LAND O'LAKES — Ron Cox isn't the coach for everyone.
If you want a screamer or a swearer, someone with a "win at all costs" attitude, parents say, you'd better look elsewhere. But if you want a youth soccer coach whose top concerns are having fun and playing fair, Cox is the one.
Over the past 11 years, Cox has developed a reputation as the coach who, in the middle of a shellacking, will holler from the sidelines: "Are you having fun?" The one who rewards not only the superstar but also the kid who selflessly passed the ball to a teammate with a clearer shot. The one referees compliment on sportsmanship. The one who checks on school grades.
Now, the 46-year-old who has spent 3,000 volunteer hours coaching some of these teens since they were in grade school, is sidelined with pancreatic cancer. Even from a sickbed, he's still teaching them an important life lesson about helping friends in need.
The 18-member team, the Arsenal, has rallied around the struggling family, sponsoring a series of benefits to help pay the bills. Cox, a self-employed installer of home electronics, has been unable to work since he had surgery in August.
His wife, Amye, has been substitute teaching when she isn't caring for Ron.
"When we married, we made the decision that he would be the breadwinner and I would be the stay-at-home mom," said Amye, 57, a former television anchor. "It's old-fashioned, but we wanted our kids to have the same upbringing we had. We knew we wouldn't get wealthy like that, but we would make it."
During the housing boom, work orders flowed freely for Ron's company. Then the market crashed. On top of that, Ron started to have pancreatic attacks about every six months. A test showed it to be caused by a birth defect that requires regular treatment. Those treatments turned out to be a blessing. During one, doctors found the beginning stage of cancer.
"With pancreatic cancer, they don't discover it until you have symptoms and then it's too late," Amye explained. In Ron's case, his previous illness allowed it to be removed before it got out of control.
Surgeons operated in August. They expect Ron to fully recover in about six months. "Doctors told him he'd live to be 80 unless he got hit by a bus," Amye said.
Amye struggled alone to handle things on the home front. "There were times I just prayed I could get through the day," she said.
A chance meeting with a soccer parent started the juggernaut.
"Tell Ron we love him," the parent said.
Not long after, the phone rang. The parent told Amye to show up at a house at 8 p.m. No excuses.
When she arrived, the assistant coaches and their wives told her the news. The team and the parents had taken up a collection. They pulled out a giant poster with all the kids' signatures. Then they slid an envelope across the table.
"Take the money," the said. "We know you need it. We're not taking it back."
After that, the group formed an organization called Kickin' In for Coach Cox. They raked and mowed the yard. They brought meals four nights a week and donated a freezer for leftovers. They cleaned the house. Meredith Tire and Auto learned of Cox's condition and even put new tires on the family van for free.
And once in a while, the "basket fairy" visits. Household items such as soap, paper towels and toothpaste miraculously appear in a basket the group put on the Cox's front porch.
The team and families washed cars last month. They plan a big benefit on Saturday, a yard sale with hot dogs and drinks, face painting and bounce houses.
When the soccer season began in October, assistant coaches Cameron Shaw and Harry Oergel stepped in to coach but kept Cox on the roster as head coach. He now comes to practices and games and cheers the team on from a chair.
"I know this kind of outpouring really spurs him on to get better," Amye said.
Amye, who has spent much of her life volunteering at her two sons' school and doing charity work, admits an initial reluctance to accept all the help.
"I always thought I could do it all," she said. "I've also learned a life lesson. People and things are put in your path for a reason."
Lisa Buie can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.