Throughout his life Glenwood baseball coach Tim Fanning has called the shots and made things happen on his own terms.
Fanning grew up in Columbus, Georgia, as one of three to a single mother and overcame an impoverished childhood by becoming a standout baseball player. After playing in high school and eventually at the Division-I level at Marshall, he started coaching at Glenwood in 1999 and led the program to eight state championships. Along the way, he established More Than A Game, a non-profit organization that uses baseball to serve others and has taken him to countries such as Taiwan, Panama, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.
Fanning has always been motivated to do whatever he can to make his aspirations come true. That approach is just part of what has made the last nine months so difficult.
Fanning was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer on July 30, which has led to months of surgeries, chemotherapy sessions and radiation treatments. He stayed committed to the Gators’ baseball program all the while and had Glenwood poised for a run at a ninth championship when play was halted on March 13, which left the season in question and sent Fanning into quarantine.
Despite the circumstances, Fanning has remained upbeat as he spends the unexpected free time from baseball at home with his wife Renee and daughters Brianna and Macie. With everything else going on in the world, Fanning has kept his full attention on Monday, when the 46-year-old returns to UAB Hospital in Birmingham for a surgery that he hopes results in some much-needed good news.
“I just tried to stay focused on my situation and just attack it every time the same way and not worry about what could happen. It’s kind of like a game — you have to have a gameplan going into a game. That’s just kind of how I looked at it,” Fanning said. “I’ve always kind of been that way as a coach as well. I don’t really focus on other teams — I only focus on our team. That’s just kind of how I just looked at this.
“I’m not focused on what everybody else is saying, what everybody else has and what everybody else is doing. I’m only focused on us, which is me on this venture.”
Thrown a curveball
Fanning said it was a little over a year ago when he realized something was different within his body, but he said he shook it off and waited for the symptoms to go away. They did not subside, and after tiring from some simple yard work Renee insisted he go to the doctor.
Fanning’s doctor immediately sent him for a CT scan and set him up for a colonoscopy, the latter of which couldn’t even be finished due to the size of the tumor in his colon. He traveled to UAB the next week, where further scans revealed the cancer was also in his lymph nodes.
Soon after, Fanning had an ileostomy to help him use the bathroom and also had a power port implanted in his chest for chemotherapy.
Fanning took chemo at Montgomery Cancer Center in Prattville. During each session, he received an infusion for six or seven hours, left for home with the pump still attached and running for an entire day then returned the next day to have it taken off.
The three days of treatment, which happened every two weeks, were followed by four or five days during which Fanning recovered.
Fanning’s first two months of chemo went well — he actually gained weight during the treatments — so doctors doubled his dosage in an effort to shrink the tumors as much as possible. The effects were understandably hard for Fanning to endure at times.
“There were a few times that I couldn’t actually make it through the entire transfusion just because of how my body would react to it. They’d have to kind of shut it down and let my body calm down before they sent me home with the pump,” Fanning said. “That couple months was definitely a lot tougher than the first two months. I was doing real well on (the first round of chemo), and I felt strong so they wanted to just hammer me as much as possible to try and get as much shrinkage as possible to help with the surgery. It was just harder.”
Fanning took his last chemo treatment on New Year’s Eve, and two weeks later he began radiation at the Spencer Cancer Center in Opelika every day for about three weeks. In addition to the radiation, he took pills for the chemotherapy.
The radiation was abruptly halted on Feb. 19 once Fanning got an infection, which led doctors to start prepping him for surgery on March 30.
Even with all the doctor visits and hard days, Fanning remained committed to his baseball program.The situation was a little different from a typical spring — assistant coaches Jessie Boyd, Tommy Claridy and Phil Stillwell took on more responsibility, and Fanning wasn’t able to do as much throwing or Fungo hitting drills — but Fanning rarely missed a chance to be with his team.
As hard as the last few months were for their head coach, the Gators made things look easy on the diamond. Glenwood put together a 12-3 start to the season, which included a 14-3 win in the team’s first area game as well as a 3-2 win against Autauga Academy before which the teams honored Fanning and Autauga coach Scott Tubbs, who also has colon cancer.
For Fanning, coaching his kids this spring like he had for the past two decades brought comfort he couldn’t have found any other way. Fanning has never shied away from sharing his life story with others, and the chance to be with the team also meant he could provide a life lesson that the players could keep for years to come.
“It didn’t seem as cold outside (when the team was playing). I didn’t care if it was wet, you know what I mean? I just wanted to teach again, to be honest. That’s really what it boils down to,” Fanning said. “It’s been my life for the better part of 20 years. Plus, I wanted to send the right message to my boys, too. Every one of them are going to fight something in their lives if they haven’t already. Just being out there with them, I don’t know. It’s healing to me for sure.”
The joy the game brought Fanning was put on pause two weeks ago when the AISA postponed play while the coronavirus pandemic spread across the world. Fanning admitted he was upset at the news, but he said day by day he made peace with it and tried to make the most of the situation.
Although Fanning can’t lead his team through any workouts, he advised them before play officially was suspended to keep their arms strong and to do as much as they could on their own in case the season eventually resumes. He’s remained in constant contact with the group and routinely texted them encouraging words while facing his own health concerns.
“This weekend, I was going to send out another text to all of them and say, ‘Hey, I know it’s been tough on you guys. Just keep your heads up and keep working when you can work,’” Fanning said. “‘God will let us back when it’s time. Just trust His plan and stay strong. That’s all you can do.’
“‘Please pray for me this week.’”
‘It’s all worth it’
Fanning has mostly spent the last two weeks at his home in Smiths Station in an effort to stay healthy with the important surgery coming up. He said he hasn’t been in a store in about three weeks — he’ll often sit in the truck while his wife or daughters run in for supplies — but he has taken Macie, a Glenwood softball player, to a batting cage a few times and waited outside while she got some swings in.
Family has always been an important part of Fanning’s life, and the last few weeks have essentially been all about them. Whether it’s been binge-watching TV, eating meals together, cleaning the pool or relaxing on the deck, the Fannings have done it all together.
Fanning was initially bitter about baseball’s stoppage, but ultimately he chose to see the bright side of the situation.
“I guess after that initial pity party and me thinking about what I do have coming up — I have life-changing surgery on Monday. Being able to spend an extra two weeks with my family uninterrupted has been actually pretty amazing,” Fanning said. “I guess it boils down to God knows what’s going on and I don’t, you know what I mean? I need to quit trying to figure it out and let Him deal with it.”
Faith and family have been Fanning’s driving forces through the last nine months as has been the support of so many around Glenwood. The efforts of those around the school have not gone unnoticed by Fanning, who has never coached anywhere else and has realized through these tough times that it was meant to be that way.
Fanning faces several unknowns going into Monday as far as the hospital’s procedures due to the coronavirus; for example, Renee will have to drop him off, so who will keep all of his clothes for the week he expects to be there? Even with those questions going through his mind, Fanning has remained positive as the day draws closer.
Fanning has always had a heart for serving others — he wrote a book in 2017 titled “Serve to Lead” — and it’s been on display throughout his personal life, his coaching career and his non-profit endeavors. Even while going through the hardest ordeal imaginable, his mind has remained focused on others and how his experience can benefit those around him.
“Once I came to terms with the situation, it allowed me to think about the fact that when God delivers me through this that it also just gives me another platform to reach people. That’s all I’ve ever wanted my entire life — to be able to serve others,” Fanning said. “This would give me another platform to do that through. I’ve seen it a couple times already. It makes people stop and listen.
“If I can help someone go and get tested, get colonoscopies earlier than they would and save somebody’s life, then it’s all worth it.”