Head coach Randy Kuceyeski talks to the team during the first day of football practice at Libertyville High School. Kuceyeski is retiring at the end of this season and is battling cancer.
Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer
Coach Randy Kuceyeski, in white, directs a play during the first day of football practice at Libertyville High School.
Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer
Tears and football coaches usually don't mix.
But all bets are off this fall for Libertyville coach Randy Kuceyeski, whose team opens what should be one of the most moving seasons in school history tonight against visiting Barrington.
"I'm an emotional mess," Kuceyeski said with a laugh on the Wildcats' first official day of practice earlier this month. "It's like I'm going through menopause 10 times over.
"Everything gets to me. If I see a commercial on TV with a puppy dog, I start crying. Seriously."
And here's the thing: cute, little puppy dogs can't even hold a candle to all the Wildcats Kuceyeski holds so dear.
Note to Kuz: Better stock up on the Kleenex.
Entering his 34th season as a high school coach and his 18th as head coach at
Libertyville, Kuceyeski will be retiring at the end of the school year. This will be his last hurrah as the Wildcats' head honcho.
His emotional farewell tour will feel even more heavy-hearted considering that he will have to navigate it while fighting cancer.
"Kuz is going to be on our minds all season," Libertyville fullback Kevin Bruns said. " He's a big motivating factor for us. We definitely need to play for him."
Back in the spring, Kuceyeski was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, which involves cancer of the mouth. He has spent the summer undergoing intense radiation and chemotherapy treatments at the University of Chicago. They have caused him to drop 10 pounds and become so easily fatigued that walking is now his only form of exercise.
Before his treatments began, Kuceyeski jogged 3 miles a day.
"The first round of treatments was absolutely brutal. I didn't expect it," Kuceyeski said. "My mouth is one big sore, I get tired and with the medications I take, my hormones and emotions are always all over the place."
Kuceyeski's progress, meanwhile, has been steady.
His coaching status is still day-to-day, particularly until he completes his 16-week treatment process in mid-October. But Kuceyeski is determined not to miss a single day of his very last season.
In fact, he missed only two of the Wildcats' off-season practices this summer and that's only because he was in the hospital.
"My goal is to be at the first game and take it from there." Kuceyeski said. "This is going to be a special season and I don't want to miss anything. Everything we do is going to hold a lot of sentimental value because it'll be the last time I do it: the last two-a-day practice, the last (Opening Night).
"I want to enjoy every day. But I only look at today. I don't even worry about tomorrow. That's my new attitude. I've learned from a lot of people that's the way it has to be."
Kuceyeski has also learned how many people in the community care deeply for him. This summer, he had people stopping by his home with meals. Others mowed his lawn and walked his dogs.
"It was just unbelievable stuff," Kuceyeski said. "There have been so many random acts of kindness that have been such an inspiration for me. When I look back on this, that will be the silver lining in the whole thing."
Many of Kuceyeski's players also spread the sunshine his way, stopping by his house over the summer for frequent visits. Some even brought cookies to share.
"Everyone loves Kuz. He's been nothing shy of a father to us," Libertyville wide receiver Sam Styler said. "When he broke the news to us on one of the last days of school last year, you could hear a pin drop in the room. It was just heartbreaking to all of us."
Tears and football players usually don't mix either. But all bets were off with the Wildcats on that day as well.
"I'm not ashamed to say that I cried the entire time," Libertyville tight end and defensive end Luke Mathewson said. "As soon as Kuz said it, that he had cancer, I teared up and didn't really stop through the whole day. It was such a shocker. He's such a great guy."
But Kuz is a guy who needs help.
He has had to cut back on his day-to-day responsibilities with the team and his assistants have been happy to step up.
"Collectively as a staff, we've had to do everything we can do to be strong for him and for the team and support him in every way we possibly can," said Jim Schurr, who has been a part of Kuceyeski's staff for 13 years. "Everyone has taken on a little bit more. But it's nothing he wouldn't do for us.
"Any time you've got a coach who is revered the way Randy is, who has put in 33 years, and now he's going through what he's going through, there's not a person who is wearing our school colors who doesn't want to go above and beyond to make this season everything it could possibly be for him."
Kuceyeski is hoping for the playoffs.
His teams made 10 straight postseason appearances from 1997 to 2006, placed second in Class 7A in 2003 and won the Class 7A state championship in 2004.
But the Wildcats have missed the playoffs three of the last four seasons, including the last two.
"It would be my dream to end this with the playoffs," Kuceyeski said. "But the season hasn't even started yet and it's already been successful for me, just from being able to be here and take part in all this is all that I could ask for and more.
"It's been a success because these guys I'm around every day are such great kids and staff."