20 Aug 2014
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Uncommon Courage

Uncommon Courage
Originally printed in East Greenwich Monthly magazine, February 2014 issue; reprinted with permission. 

Nolan Cooney can eat. At 6’3” and still growing, he’s beaten the best of them at Chipotle, Five Guys, Subway, and numerous “all you can eat” buffets. The only meal that ever came close to beating Nolan was this year’s Thanksgiving Day feast prepared by his father, Joe Cooney. Within a half an hour of that meal, though, Nolan was at my house finishing off half a pumpkin pie. These days you will find Nolan focusing his energies on beating cancer. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer in December of 2013.

Nolan, a junior at EGHS, is an extraordinary three-sport athlete. This fall he was named an All-Division First Team soccer goalie. In the winter, Nolan is a power forward on the basketball team, making a significant contribution to the team since week one freshman year. In the spring, you can find Nolan on the baseball diamond. He was the starting catcher for last year’s stellar, senior-studded team that made it all the way to the State Final Four. In fact, Nolan hit the walk off single that beat LaSalle, sending the Avengers to the Final Four. Nolan was not only a brick wall behind the plate, but he provided opportune hits all season long, including a blast over the left center fence while playing Toll Gate at home. 

Baseball Coach Bob Downey describes Nolan as the kind of player “you build a successful program around.” He says Nolan’s work ethic is “off the charts,” and credits Nolan with a “unique ability to LOVE practice.” Coach calls Nolan, “a tremendous example for our younger players in the program.” Coach also acknowledges that to be able to make a significant contribution to one varsity sport as a freshman is rare. To become a significant player to three sports as a freshman and to follow that feat up with superb sophomore seasons in all three sports is the stuff of legend at EGHS. Nolan Cooney is on his way to becoming a legend in Avenger sports.

Having been a teammate of Nolan’s, I appreciate what a fierce competitor he is and how his presence on a court or field of play can change a game. I know he is the ultimate teammate and sportsman, and that he hates to lose. We have all seen his laser-like focus and unflappable game face. When it is the last inning of the game with two outs and a guy on second, it’s Nolan Cooney you want taking the swings. These attributes make Nolan a gifted athlete, but Nolan has some equally laudable qualities that make him an amazing friend.

Nolan ran routes for me while I was recovering from an injury and rehabbing my leg. He practiced with me in the cold, rain, wind, and even in the blazing heat. He never complained or asked me to call it quits before I was ready, and he never dropped a pass. He has the kind of quick speed and soft hands that would have made him a star receiver on the football team, and an uncommon ability to kick field goals from 45 yards out while just horsing around in a pair of old sneakers that would have made Coach George drool. I pleaded with him to join the football team, but Nolan is loyal. He is committed to the soccer team.

When the football team lost the Super Bowl in 2012, I was inconsolable. That is until the doorbell rang one night that week. When I opened the door, no one was there. All I found was a cup of Orange Leaf on my doorstep, as I spied Nolan in the shadows leaving my driveway. No words. No platitudes about moral victories. Just my favorite flavor of fro-yo. Extra large serving. Nolan has that rare ability to be there for his friends in good times and in bad times. He knows just what to say to make you feel better, and he knows when words are not needed or wanted. He redefined friendship for me. That’s why Nolan is loved by everybody around here.

In early December, he called me to let me know he had just had surgery for testicular cancer. Nolan was matter of fact and positive. I remember that conversation because Nolan was the one consoling me. Nolan’s diagnosis made me become aware of testicular cancer, the most common cancer in males ages 15-34. The good news is that it is a highly treatable form of cancer that does not affect the rest of your life or your future if treated properly.

As Nolan undergoes treatment, he remains strong, focused, and resilient, and he can still eat like a lumberjack. Some days you can even find Nolan coming into school. His house is always loaded with friends from school, sports, town, and even a few kids who play for rival teams. That’s the power of Nolan Cooney. He transcends rivalries, towns, teams, and schools. Everyone respects his love of sports and his incredible athletic talent, and all of us appreciate the opportunity to count him as a friend.

As for Nolan, he approaches his battle with cancer with appreciation for those who are taking care of him, for his family and friends, his school community, and the opportunities this experience has brought him. This winter Nolan received a call from Lance Armstrong, the renowned cyclist who beat testicular cancer and founded Livestrong. Nolan got the chance to have an extended conversation with Armstrong to discuss treatment options and recovery and is hoping to meet him in New York City later in the year.  He seemed truly impressed with Armstrong, and I have no doubt Armstrong was impressed with Nolan, because Nolan Cooney is a rare breed. He is a gifted athlete who valves his teammates above all else, and he is an incredible friend whose loyalty, kindness, and uncommon courage never cease to inspire those around him. If that isn’t enough to impress you, you should see him eat.









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