and he is coaching football again in Gwinnett County.

The darkness has indeed lifted. And it seems like every day the sun is shining a little brighter.