The following is a transcript for Episode 1 of Season 3. Click on the embed above to listen to, or you can subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app.
Season 3 of Razed Sports is brought to you in partnership with the Dominic Fouts Memorial Cancer Fund, which helps patients and family members pay for cancer treatments. For information on how to help, go to DomFoutsFund.org.
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[Vern Harkins: “He was very competitive. He was very determined, very I don’t know, I was gonna say bullheaded. I don’t know that that’s the right word but it goes along with the concept of being very determined and very competitive. You know, wouldn’t back down from people. Would always play hard. Was I think a good team player.”]
In April of 2020, my father, Tim Harkins, died of cancer. This story is a tribute. It is a story of determination, grace and loyalty, a story of humility and strength. This is a story of love wrapped in sports, and in family. This is an ode to my father.
Episode 1: Determination
In 2015, my father, Tim Harkins, had a battle with bladder cancer. Ultimately, the decision was made to remove his bladder. And for the most part, aside from some changes to his diet, and from having to endure the indignity of a urostomy bag, life went on as normal.
Soon after, on a visit to Los Angeles, he went to the park with me and my children. We played whiffle ball and Dad was out there chasing down fly balls just like the rest of us. In 2017, at a family reunion in North Idaho, Dad drove the boat for hours, towing little kids on inner tubes, or bigger kids on water skis. He was Dad. Tough, strong, fun-loving. Nothing stopping him from doing the things he wanted to do.
The doctors told Mom and Dad that the crucial window to watch was five years. If he made it through that window without any further issues, they would consider him cured. But in November of 2019, the cancer returned. Mom and Dad kept pretty quiet about it. Information was scarce, particularly for me, who was never that great about making regular phone calls home. When information did come out, it was usually cloaked in optimism. If you read between the lines, you could maybe notice something was different. But knowing Dad, I never really worried. To me, he was strong, he was determined. He was damn near invincible. He beat cancer once. He would beat it again.
As for Mom and Dad, they remained pretty tight-lipped. They didn’t want to cause a panic or to make a big fuss. They trusted their doctors, and they trusted Dad’s strength. They figured, like I did, that Dad would come out on top. Just like he always did. That was Dad. When he put his mind to something, he usually won in the end.
My Dad was born in 1947, the second of eight children raised by Joe and Margaret Harkins in Tacoma, Washington. My grandfather served in the Navy in World War II, then became a mailman. His job allowed him to be home for dinner every night, and often to coach his kids in sports. Grandma was a homemaker and looked after the kids in their tiny, one-bathroom house on North 14th Street, a couple of blocks from the University of Puget Sound.
It was an interesting time growing up in the 50s in a tight-knit Irish Catholic community. Large families, lots of kids roaming the neighborhood together. Sharing their experiences through St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and the accompanying school. And of course through sports. Dad played on school teams, church teams and local youth teams, including the Cheney Studs, an organization named after Ben Cheney, a local lumber magnate and youth sports benefactor who made his fortune by patenting what became the standard 8-foot stud used in construction – hence the Cheney Studs.
Dad’s youth was spent in an environment that was both strict and lenient – strict thanks to his my-way-or-the-highway father, lenient in that he had an immense amount of freedom to roam the neighborhood or even the city with his friends. Just make sure you’re home for dinner.
[JOE STAEHELI: It was a little different era. Kids could sort of run free.]
This is Joe Staeheli, a life-long friend of my Dad’s.
[JOE: We’d take the bus out to Titlow Park. It’s out on Puget Sound, right off the Narrow’s Bridge. … We’d go out, take the bus out. There was a swimming pool and we’d go swimming out at Titlow Park. And you’re gone all day and your parents sort of liked that. You’d swim for two hours and then it was about another hour and a half bus ride back because you had to take the bus into Tacoma and then transfer downtown and come out, you know. I don’t know that kids do stuff like that today. We were sixth graders, I think.]
Dad was expected to earn his own money for anything he wanted to buy, like snacks or even clothes. So he had a paper route. He mowed lawns. He did odd jobs. He worked as a school janitor. This was a way to learn responsibility, but also a way to learn that if you wanted something, and if you worked for it, you could get it.
This drive really showed itself when it came to sports. Dad was a good athlete if not an elite one. He was big and strong and fast for his age, at least compared to his peers. Here’s childhood friend Bill Leedom.
[BILL: He was very fast as a runner. He didn’t run track, he played baseball. but he was a guy that was good at every sport he played, but not great at any one particular sport. So he played football, basketball, baseball. … But I liked to think of myself as, I’m good at every sport but not great at any of them, Tim was better than I was at all the ones he played.]
Another friend, Dave Hughes, describes his first run-in with my Dad on a football field:
[DAVE: Well, your dad and I had a real poor start. I had been playing little league for like six years and we had never lost a game. Then we had to play the Sixth Avenue Bulls. And they had a strong team, it was a championship game at the end of the season, and they had this fast running back who ran sweeps on us. And he was this bow-legged kid (laughs) and he ran all over us, and ended up beating us 7-6. The only time in my little league career we’d had a loss. I wasn’t sure I liked him at first (laughs).]
That bow-legged speedster was of course my Dad. His legs were a long-running joke – and he was in on it — he used to call them his “power pistons.” He and I and my brother Paul all ended up around the same height, about 6 feet. Dad always joked that was only because of his crooked legs. When he was in his late 60s he had both of his knees replaced, a procedure that somewhat straightened his bowlegs. He would claim that he was now the tallest of us.
Dad also had another limitation: poor eyesight. This became a problem in high school at Bellarmine Prep, when he was in line to become the starting quarterback … sort of. The coach had a dilemma. Dave Hughes tells the story:
[DAVE: “Tim, did not have very good eyesight in high school. He didn’t like to wear his glasses playing football. So our senior year he and I shared quarterback duties. And the coach would swap us out every other play. And the coach’s quandary was, Tim could throw the ball 50 yards but he could only see 10 yards, I could see 50 yards but I could only throw it 10 yards. (Laughs) He never knew which one of us to put in.”]
[BELLARMINE FIGHT SONG]
Bellarmine itself had a quandary in those days as a small Catholic school playing against Tacoma’s big public schools. It was tough to compete, especially against powerhouse Lincoln High School, which was stacked with stars. You might have heard of players like Lawyer Milloy and Jon Kitna – they were more recent Lincoln High kids who went on to the NFL. But back in the early 60s they were good, too. I remember Dad talking about two players in particular from that era — Brent Demeleer and Donnie Moore, both excellent players who went on to play at the University of Washington.
Demeleer was a ferocious lineman, and Dad would describe how intimidating it was to hear him, just a few feet away, breathing — [GRR AUDIO] — as he lined up under center. Dad couldn’t hand the ball off fast enough.
Moore was a running back, a dominant athlete who at 210 pounds had about 40 pounds on Dad. He also had this amazing combination of speed and strength, good enough to win the 100-yard dash, the 200-yard dash AND the shot put at the state track meet. One article I read described him having a skillset somewhere between Emmitt Smith and Earl Campbell.
Like many kids in that era, Dad played both ways, so when he was on defense he played safety. That meant he saw a lot of Moore when they played Lincoln. I remember Dad telling a story of trying to tackle him. Of taking the perfect angle, knowing he would either bring Moore down, or at least knock him out of bounds. A moment later, Dad found himself lying in the grass, watching his opponent sprint toward the end zone. Moore had simply run THROUGH him.
[VERN: Tim’s team, his senior year of high school was better than many Bellarmine teams, but still was, did not win a league championship or anything. But the Donnie Moore year was his junior year So they’re playing Lincoln, and Lincoln won that game 56-0, I remember up at Lincoln Bowl. And Tim was playing safety. I don’t know how many touchdowns Donnie Moore scored, but several I’m sure. He was typically through the line and past the linebackers, and there’s the safety! (laughs) You’re the last one. So he had his hands full trying to bring Donnie Moore down. I’m sure he did some. But he didn’t all the time.]
That’s my Uncle Vern, who was a year younger than Dad, two grades behind him in school. Vern probably played more sports with Dad than anybody in those years. From Cheney Studs teams, to church and school teams to just goofing around in the neighborhood. Vern explains what made Dad a good athlete.
[VERN: He was very competitive. He was very determined, very I don’t know, I was gonna say bullheaded. I don’t know that that’s the right word but it goes along with the concept of being very determined and very competitive. You know, wouldn’t back down from people. Would always play hard. Was I think a good team player. Some people kind of get the egotistical attitude about their athletic abilities I think and that certainly was never an issue around him. Just a very skilled, very strong, competitive, determined athlete who wanted to perform at his best. And he probably had good respect from the other kids that he woulda been playing with.]
I want to focus on the bullheaded comment here, because it does sort of fit in with Dad’s determination. The two words are sort of like siblings, very much alike but with some key differences. Bullheadedness is determination taken too far. It implies a sort of irrational stubbornness. And while it wasn’t something that showed up often, it was a part of Dad’s personality in those years. And there was one moment in particular that speaks to this.
It was Dad’s junior year at Bellarmine Prep. He was becoming a pretty good basketball player at this point. Vern recalls him being the top scorer on the JV team, and there were a couple of times Dad was called up to the Varsity, but he didn’t get into any games. Then there was one game where Dad was just on fire. He was hitting everything.
[VERN: But then he had a particular game, where he was having an exceptional game in the JV game and I mean, Tim’s story is that he had like 20 points at halftime.]
So the varsity coach, a young man at the time named Ron Urquhart, pulls Dad from the JV game at halftime so that he can come up and play in the varsity game that night. How it worked was, you’re allowed four quarters every game between JV and varsity. So by being removed from the game at halftime — this game where Dad was just lighting it up — he was eligible to play two quarters for the varsity. So he gets called up. But … Coach Urquhart doesn’t put him in. He doesn’t play a single minute. And he was just furious.
[VERN: He sat there the whole game, didn’t get in, and he was just pissed about that. So when the season came to an end he just said ‘I’m not playing for this guy, I’m not going to go through this as a senior.’ So he just didn’t turn out.’]
Dad was, for the most part, an easy-going guy. Fun-loving. Likable. The opposite of a worrier. Work hard, and things will work out. But this incident bothered him so much, that he didn’t turn out for the team his senior year. He refused to play for this coach who, in his mind, had mistreated him. There was a sense of injustice, and he took a stand.
And this was no small thing. It caused problems for Dad, because the quitting, the stubbornness, the, to quote Uncle Vern, bullheadedness, this upset HIS Dad. And grandpa was so mad about Dad quitting, that he wouldn’t let him play on the St. Patrick’s rec team. Here’s Joe Staeheli:
[JOE: We had a church high team. A bunch of us didn’t play high school ball. Tim’s dad wouldn’t let him play on our church high basketball team. It was one of those little bit of a power struggle. He said ‘if you’re not gonna play for Bellarmine you’re not gonna play in this recreational league.’]
Dad would get a chance to make his point, however, during that senior year, when a big game was organized between a group of Senior intramural players, “The Senior All-Stars” and the Seniors from the Bellarmine varsity team. It was organized to raise money for the school. They sold tickets and everything. And my Dad – playing for the intramural All-Stars – was the leading scorer as they beat the varsity.
[BILL: So there was Tim. I remember he had a particularly good game that night. He was tough. He’d go inside, he could rebound, he could score underneath. That’s kind of what he did in that game. … I think Tim was out to prove something at that game.]
So Dad had made his point. But in the long run, he regretted doing that. I remember him telling me he wished he hadn’t quit. And I think it was a lesson he learned from and grew from. Vern agrees.
[VERN: I think he reflected in hindsight over time that he probably made a stupid decision, he should’ve just turned out and just played his hardest and probably, might have been a starter, probably would’ve played a fair amount. … what you have to understand and what you’ve probably experienced yourself is when you became a father and you grew older, there’s a level of maturity that happens with most people that you know it changes somewhat how you conduct yourself, how you live, how you look at things, how you understand things and respond to things and so forth. Different than how you were as a teenager, with a temper and an attitude that can cause you to make certain decisions that you think later on ‘well I was kinda stupid.’]
When it came to my Dad’s life, incidents of bullheadedness were rare. In fact, I can’t think of another story where he acted like that without taking a moment to reflect, to consider the consequences, to wonder if there might be another way to make it work.
There are plenty of examples of his determination, though. When figuring out how to get some money to buy some new clothes. When trying to tackle Donnie Moore. When trying to stop one of his kids on the neighborhood basketball court. When trying to beat cancer. He had his ways, and he usually figured out a way to win.
The spring of 2020, though, was different.
It was Tuesday, March 31, when Mom and Dad went to the doctor for a report on his latest scan. The doctor had bad news. Chemotherapy was proving ineffective. The tumor was growing. They’d have to talk about other options. Later that day Mom returned from the pharmacy to hear Dad calling for her. He had collapsed on the floor, due to severe pain and weakness from his tumor. He was rushed to the ER. He had suffered septic shock brought on by an infection. Dad held on while my siblings all converged on our hometown of Spokane. Katie and Bridget, already living in the Pacific Northwest were there quickly to be with Mom. Paul packed his family into a rented van and started driving from Connecticut, 3,000 miles away. He arrived on Saturday, just before I did, as I drove 18 hours straight from Los Angeles. Allison flew in from Phoenix the next day.
The COVID-19 pandemic complicated things. We couldn’t go to the hospital to see Dad. But we had regular video calls with him, and he slowly seemed to improve. He was taken off the respirator. They gave him back his glasses. He looked happy to see us on the other end of the video screen. Then, Dad’s COVID-19 test came back negative and they moved him from the COVID wing of the ICU to the regular ICU. We had hope. Dad’s determination would win out again.
Then communication from the hospital reduced to a trickle. That was a frustrating day, not knowing what was going on. Our anxiousness grew. We continued to reach out to the hospital, but we started getting cryptic messages back. Notes suggesting we should be prepared to “have the conversation.”
We knew what that meant … probably … for a regular person. But this was Dad. And he had been looking better. It didn’t make sense.
Finally, they invited us to the hospital for a meeting. I went in with Mom, and we went in wearing masks and gloves, while a couple of cars packed with family waited in the parking lot. They brought us into the chapel off the main lobby. Dad’s doctor was there, as was his nurse, and the chaplain.
They explained that the infection was under control thanks to heavy doses of antibiotics. But they couldn’t get rid of it completely because it was being fed by dead cancer cells. And they couldn’t treat the cancer either, because the infection made Dad too weak. It was a terrible one-two punch. Now we understood. It wouldn’t matter how determined Dad was this time. This was a battle he couldn’t win.
The one blessing in all of this was that Dad didn’t have COVID-19. That meant he wouldn’t have to be alone in his final days. So we made preparations to bring him home.
This episode was written and produced by me, Bob Harkins. Special thanks to Vern Harkins, Joe Staeheli, Dave Hughes and Bill Leedom for taking part in this episode … and also to my Mom, Patty Harkins, for helping me so much to fill in some of the details. The theme song comes from Corbyn Kites, other music by Vans in Japan, Steve Adams and Dan Lebowitz. This season of Razed Sports comes to you in partnership with the Dominic Fouts Cancer Fund. For more information, go to DomFoutsFund.org. Razed Sports is a proud member of the Story Hangar podcast network.
*** *** ***
Written and produced by Bob Harkins.
Theme song: “Orbit” — Corbyn Kites
Vans in Japan — “Four More Weeks”
Steve Adams — “Pont de Abril”
Dan Lebowitz — “Don’t Ya Bite Now”
(All music edited for time purposes)
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