Though he’s had a reckoning of his life over the past year, Cliff Ramos has no regrets.
His more than 40 years in education and coaching wrestling speak for themselves. His career began in Butler, Missouri, in 1976 and continued with more than 30 years in Gwinnett County at Meadowcreek High School and Collins Hill. In 17 years at Collins Hill, Ramos transformed the wrestling program with five traditional state titles and four duals state titles.
But what Ramos has grappled with the past year is stronger than anyone on a wrestling mat. Ramos knew little about pancreatic cancer when he was diagnosed with the disease.
“The only thing I knew about pancreatic cancer is that it had killed five of my good friends in a short amount of time,” He said. “I remember April 8 last year we were in a room and I had a CT scan and (the doctor) told me I had a tumor that was probably cancerous. The doctor left the room, and I looked at my wife and said, ‘I’ve had a good life.’”
For all stages of pancreatic cancer combined, the one-year relative survival rate is 20%, according to American Cancer Society.
It happened in a whirlwind, a few weeks after his 65th birthday. A week before he was surrounded by loved ones continually impressed by his steady health — he was an active golfer, taught driver’s ed and ran 5Ks. But when he received his diagnosis, all of his concentration was focused on beating cancer.
Jim Gassman, head wrestling coach at Mountain View High School, has known Ramos for more than 30 years — since Gassman’s father was the wrestling coach at Berkmar High School. Gassman went on to wrestle for Ramos at Collins Hill and return to work for him as an assistant coach after college. Ramos came out of retirement to help Gassman coach at Mountain View.
“For coach Ramos, he’s always been about maximizing his time,” Gassman said. “And he had to stop activities and that’s hard for a guy who lived as healthy as he could.”
Yet, more than one year later, Ramos is back on his feet. He is three weeks removed from his last chemotherapy session. Ramos was able to work in his yard and played golf two weeks after his last chemo treatment. His next goal is to get back on the pickle ball court.
To take his mind off of the complications of surgery and chemo treatment, Ramos put pen to paper, so to speak. In the span of a few months, the grizzled wrestling coach had learned more about the fleeting nature of life and good health than some people learn in an entire lifetime. Something familiar clicked in his brain, which was sometimes foggy and wracked by chemo.
Ramos wrote a book, “One More Practice: How a retired high school wrestling coach deals with pancreatic cancer.” He was inspired by former Carnegie Mellon University professor and co-author of “The Last Lecture,” Randy Pausch, who reflected on his life before dying from pancreatic cancer.
Ramos and his family began to reach out to former assistant coaches and wrestlers from Missouri to Georgia on Facebook. There’s enough interest from former proteges for Ramos’ vision of one more practice to become real. Ramos will host the practice 6 p.m. June 15 at the Collins Hill High School field house, which now bears his name.
He’s received messages from some graduates as young as 18 years old from Mountain View or Greater Atlanta Christian School, where he coached after retirement in 2010. He’s also received messages from mentees from the early years of his career in Butler.
“One guy over 60 is coming,” he said.
He still goes to Emory in Atlanta for checkups. In June he will travel back to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center where he had his life-saving — and life-altering — Whipple procedure which removed parts of his pancreas and digestive tract along with his entire gall bladder. He knew the risks before surgery. At the time, he was borderline operable.
“I won’t say it’s the only hope, but it gives hope,” he said.
The months after surgery in October 2018 were grueling. Complication after complication led to Ramos contemplating whether the ordeal was worth it.
“It really is a blessing,” he said. “You hear that from survivors of different things. I wasn’t grateful back in October. I was really suffering. I’ll admit that.”
Ramos adapted the lessons he learned in his wrestling and coaching career to the trials of cancer diagnosis, surgery and treatment.
“A lot of it is a parallel of (wrestling) practice to real life,” Ramos said.
While he’s not sure about the format of Saturday’s practice, he’s sure participants will work up a sweat — if they want to. Conditioning and wrestling drills are on the table for any spry participants, and that includes Ramos.
“Just run a normal practice and tell those who don’t want to, they can watch,” he said. “We’ll go through a lot.”
Gassman said he’ll be there with a handful of Mountain View wrestlers, assistants and Collins Hill alumni. They’re impressed with the health he has, and look forward to celebrating it.
“Knowing his mind, he’ll have a fun practice,” Gassman said. “There may be some challenging parts, but make it fun. A lot of what he’s done is just create better relationships through wrestling.”