It’s going to happen at some point Saturday.
Iowa basketball Coach Fran McCaffery will look to his bench, make eye contact with his son, Patrick, and send him into the Hawkeyes’ first-round NCAA game against Grand Canyon.
“It will be an incredible feeling for me to see him out there in the NCAA Tournament,” Fran said.
A father’s pride? Sure. A great way to celebrate Patrick’s 21st birthday? Certainly. But this is one shining moment that runs much deeper.
In 2014, in the midst of March Madness, Margaret and Fran McCaffery got a phone call no parent wants to get: Your son has cancer.
Patrick’s journey, from his Iowa City hospital bed to the NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis, is emotional, challenging and inspirational. When he calls Patrick’s name, McCaffery knows his mind will flash back to 2014 and his first NCAA team at Iowa. It was a trip that will forever be linked to Patrick’s surgery, the morning of the game, to have a tumor removed from his thyroid.
“I will be thinking of that,” Fran said. “I know his mother will be, too.”
Margaret knows that Patrick’s dream has been to play in an NCAA Tournament. It’s been a seven-year rollercoaster ride that will continue beyond Saturday’s game. And it will be an emotional day for the family including Patrick’s older brother, Connor, a starting guard for the Hawkeyes.
“It’s hard for me, to put into words, that I’ll be able to watch him do this,” Margaret said. “It’s really, really special. Knowing everything he’s gone through and done, and the family has gone through and done, to get him to where he’s there is pretty amazing.”
The NCAA Tournament provides the bookends to this seven-year story.
“Those of us who have lived through it understand,” Fran said. “I think others try. They say, “Well, tell me the story.’ ”
Iowa had a streak of seven NCAA-free seasons entering 2013-14, McCaffery’s fourth year as the Hawkeye coach. Iowa was ranked 15th in the AP poll, and stood 19-6 overall, in mid-February.
Around that time, Patrick was doing workouts with former Iowa player Duez Henderson. Duez told the McCafferys that Patrick seemed to be tiring rapidly. So it was off to the doctor to see what was going on.
On March 5th, the day the team traveled to East Lansing, Mich., for a game with Michigan State the following day, the McCafferys were told that Patrick had a tumor on his thyroid. McCaffery shared the news with his team a day after the regular season ended. He couldn’t get the words out.
Devyn Marble, who always stood by McCaffery in team huddles, wrapped his arms around him and said, “Coach, we got you, don't worry.’ ”
The news went public when the family issued a statement March 11.
“It was obviously an emotional time, but I thought there was always hope that it would be a benign tumor,” McCaffery said. “Often times, it is with younger people.”
Two days later, Iowa took the floor for a game against Northwestern at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. The team wore t-shirts, designed by guard Josh Oglesby, that read “P-Mac’ on the front and “#teampat” on the back, along with his number 22.
“Josh called me and said, “Coach, we designed these shirts and we’d like to wear them,’ ” McCaffery recalled. “He wanted to make sure it was OK. I was pretty much brought to tears with that, that they would think that way.”
Iowa had defeated Northwestern by 26 points in both regular-season meetings, but lost to the Wildcats in Indianapolis, 67-62. That sure-thing NCAA bid hung in the balance.
Doctors did a biopsy on Patrick’s tumor the following day, then the family headed to Des Moines to watch Connor and his Iowa City West team play Bettendorf in the state semifinals.
“We thought, “OK, we’ll know,’ ” Fran said. “But the biopsy was indeterminate.” That meant an answer wouldn’t come until after surgery to remove the tumor, scheduled March 19 at University Hospitals and Clinics.
Iowa got that NCAA bid, and met Tennessee in a First Four game at Dayton, Ohio. It was played the same day as Patrick’s surgery. McCaffery was in Dayton for practice the day before the game, flew home, was at the hospital the next morning during surgery, was there when his son woke up and then flew back to Dayton. Iowa’s season ended with an overtime defeat.
“And then we get the call,” McCaffery said. “It all changes after that.”
The news that the tumor was malignant came on March 21, the day after Patrick’s 14th birthday. A second surgery came a month later, on Easter weekend. In between, the McCafferys took Patrick and his AAU teammate and friend, Jackson Molstead of Charles City, to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.
They visited with Digger Phelps, McCaffery’s former boss at Notre Dame, who offered Patrick encouragement. So did numerous coaches they ran into that weekend.
“Everyone knew what was going on,” Margaret said.
What has transpired since that second surgery almost seven years ago gives one a better appreciation for Patrick’s presence on the floor. Something that goes beyond his 14.5 minutes, 5.0 points and 2.7 rebounds a game as a freshman..
No one understands the challenges Patrick has faced the last seven years more than his mother.
“It’s amazing to me it’s been seven years, because I feel like we still live it every day,” she said. “It’s not as intense as it was. Not anywhere near that. I don’t like the term “cancer free." Because once you hear those words that you have cancer, or your child has cancer, there’s not a day that goes by that you don’t think about it in some way.”
The thyroid, among other things, regulates your metabolism. Patrick is on Synthroid, a medicine that helps to restore thyroid levels by replacing the amount of thyroxine his body is missing. It’s been a delicate balance to find the right dosage.
“When you’ve had thyroid cancer and you no longer have a thyroid, they want to keep you hyperthyroid,” Margaret said. “That means your metabolism is revved up pretty fast. It’s controlling how your body processes things.”
That’s preferred over hypothyroidism, which leaves you sluggish and makes your body want to create more thyroid hormone.
“Once you’ve had cancer, they don’t want your body to try and make its own thyroid hormone again because it was making bad cells,” she said.
Patrick’s challenge is magnified because not a lot of high-level athletes have this condition.
“It’s kind of a unique case for doctors to solve,” Fran said.
What to eat, how much to eat, when to eat, how much to hydrate, how much protein to put in your body, and being diligent with that in conjunction with conditioning and strength training all add to the challenge.
In February of 2020, Dr. Ryan Hurt spent a day with Patrick at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., looking for a winning formula. Hurt is the uncle of Duke star Matthew Hurt, one of Patrick’s former AAU teammates.
“He really made a difference,” Fran said. “And the doctors at (University Hospitals and Clinics) have been so awesome.”
Every two months, doctors test Patrick to make sure he’s maintaining important levels in his body. That includes a TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) test that checks how the medicine he takes is working, and to see if the dose needs to be adjusted.
“If it’s too high or too low, you can’t just take another pill,” Margaret said. “It takes a period of weeks to really work into your system.”
Patrick also has an ultrasound every six months that checks for any abnormal lymph nodes in his neck.
“It’s been frustrating at times,” Margret said. “But we’ve also found some awesome people that are working hard to help us. And just to watch him navigate all of that and try to get through it, what he’s doing is pretty impressive.”
Patrick’s body doesn’t bounce back as fast as a normal athlete. His diet and sleep patterns are not like those of a traditional college student.
“His body doesn’t reset the same way,” Margaret said. “He’s a warrior, that’s for sure. He just fights and fights.”
He’s gotten his weight up to 200 pounds, and kept it there for the entire season. Adding another 15 pounds is the next goal heading into 2021-22.
Certain moments have tugged at Fran’s heartstrings over the last seven years.
“At first you just want him to be healthy and to live,” he said. “And then you want him to do what he loves to do.”
Fran fondly recalls the first time Patrick played in a varsity game for West. And the time Connor and Patrick played for the Trojans’ state championship team in 2017. And when Patrick became West’s career scoring leader. And watching him play in the USA Basketball 3-on-3 Youth Olympics Team that competed in Brazil in 2018, or taking part in the USA Basketball Under 18 Trials.
“Or the first time he put that Hawkeye jersey on, that was something, and being with his brother again,” the coach said.
On Saturday, Patrick will tug at those heartstrings again when he celebrates his 21st birthday by playing in his first NCAA game.
“I think he’s figured out how to maximize his opportunity and maximize his ability to be the best player he can be under the circumstances that he has,” Fran said. “It’s taken some time to figure it out. And I’m really proud of the positive approach he’s taken. He’s never made excuses. He’s tried to continue to get better.”
After Patrick scored a career-high 19 points in a victory over Nebraska March 4, Margaret got a text message from a friend and cancer survivor, telling her how proud she was to watch Patrick excel.
“I think there are only going to be more games where that happens,” Margaret said. “As long as his father doesn’t screw up.”