"Near-death cleared the decks, and what came after was a bright, sparkling awareness: time is limited, so I better wake up every morning fresh and know that I have just one chance to live this particular day right, and to string my days together into a life of action, and purpose."
— Lance Armstrong, Every Second Counts, 2003
TAMPA — The familiar yellow bracelet is on Todd Fitch's right wrist, where it has been every day for six years.
He showers and sleeps with it on. He has lived in three states, worn the colors of three college football teams, but the bracelet hasn't moved since Skip Holtz's wife, Jennifer, sent it to him during the summer of 2004, the same year the bracelets became a symbol of hope and courage in the fight against cancer.
"I've never taken it off," said Fitch, USF's 46-year-old offensive coordinator, who joined the Bulls in January under Holtz after coaching with him at Connecticut and East Carolina.
The assistant coach the Bulls have embraced this fall is a cancer survivor, wiser with the perspective that only comes with such a brush with mortality. It isn't that football means any less to him, rather that everything else in his life means more.
"I would like to think it made me a better person," said Fitch, amid preparation for today's home game against Pittsburgh. "It taught me the important things in life. That's always my grounding force."
Much like the man behind the bracelet, cyclist Lance Armstrong, Fitch was diagnosed with testicular cancer in spring 2004, just as he had started working as the quarterbacks coach at Iowa State. Having just turned 40, with two young children, he would have months of chemotherapy, four hours a day, five days a week, often going directly from treatments to the football office.
Coaching football, even in the summer, was something normal and familiar, something for Fitch to focus on so he didn't think about the cancer. Cyclones coach Dan McCarney would have to chase him out of the office.
McCarney, now an assistant at Florida, saw Fitch in September when USF played in Gainesville, and the two still have a strong friendship.
"One of the all-time amazing things I got to witness," McCarney said. "I saw it, day in and day out. You'd have to push him out of the office, he had so much pride and mental toughness. His attitude was so great, I knew he was going to beat it. It's what I think of when you think of having to overcome obstacles in life."
Fitch and his wife, Julie, found inspiration in Armstrong's books and found strength as they watched him win a record sixth Tour de France in July 2004. For Fitch to identify with Armstrong was only natural; his middle name is Armstrong, from his mother Ann's maiden name; his son Curtis, now 15, also has it for his middle name.
Just as cycling was a daily reminder for Armstrong that he was alive, Fitch found the same solace in football, and in nightly walks, as long or as short as his body would allow him.
"Sometimes he could only make it up to the top of the hill and back, and he was done," Julie said. "That was his focus: 'As long as I'm moving, as long as I'm working, I'm going to beat cancer. It's not going to beat me.' "
Bret Meyer, who was a freshman quarterback at Iowa State in 2004, went on to be the Cyclones' all-time leading passer with 9,499 career yards, but what he remembers most his three seasons playing under Fitch was that first summer.
"It's one of the images that's burned in your mind," said Meyer, recalling the sight of Fitch watching two-a-day practices from a golf cart, his head bald from chemotherapy, lacking the strength to walk around or yell across the field but insisting on being there to help his quarterbacks.
"It was the first time anybody close to me had battled that, and he was such an inspiration to me and to the whole team," Meyer said. "From early on in my college life, it was a reminder that you don't really have it so bad."
Holtz and his coordinators have a strong bond because their families have all fought similar battles with cancer. Holtz's mother, Beth, was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1997; defensive coordinator Mark Snyder's wife, Beth, is a two-time breast cancer survivor.
When Fitch's initial rounds of chemotherapy weren't successful in summer 2004, Skip got his father, Lou, involved, and the former Notre Dame coach lined Fitch up with the same specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota who had helped with his wife's cancer. After further treatment and surgery, Fitch was declared cancer-free on Aug. 5, 2004.
Skip Holtz said that shared adversity is one reason USF's coaches aren't in the office until 2 a.m. as some programs' are during the season.
"I think it makes you a better coach," Skip Holtz said. "I think you don't take things for granted. You learn to appreciate each day we're given and the time we get to spend together as a staff. … I want a rested staff. We've got an obligation to be coaches but an obligation to be husbands and fathers as well."
Looking at his bracelet, Fitch also thinks of Thomas "Rock" Roggeman, an assistant with him on Holtz's East Carolina staff who died in June at age 47 after a yearlong battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Crueler still, one of his quarterbacks at Iowa State in 2004, Cris Love, died two years later after battling cancer, just 24 years old.
"It's there to remember those who didn't win the fight, to know that he's one of the lucky ones," Julie said. "I think that hits Todd every day, that he's a lucky one because he gets to see his kids grow up."
Fitch has attended Curtis' football games at Steinbrenner High, and he has made more time for his 13-year-old daughter, Peyton. As coaches go, Fitch was better than most at balancing family and football, but Julie said before the cancer that he would know more about his players' grades than those of his own children. That has changed.
"He knows those kids are the most important thing in his world, that he'll do anything for them," Julie said. "Football doesn't matter. Winning or losing doesn't matter. It matters, but it's a whole different kind of matter than it was seven years ago."
Fitch doesn't talk much with his players about battling cancer, but they see it in the levelheadedness with which he speaks, in wins or losses, up 10 points or down 10. Regardless of the score, there is a calm about him, one that can be transferred to his players.
"Even keel," quarterback B.J. Daniels said. "And with him being the play-caller, it's contagious. We're all looking to him: 'What's the next play? What are you going to call?' And he's just the guy on the headphones, having a conversation with you. Nothing catches him off-guard. He's a fighter. I have a lot of respect for Coach Fitch."
Fitch remembers his first season after Iowa State, when he had rejoined Holtz at ECU, and the two friends, born less than a month apart, walked to practice after a particularly lopsided loss at West Virginia.
"It was kind of like, 'I feel miserable. I feel terrible, you get your brains beat in,' " he said. "Then I said, 'Been a lot worse.' It's hard to keep that focus, the farther you get away from it, but it puts a lot of things in perspective."