CEDAR HILL, Texas — Two days after part of Red Oak resident Steven Lemley’s house went up in flames on Feb. 19, he was back to work mentoring Longhorn boys and girls.
Steven, who lost countless and irreplaceable items belonging to him, his children and his ex-wife in the fire, found out about the damage from a neighbor while at a powerlifting meet in Forney, Texas.
“I’m just blessed my kids weren’t in the house and were with their mother,” said the Cedar Hill High School Longhorns defensive coordinator and head powerlifting coach about the rotating weekend visitation schedule between him and his former wife. “I had to make a detailed list of damages that was in the thousands, but I’m more worried about the old stuff from my family and my wife’s family we can’t get back. I can replace a TV, bicycle or XBox, but it’s losing the memorabilia that hurts me the most.”
The fire, while a devastating breaking point, is part of a series of unfortunate events during the last six months of his life. Steven, a single father to 14-year-old Ethan and 11-year-old Brynne Lemley, was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma laryngeal cancer in August. Now, in the days following the fire, community members, fellow coaches and even his students have stepped up to support Steven and his family.
“I was speaking at a clinic in February of last year and 20 minutes in, my voice was just gone,” Steven said. “I realized the rest of that year I was having a hard time talking for an extended period. Eventually, it got to a point where I couldn’t talk at all.”
Joey McGuire, the head football coach at Cedar Hill High School, said it wasn’t the same not having a usually vocal Lemley during coach huddles and film study.
He and his wife Debbie have known and befriended Steven since he started his now 13-year career as a CHHS coach and history teacher. Joey called him a person with an old-school mentality who keeps his problems to himself.
“He’s a loud person and a fired-up coach, so when he couldn’t talk, it was probably one of the worst things for him,” he said. “We were getting ready to go into two-a-days when he was getting ready to do his first surgery. It was really tough on all of us because we rely on each other so much that a lot of times during planning, we’re used to hearing his voice. It was strange not to hear it and turn around and see him quiet, pointing and giving the occasional thumbs up.”
Adenocarcinoma laryngeal cancer, which is closely linked with a history of smoking, affects more than 10,000 people in the U.S. each year, with close to 3,800 deaths related to the disease, according to the Johns Hopkins Hospital medical website.
“My doctor basically told me I had the throat and vocal chords of a 70-year-old man who’s smoked two packs a day for 40 years,” Steven said. “The funny thing is, I’ve never smoked a day in my life and I’m not 70 years old.”
Patients diagnosed with Stage One adenocarcinoma hypopharynx laryngeal cancer, which is what Steven is battling, have a 53 percent five-year survival rate with treatment, according to the American Cancer Society’s website.
Without medical care, the survival rate drops significantly.
Steven hasn’t only had treatment and one surgery — he’s survived four.
“It was a three-hour surgery and they cut out all the cancerous tissue,” Steven said about his first surgery. “A month goes by, and I do my checkup, and the doctor tells me it’s starting to flare up again. Four weeks later, it’s still there, and in October, I had my second surgery. This time, they’re not scraping. They’re cutting tissue off my bones.”
Steven again followed the routine, waiting diligently for his four-week checkup. With a sigh of relief, doctors told him he was finally cancer free and that he had beaten his ailment.
“I was happy and celebrating. I went back for my two-week visit and it’s back again. For me, that was the heaviest blow,” he said. “After thinking the cancer was gone, only to see I hadn’t beaten, it was heartbreaking. It was a low point for me right then and there. I hit a hole.”
Steven, who put off the third surgery for two months to spend the holidays with his family, was at a crossroad. If the third surgery wasn’t successful, he’d have to have his voice box cut out completely and turn to a method of treatment cancer patients can often dread — chemotherapy.
After consultations with doctors in New York and being told he was on his last strike because “there’s nothing left to cut,” Steven opted to have surgery No. 3 after Christmas and subsequent surgery in February to make sure cancer hadn’t spread to his stomach.
Though Steven has been cancer free for almost two months and will need to do routine checkups every six weeks for the next year, his medical bills are mounting and insurance has tapped out.
The fire couldn’t have come at a worse time.
“We knew cancer took a toll on him, physically emotionally and spiritually,” Debbie said. “He was pretty defeated after the fire. I think that was the first time I’ve ever seen him ask God, ‘Why me?’ Whenever you have a fire, you can’t replace clothes, food or things immediately. They’re gone.”
Steven explained his reluctance to rely on others came from the way he was raised, in a generation when a person was expected to be self-sufficient.
Joey said that was when he and his wife stepped in to help Steven.
Debbie and Joey started a GoFundMe account, which is a crowd-sourced funding website, on the day of the fire with $5,000, a mixture of their money and contributions from coaches and community members. By the time school opened on Tuesday, the account’s numbers had blossomed to more than $10,000.
Debbie said she was heartened by the outpouring of all who gave selflessly to Steven but was impressed most by those by the students of CHHS.
“We were floored by the amount of $5 and $1 donations from former and current student athletes. I know some of the kids and know, financially, they couldn’t afford to give a lot,” Debbie said. “To see they’ve gone out and personally donated, that’s what I loved.”
Debbie said it hasn’t only been the GoFundMe that’s helped Steven. She’s received personal checks mailed to her and Joey’s home, which Steven orders her to rip up because he’s still uncomfortable accepting the help of others.
As of press time, the account raised $13,770 through 212 donations.
Accepted or not, Steven hand-writes a thank you note to every person who gives to him.
Every. Single. One.
“With the GoFundMe account, house burning and everything that’s coming in, he said the other day ‘This is overwhelming.’ I told him that’s how much people love, respect and care for him,” Joey said. “He’s touched a lot of lives. I think he’s kind of in awe.”
Some of those lives belong to a Midlothian couple that gave Steven and his children a place to lay their heads while his family gets back to its feet. The couple requested to remain unnamed.
Debbie said the account, which can be found by visiting www.gofundme.com/loveforlemley, is still open and donations are welcome to help fund housing in Midlothian, where Steven, Ethan and Brynne will live after the dust settles.
“After that second surgery, I was happy and OK with moving on into football and getting ready for the playoffs,” Steven said. “When the doctor told me the cancer was back, it really tested my faith. I called my pastor (in Midlothian) and had to talk to him.
“There’s really no answer except that everything happens for a reason. It’s not easy, but you have to deal with it and move on. You have to attack that thing head on. I’m glad they let me come back and continue to work. Every day is new here and this distracts me. I can walk into my classroom or onto the football field and whatever’s going on in my personal life is gone. I love being a coach and teacher. This is what I do and what keeps me going every day.”
Marcus S. Marion can be reached at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter @MarcusMarionWNI