EDITOR'S NOTE: B.G. Brooks, Contributing Editor for CUBuffs.com, interviewed Jerry Quiller in July of 2010 and wrote the following column. Quiller, 69, recently passed away after fighting a long battle with multiple myeloma.)
LOUISVILLE - Jerry Quiller's ego wouldn't cover the tip of a track shoe's spike. During a nearly 40-year coaching career, it's never been about him. And that is among the characteristics, perhaps even the overriding one, which drew his runners, jumpers and throwers close to him - and has kept them there.
The past three years, he's needed all of them. His many friends, peers, former pupils and family have responded in full, in ways he might not have imagined.
The coach affectionately known as 'Q' is battling multiple myeloma, an insidious cancer that begins in plasma cells and can affect bone marrow. It has forced him to have four titanium support rods, each about a foot long, implanted midway down his back. He also has undergone a stem-cell transplant, had major radiation treatment and chemotherapy, and has routine blood draws that detail the advance and retreat of his battle.
He admittedly has been "up and down" since his illness surfaced in September 2006 while driving an ATV on a cross country course during an Army meet. Soreness in his back that didn't subside for almost two weeks concerned Quiller, who spent 13 seasons at West Point after leaving CU in 1995 after a 14-year career (two stints) with the Buffs. Doctors initially believed Quiller was suffering from spinal arthritis, but a subsequent MRI in January 2007 revealed a marble-sized malignant tumor crowding two of his vertebrae.
Two dozen radiation treatments destroyed most of the tumor, but the rods and their support system - "X-rays of the thing look like a chipmunk's playground," he says now with a laugh - were needed to alleviate the cancer's damage along his spine. The pair of vertebrae, said Quiller, resembled "sawdust."
His spirits sagged. "At that point, I was in a valley and saying, 'This isn't working, what are we doing?' Then I started getting a little better," he said.
ALL THE WHILE, THE ARMY administration was encouraging him, telling him they wanted him to remain as coach. 'Q' tried. He "started feeling pretty good" and kept at it for another year before announcing his retirement in January 2008, effective at the conclusion of that outdoor season.
Then, he and his wife (Sandy) would return to their home in Louisville. But Army didn't find a replacement for Quiller until autumn, delaying their return.
About a year later, in October 2009, the stem-cell procedure was done and he continued to undergo chemotherapy. The up-and-down ride persisted.
"Most people you talk to who have been through peaks and valleys, they kind of express it as being on a day-to-day basis - a good day, a bad day," Quiller said. "I haven't really noticed the day-by-day . . . it's more like periods of time - four or five months.
"There'll be a period where maybe things will start coming back and my blood tests will show my (cancer) markers start going in the wrong direction. In that period of time, where I'm going downhill and however long that lasts, it's a bad period. Then when (doctors) try different drugs or whatever and I'm coming out of it, then I'm on roll and coming back up.
"So, yeah, it's been a roller-coaster."
He's on an upswing now, buoyed by having been off of chemotherapy since February. Doctors have described him as being in "partial remission." Former CU track coach Don Meyers, now a Quiller lunch partner a couple a times a month or more, urged him to fortify his diet with cottage cheese and berries (antioxidants). Meyers has "always been a health nut," Quiller said, adding that his friend "probably knew more about my particular disease than I did . . .
"Coincidental or not, I started doing those (dietary) things in February and ever since, I haven't had a change in my facts and figures (cancer markers). I can't say that's the reason, but I can't say it's not . . . hey, if that's going to help ward off whatever, then that's great.
"Until somebody tells me different, I think I'm going to last for awhile. That's just how I feel. Time will tell."
His spirit doesn't surprise his family, friends and former athletes.
"He's had his challenges, but he seems to be tackling this like he'd tackle anything else - with a great attitude and doing what has to be done. He was like that as a coach," said Mike Macinko, a Boulder businessman who ran for Quiller in the late 1980s.
AT CU, QUILLER'S TEAMS WON three Big Eight Conference cross country championships and made a dozen (men and women) appearances in the NCAA Championships. He was the league's coach of the year five times and directed 19 All-Americans. In 1994, when the CU men and women cross country teams finished second and fourth, respectively, in the NCAAs, Quiller was national coach of the year.
Not surprisingly, success followed him to Army, where he was the Patriot League men's coach of the year in nine of his 13 seasons and shared a coach-of-the-year honor with his staff in 2007. Army's men won the conference outdoor championship in each of his seasons at West Point.
Macinko called Quiller "always a 'possibility' guy. When I was with the Buffs, the track team was still developing. One of the strengths that 'Q' had was taking guys who weren't all-stars in high school and turn them into something. He could make the most of what he had . . . he seemed to excel at finding people's strengths."
That characteristic, coupled with his humility and knowledge of the sport, has put him among track and field's most well-respected coaches.
"There's not this polarity - one segment of the track community that loves him and this other segment that hates him," Macinko said. "Sometimes the most well-known are the most controversial, but that's definitely not the case with him. He's just someone who has established himself as not just a good coach, not just a passionate guy about the sport, not just an advocate for clean sport - he's all those things. But he's a great guy, the kind of person you'd want as a friend anyway."
'Q' has had no shortage of support. In addition to colleagues and former athletes reaching out to him, he has heard from running icon Frank Shorter and countless others in the local and national running communities. He also draws inspiration from cancer survivors such as Lance Armstrong, who battled testicular cancer.
"Survivors are out there," Quiller said. "It's a matter of being able to cope, and my family has been very good about supporting me in that. I can still do stuff . . . go downtown, take my wife out to eat. It's never going to be back to here (holding his right hand above his head) for me, but I can get back to here (holding his hand at chest level)."
As the battle continues, Quiller, 67, remains busy. He volunteered as a coach two falls ago at the Colorado School of Mines. He mentions trying to spend time with current Buffs coach Mark Wetmore, whom Quiller hired as an assistant. He and Macinko have approached CU and Colorado State with a model of an indoor track facility that 'Q' would like to see either school construct. (He grew up in Fort Collins, is a CSU graduate and also was a graduate assistant coach there.) Quiller believes this region needs a facility that is worthy of and meets specifications for hosting national caliber track events.
He has moved past having to use a walker, mainly because a group of his former CU athletes and some who ran for him in the Colorado Track Club formulated a schedule then volunteered their daily time to try and help him get out and about.
"Some of them got the idea that 'Q' needs some exercise and we need to coach him - kind of turn the tables," Quiller said. "It was like, 'Do something positive for him instead of him always helping us.'"
THAT THOUGHT NEVER WAS MORE apparent than last summer at an induction ceremony of the Colorado Running Hall of Fame. Quiller was saluted by former CU miler John Lunn, who asked anyone in the audience who had been coached by Quiller to come to the stage.
After almost 20 people stepped forward, Quiller was moved. "It was thrilling . . . awe-inspiring," he told The Denver Post's John Meyer. But Lunn said the response should have been expected: "Jerry absolutely convinces athletes that everything he is doing is for their benefit. He has no ego; he never takes credit for anything."
Added Macinko, who still owns CU's 800-meter outdoor record and four of the top five times in school history in the event: "He's humble . . . the guy could win the lottery and I don't think you could get it out of him. He's also the kind of guy if he did win the lottery he probably wouldn't know what to do with it anyway. He'd probably end up giving it all to some track program."
The "Help 'Q' Get Back On His Feet" plan ran smoothly until Quiller developed numbness in his hands and feet - a reaction to the chemotherapy, he said - and curtailed the daily walking that youngest son Robb had insisted on his father doing in preparation for the stem-cell transplant last fall.
The numbness in his extremities persists. He has difficulty picking up a pen or pencil and typing. Walking makes his feet "feel like I'm on rocks or ice cubes," he said. "Doggone it, it's kind of shot a hole in the idea of 'let's go for a walk every day.' It got so that I couldn't. But we've still managed to get everybody together and go to a ball game or just visit at my place. Some good things have come out of it."
'Q' hasn't had to give up golf, and although firmly gripping clubs was a problem to be addressed, he recently played nine holes with family members. "I ride in the cart, step out, hit the ball, get back in and ride," he said. "The good thing was, I sank a few 20-foot putts."
But the numbness in his hands and feet has curtailed his driving, so Sandy or Rory - the middle of his three sons (Ryan is the oldest) who has moved back to Louisville after completing his undergraduate work and MBA at Binghamton (N.Y.) University - are his chauffeurs.
The Quillers' sons are a story unto themselves. 'Q' is baffled as to where the gene originated, but all three are accomplished pole vaulters. Reflecting on his track career, Quiller called himself a "middle of the road" decathlete, "not a superstar at anything."
"I don't think they were all that into pole vaulting, but they were sure into competing against their brothers," their father said. "If the older one could do this, then the next one was, 'By golly, I'm going to do that - plus a little more.'"
OF COURSE, IT HELPED THAT during Quiller's Army coaching stint, he had a key to the field house, which meant his three sons had access to poles and a vaulting pit almost whenever the urge hit them. And it did - very often.
Ryan, the valedictorian of his class at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) as well as a Harvard graduate (PhD in physics) who now works for Raytheon in El Segundo, Calif., has vaulted 15-plus feet. Robb has cleared 16 feet (16-1), has won the America East Conference outdoor title and has two more seasons at Binghamton to duplicate (or surpass) the achievements of middle son Rory, who has set the bar the highest - literally.
Rory is hopeful of latching on at CU as a volunteer assistant coach in his specialty while he continues to train and pursue an Olympic dream. In 2008, he won his event at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Fayetteville, Ark., with a jump of 18 feet, one half inch (he's gone 18-61/2) to become the second competitor from the America East Conference - the first male - to win a national championship.
He's under contract with Asics and knows success can help him pay the bills - and then some if he continues jumping well. His father, of course, offers guidance and encouragement.
"We were in the garden the other day and he told me, 'There's nothing wrong with chasing a dream," Rory said. "That's what I'll do; I'll chase it for a little while, probably another couple of years, and either accomplish it or know it's time to do something else.
"I know a lot of people have the same dream and I know jumpers have a certain shelf life . . . but right now it's fun to be competitive."
The chief reason Rory returned to Colorado was to be with his father and assist his mom, whom he described as "the motor of the family; she just goes." Sandy had been telephoning her sons with updates on their father's condition. Rory believed he should on hand to get the information first hand and do whatever he could.
"He's definitely made strides, but we know there's not an 'out-of-the-woods' (scenario) in this," Rory said. "I guess you could say every family has their cross to bear, but I know he's better because he's hollering at me to wake up in the morning. He's doing all the stuff a dad is supposed to do.
"Really, he's probably helping me out more than I'm helping him."
That won't come as news to anyone who knows and loves 'Q.' In the best of times or otherwise, it's never been about him.