BERKELEY – It’s very rare that California offensive coordinator Tony Franklin takes off his weathered Cal ballcap during practice. But on Tuesday, he takes off the beaten, nearly-gray, formerly-navy chapeau and lifts up the wisps of hair on the top right side of his head. There’s a mottled, bumpy, bare patch of skin hiding there. He doesn’t show many people.
“It was in my skull: Angiosarcoma,” he says. “It was in the bone.”
Angiosarcoma is a cancer of the inner lining of blood vessels, and it can occur anywhere in the body. It most commonly occurs in the skin, breast, liver, spleen and deep tissue, and less than 1% of diagnoses present with primary malignant neoplasms of bone in the skull. Franklin's never been one for convention, after all.
“The great thing is, if you Google it, it would scare you to death, and in those days, there was no Internet, so I had no idea,” Franklin says. “I just knew that, I went in, and they said it was not good, and in those days, you were in the hospital for a long time, so I was there for about three weeks, and they took part of my skull out, grafted part of my skin from my hip onto my head. I’m skin-brain. That’s why a lot of people can say that’s why I’m nuts. I might agree with ‘em.”
On Saturday, Franklin's Bears will face off against USC in the annual Joe Roth Game, named in honor of Cal’s All-American signal caller, who died of melanoma on Feb. 22, 1977.
“I was eating up college football and wanted to be a college football player,” says Franklin, then a senior running back for Princeton (Ky.) Caldwell County. “I remember being, just, ‘How do you do that? How do you have cancer, that young, and die?’”
Roth had first been diagnosed with the disease that would eventually kill him at age 19 – just a year older than Franklin was, at the time he heard about Roth’s passing.
“I remember him going and playing in the Japan Bowl,” Franklin says. “I remember my brain never being able to grasp it. You’re not supposed to be able to do that at that age, and all of the sudden people around me, in my hometown, when I was diagnosed, there were two young people my age at the time that were diagnosed, and one died fairly rapidly after that, and the other one had treatments for a long time. Joe Roth was the first person that made me understand what cancer was.”
When Franklin himself was diagnosed in 1980, the year after he graduated from Murray State, working his first job, he remembered Roth.
“It did remind me of how lucky I am, and how lucky I was then, and I still, every day, think about how lucky I am, because it was a really unusual thing,” Franklin says. “As a college football player, my group of young men that I played with, in the backfield with at Murray State University, three of the four passed away from cancer. The longest was 10 years, two were within five years of when we were in college. Guys that were in my backfield – quarterbacks, running backs – it was a strange scenario.”
Franklin was diagnosed at Christmastime, working at Owensboro Catholic High School in Kentucky. Three days later, he was on the operating table.
“They said, ‘We’re going to go in and cut it out, and we’re either going to get it, or we won’t,’” Franklin says. “They got it. It was in an area that was a little […] itchy.”
Franklin was in the hospital for three weeks.
“They told me, when they brought me in, that it wasn’t good,” Franklin says. “They sent me to Louisville. My doctor was a guy named Dr. Kirby Bland, and a few years later, I was reading Newsweek, and it had a list of the top cancer surgeons in the world, and he was one of them.”
28 years later, Franklin would see that name again. While at Troy University, Franklin’s daughter fell ill, and after Franklin landed at Auburn, “needing some help,” he found out that the chair of the Department of Surgery of the University of Alabama-Birmingham School of Medicine, and the surgeon-in-chief, was none other than Bland.
“We got on the phone with each other, and he helped my daughter,” Franklin says. “28 years later, he was the director of surgery, and I had a daughter that was sick, and needed some help and guidance. I said, ‘Were you at Norton’s Children’s Hospital in 1980?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, I was.’ I said, ‘Well, you cut cancer out of my head.’ It’s a weird world, how the chemistries of the world work.
“I always feel very, very lucky. The Joe Roth story is important to everybody, but it’s really important to me, because I feel fortunate to be alive and be in a place that he means so much. Every time I see the story, and every time I hear about it, it makes me appreciate my life, how lucky I am.”
Roth’s legacy – Faith, Humility and Courage, as appeared on the memorial patch the Bears wore the first season after his passing – lives on in the locker room. The staff screened Don’t Quit: The Joe Roth Story – a documentary that debuted on the Pac-12 Networks on Tuesday night – last fall.
“That’s something that we’ll do every year,” says head coach Sonny Dykes. “I think this week, it’s important for me to do a good job educating our players about Joe Roth, and who he is, what his legacy is, what it means to our program, the grace and dignity that he had, I think, is something for us all to shoot for, across our program. He certainly set the standard for all of us, with his unselfish attitude and sacrifice, and his approach to playing the game. To me, it’s one of the great stories in college football.”
It’s a story Franklin feels every time he peels off that old hat, slicks back his hair, and runs his hand over that spot.
“He’s the first person I remember, a famous guy, a football player, that had cancer,” Franklin says. “I guess, when I did, it was weird, because I was never afraid … Every time I walk into the locker room, I remember. I was at an age where I could remember, when this was happening, and I remember the shock. I think that all of our players, they really respect the legacies here at Cal, and Joe, obviously, is probably one of a few people that nobody will ever forget, not because of how he died, but because of how he lived.”
The Pac-12 Networks will be re-airing Don't Quit: The Joe Roth Story, on Saturday at 8 a.m. on Pac-12 Bay Area, and 7:30 p.m. on the Pac-12 Networks on Sunday. The film is also available for download on iTunes.