SHREVEPORT, La (KMSS/KTAL) – It’s a field that Coach Ronnie Coker doesn’t have much experience with. After all, the diamond in which he led his Parkway Panther baseball programs to national prominence is about three miles away down Barksdale Boulevard. With that field out of commission, this new one on Parkway’s current campus will have to do.
On this winter evening, the 2022 high school baseball season is set to begin. Before the start, it’s time to look back. The scoreboard in left field now reads, “Ronnie Coker Field”. Right above those words? “1998 4A State Champions”. On the other side of the fence sits a number of people from Coach Coker’s journey. His wife, Kelly. Former players and assistants and administrators from his 30 plus years of leading young people. They’re all here to honor a man who’s done so much, for so many, for so long.
But like so many before him, Coach Coker’s journey to the top of his profession was filled with setbacks, pit-stops, and no shortage of adversity. For Ronnie Coker, the coaching prowess he developed over decades, the grit, the determination, the mental manipulation required to move past being just good to become something great needed to extend beyond where the foul lines end. Coach Coker entered the game of his life in the spring of 2021. A duel against an unforeseen opponent. A state-championship level battle, every day, for his life.
“April 23rd. I’m sitting there with a week left.”
A week left before retirement, Coach Coker pondered what was next. He knew he wanted to continue working with kids. He knew he had a gift to communicate. But on that spring day, he didn’t know what was to come.
“It felt like someone was stabbing me in my side,” recalls Coker.
“He came home from work early. He doesn’t do that,” said his wife Kelly. After deliberation, Coach Coker agreed to stop by a local urgent care before the couple headed out for the evening to Grand Cane.
Except they never made it to Grand Cane. Before the end of the day, Coach Coker was told he would need emergency surgery to remove what was believed to be a “large stone”. After closer examination, it wasn’t a stone.
It was a mass.
“At 6:15, I was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.” The cancer was in his colon, liver and lungs. It’s a topic that’s hard for Coach Coker to talk about. Through each speaking engagement, whether it be in front of ten or a hundred, this is a part of the story that makes him pause. Much like he paused after receiving the diagnosis. But after the initial shock, Coach Coker did what any coach would do: formulate a game-plan.
Poison running through your veins. That’s chemotherapy. The side effects are many and the extent to which each cancer patient experiences them varies.
“What can I expect?” Coach Coker remembers asking the doctors. “We can’t say,” those same doctors replied. It’s difficult to put a plan together when your opponent is this unpredictable.
“It was frustrating. As a coach, you want to plan it out as much as you can and find a way to attack it.” Instead, Coker had to take each day as it came. One day, debilitating back pain. The next, uncontrollable hiccups. All the while, having to trust the poison in his bloodstream was doing the trick. No going to the bullpen for this one. The starter is going to have to go the whole nine innings.
A check-up in July provided promise. New chemo-therapy treatment and other medications seemed to be working. His next appointment in November would test his courage as nothing has before.
“November 10th, Kelly and I walk into M.D. Anderson.” After a promising update in July, it was difficult to not feel positive about this meeting. But Coach Coker was sick of playing a guessing game with this disease.
“I asked the doctor how much time I have left.”
What a question. Was he sure he wanted the answer?
“I needed to know.”
Imagine a man knowing more than you ever will about medicine or cancer looking you in the eye and telling you…
“You’ve got two years to live.”
Now imagine being told your life’s expiration date. That your time on this earth is soon to end. What do you feel? Is it fear?
“We know our time on this earth is limited and it just became even more real,” said Kelly Coker. “It truly became about living each day like it’s your last.”
“For me, I felt a peace.” A peace that was a production of the Coker’s faith. “In the end, cancer doesn’t know about God,” said Coach Coker. “But my God knows about cancer.”
From that day forward, he still followed his chemo treatment schedule. He still attacked every day with the mindset that he was going to win that day, the next, and the day after that. But now, the focus was on maximizing those special moments. The ones with his wife. The ones with his kids. The ones in nature. The ones alone. Every day would be broken down into little moments.
“You have to develop mental toughness as a coach. If you don’t, you won’t be a good coach for long. You have to be able to take it.”
And take it he did. Every day. The symptoms. The uncertainty. The pain. Repeating the same mantra he had passed on to so many high schoolers through the years. “Win the Day.”
“I had to ask myself why I was worried about what a man told me when God could take me home tomorrow.” The fear for Ronnie Coker wasn’t of dying. Not after that afternoon in M.D. Anderson.
No, the fear now was of not truly living the life he had left. If he was feeling positive before his last check-up in November, before his check-up in January, the mood was more reserved. The anxiety faded. Coach Coker knew he was making the most of his daily opportunities. He was winning each day. What more could he ask from himself?
Two months to the day he was told his days were numbered, Ronnie and Kelly Coker sat across from smiling doctors.
“He said those spots on my lungs, they’re gone.”
What about his liver?
“He said I didn’t have any lesions on my liver.”
Only the obvious question remained.
“He said you’re cancer-free. You’re cancer-free and in full remission.”
The room fell silent. The doctors were stunned. Baffled, even. “They didn’t understand it. It was like they were confused.”
The Cokers weren’t confused. “We serve a powerful God.”
So on this winter night, standing on the field that now bears his name in front of so many, Coach Coker can’t help but wonder: “How can so many people reach out and love me?”
It’s simple. Because every day, Ronnie Coker wants to love people. He wants the best for those that come across his path.
“I’d like to think God has used me to make a difference in people’s lives.”
With his newly launched Win the Day Foundation, the state championship-winning coach hopes to do just that: make a difference. “It goes back to how many people can we help? And the answer, of course, is one at a time.” This spring and summer, area youth can participate in a number of sports camps. The goal is to one day open a facility where kids across the area can come and be mentored.
It’s likely that many kids will come and that, one day, a facility will open. Because if there is anything Ronnie Coker does, it’s win the day. Every day. And so many are better off because of it.