Loving life, loving ball: ACGC baseball coach Jeff Tanner is back on the diamond as he continues a long-standing battle with a brain tumor
If you see Jeff Tanner at a local sporting event, he won’t be sitting around by himself.
The minute the long-time ACGC teacher and coach steps into a gym or onto a field, it’s a certainty he’ll have struck up a conversation with somebody he knows. Or they him. When the Falcons basketball team played a state tournament game in March, he got up from his seat to head up to the concourse. Four or five conversations later, he made it there.
“If you’ve been around a long time, you get to know a lot of people,” said the 58-year-old Tanner on a day his Falcons baseball team had off because of rainy weather. “It’s been a great thing to get to know people throughout the years. I wouldn’t call it a club, but we’ve all been through the same things over the years.”
Fact is, most of them haven’t been through what Tanner has over the years. But they’re undoubtedly happy to see him back on baseball diamonds this spring.
For more than 15 years, Tanner has lived with meningioma, a brain tumor that has required several surgeries and radiation treatments. It’s given him an even deeper appreciation for what really matters in life.
Meningioma radiation treatments kept Tanner out of the dugout and third base coaching box last season, only the second time he has not coached a Falcons baseball team since he first arrived in the district as a freshly minted college graduate in 1978.
“It just gets different,” he said of the times when he wasn’t coaching. “It’s different when you have to switch your plans. It’s not as easy as you think.”
Tanner, a Morris native, graduated from high school in 1973 and he earned his degree at the University of Minnesota, Morris in 1978. That fall, he was hired as an elementary school teacher and coach in Grove City. He was an assistant coach on head coach Doug Torgerson’s football team, he was an assistant for fledgling girls basketball teams and he was the school’s head baseball coach.
When Atwater and Grove City schools combined in the mid-1980s, he sat out all sports except football for a year before moving completely back into the AGC coaching staff.
Tanner not only coached sports, he played them, and that’s when he became aware of his condition. He and some other guys were playing basketball at the school in the summer of 1998 when he noticed something wasn’t quite right.
“I kept missing passes,” he said. “I was struggling to see the ball and I wasn’t catching things clean. I thought, ‘Shoot, I must need new glasses.’ “
Tanner visited an eye specialist, who sent him to a neurology specialist.
“On the third trip, the ugly word ‘tumor’ popped up,” he said.
An MRI confirmed the growth of the meningioma and the surgeries followed.
“You get a report about what could happen,” Tanner said. “First, you might not live through it, or there could be paralysis. But I had the surgery and then you have MRI checks to see what’s going on.”
Surgeons couldn’t get 100 percent of the slow-growing tumor because of where it was located, Tanner said, so over the years, there have been addition surgical procedures and treatments, including a one-time “gamma knife” laser procedure, when necessary.
“You always get a little nervous because you can never follow (the tumor),” Tanner said. “You just go in for your six month picture and see how it is, and then be happy or say, ‘Aw, shoot.’ Then you move on to the next step. You just deal with it. I’ve gotten used to it.”
So it was no surprise to Tanner when, in January 2013, his doctors saw stuff they didn’t like. He had surgery in February 2013 and a seven-week radiation course was set up to begin in March. He would spend weekdays at the Mayo Clinic for “old-fashioned” half-hour daily radiation treatments, then get some time at home on the weekends.
“My family was good about working it out so I wouldn’t be by myself,” he said.
The Mayo staff was also good about working his appointments so Tanner could be himself. Without the restrictions chemotherapy patients might be under, he got to get out of Rochester to take in a Minnesota Twins game. One day, when the weather cooperated, he took off to go to a local prep game. Of course, the coach of one of the teams was an old college buddy. While they couldn’t work out dinner arrangements, the two did have a nice talk.
“Coaching is a great connector,” Tanner said. “You meet lots of people and make lot of friends that you have forever.”
But it was at Mayo, connecting with other patients, that Tanner gained the perspective that shapes him most.
“Everybody is going through the same things you are,” he said. “You realize you’re not the worst case in the world, at least for the time being. You realize there are all kinds of levels of this out there.”
It’s also a source of levity among his big extended family, the immediate members of which include Robin, his wife since 1979, son Matt, daughter Jamie and son Jordan.
Tanner’s youngest brother Tim, who is Renville County West’s head softball coach, recently kidded about one of Jeff’s mental lapses. “He’s got a tumor, you know?”
“If I do something wrong or forget something, whatever, I’ll tell people, ‘Well, you know I’ve got a tumor,” Jeff Tanner said with a laugh. “It’s a good way to come up with an excuse, but we do it in a joking way.”
Tanner’s treatments last spring went well. He was in the Target Field stands with some family to watch the BOLD baseball team win the Class A state championship in June. In the fall, he was back on the football sidelines for a third decade as an assistant in Terry Karlsgodt’s last season as the Falcons’ football coach. Last winter, he was coaching junior high basketball.
A September 2013 MRI came back with positive results, as did another scan last month.
“It’s good signs,” he said. “I don’t know that it will ever be, ‘It’s gone.’ Doctors tell me we just have to keeping watching (the tumor) so it doesn’t crawl around.”
With a good prognosis in his hip pocket, Tanner was primed to slip back into a Falcons baseball uniform while thanking assistant coach Doug Zaeska for taking the helm last spring.
Tanner entered this season with 300 wins. The team was 1-12 last season, losing in the second round of the playoffs to the Osakis team BOLD defeated in the Class A championship game. Last week, they led Benson in the early going before losing and falling to 1-4. But wins and losses don’t define Tanner nearly as much as they may have before. Retirement is on the horizon and there is family. And — always — there will be a ball game somewhere and somebody to talk with about it.
“It’s fun to get back to what you’re used to doing,” he said. “Who know how long that’s going to be because everybody gets to that retirement age. We’re planning.”