Life, love and loss in a coaching family: The story of Blake and Wendy Anderson

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JONESBORO, Ark. — It was quiet inside the truck as Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson drove along Interstate 55. He wasn’t sure what to say. Usually he could count on his wife, Wendy, to fill any silence. She loves talking to people, and even the most mundane subject will spiral in a dozen different directions only vaguely related to the last. Blake calls it “spiderwebbing,” one thread thinly connected to another. He’s the face of the football program, but at events, Wendy is the star. A booster or fan will corner him, then he’ll introduce Wendy. She spiderwebs, and he sneaks away, leaving Wendy to charm even the dullest of companions.

Now, in early July, Wendy is in the seat next to him, frail and tired and sore from an hour bumping along the highway between Memphis, Tennessee, and Jonesboro in the passenger seat, silently deliberating the news they’d just gotten from her doctors.

A few weeks earlier, scans showed her latest round of chemotherapy was working. She’d first been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer in 2017, recovered, then got sick again. The initial prognosis was bleak, but she was a fighter, and until today, she thought she was winning. But she’d skipped her last dose of chemo, too tired and too sick to plug herself into another bag of poison. Her doctor ordered tests. The tests showed the tumors were growing again. They’d gone to meet with her oncologist in Memphis, and he offered no good options.

Wendy wasn’t prone to outbursts. Perhaps it was the voice, a Betty Boop approximation, she said, that always endeared her to kids and made Blake laugh when she’d get excited. She didn’t curse much, either. She’d say things like, “Cancer really kicked me in the fanny.” But after the doctor went over the test results, he’d left the room, closed the door, and Wendy screamed.

“F—!”

They didn’t talk much after that, just drove along in silence while Wendy’s mind raced. Why had she gotten her hopes up? Why did cancer keep pulling the rug out from under her? Why couldn’t these doctors see that all this bad news wasn’t helping? The more she thought, the angrier she got. Twisting in the passenger seat to face her husband, she erupted.

“I’m sick and tired of getting bad news,” she shouted. “Don’t give me any more bad news. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to see it. I’m going to beat this, and all these things they keep showing me be damned!”

Blake took her hand. She wasn’t mad at him. He knew that. It just needed to be said.

“I’ve never doubted you,” he said.

How could he? She always has had the answers. She asked him out on their first date. She raised their kids — sons Coleton and Cason, and daughter Callie — while he was busy coaching. She has turned each new city into a home for their family. She pulled him back from the brink of oblivion, when football had swallowed everything else in his life. She beat back cancer once, defying doctor’s advice and finding her own path to remission. Blake gets the attention because of football, but take a good look, he says. Wendy is the glue.

As they neared Jonesboro, the sky opened. Rain pelted the car. The phone rang. Their daughter had tried to drive through a puddle that turned out to be a small lake. She needed a ride. They got home. The basement was flooding from the sudden downpour. The dog, Khaleesi, barked, begging Blake to play fetch. The house buzzed with three kids who’d kept close to home after Wendy got sick. There’s a life here that matters more than test results.

“We get down, and we cry,” Blake said. “But we’ve got kids to raise, and we tell them God will get you through. We’ve got to be able to live that for them, too. There’s a lot of times I go in the other room and bawl my eyes out, but I come back to Wendy, and it’s just — let’s go.”

They had spent the past few months expecting new treatments to work, for Wendy to be on the mend by summer. But now, football loomed over everything. Blake was shuttling between home and work, fixing meals and helping with treatment in one place, then supervising his team in the other. A host of Arkansas State assistants had been hired away after the 2018 season, and Blake made a point of bringing in replacements he trusted to run the program, if needed.

“[I can’t] coach the team, run the offense and coach the quarterbacks and be who I needed to be for you,” he tells Wendy.

She flinches at the idea. She didn’t want cancer to take football from Blake. But she’s sick. She’s getting worse. Camp opens in a few weeks.

Blake gives her a smile. He made a promise years ago and he was going to keep it.

BLAKE AND Wendy met on campus at Sam Houston State. He was a football star. She was a sorority girl. They went out on a date, and Blake waited two weeks before dropping by her apartment.

“She said I almost played it too cool,” he said.

A day later, they bumped into each other at a volleyball game. Wendy asked him out on a second date. He said yes. They’ve been married for 27 years.

Wendy’s dad coached high school football, so she was happy to follow Blake into coaching, too. At their first stop in Eastern New Mexico, they moved three times in a little more than a year, just trying to find a place they could afford. In the offseason, Blake worked at the Coca-Cola factory to make ends meet.

Blake loved coaching, though. Football was in his blood, and he was good at it. He moved up the ranks to Trinity Valley Community College to New Mexico to an offensive coordinator job at Middle Tennessee. He worked constantly, chewed up game film, blossomed into a renowned recruiter. He attended every camp, every convention, every golf outing with other coaches. At home, though, his marriage was disintegrating.

By 2004, the family had lived in four cities in four years, and at each new spot, Wendy was left to fend for herself, to explain to the kids why they never saw their father. Then one day, they were driving past the stadium at Middle Tennessee, and Coleton said, “That’s where daddy lives.”

“I stopped covering for him with the kids,” Wendy said. “I used to give excuses, but then I’d just say, ‘You know what, that’s a good question for your dad. Why don’t you go call him? Leave him a message because he won’t answer.'”

It was June 1, and MTSU’s staff was set to fly to Florida for a coaching clinic the next day. These were the types of trips where Blake thrived. He was living his life “like a frat kid,” he said. But Blake came home to find Wendy waiting for him, bags packed. She was taking the kids, going back to Texas.

“If I walk in and resign tomorrow, will you stay?” he asked. “Will you give me the chance to be the person I know I’m capable of being?”

Reluctantly, she agreed. The next morning, he found head coach Andy McCollum in his office and quit.

FOR THE next two years, Blake ran his father’s insurance business in Texas. He coached Coleton’s basketball team, and they went undefeated. He taught clinics on the no-huddle offense at area high schools. He played in the backyard with the kids.

Then one day in early 2007, the phone rang. It was Rickey Bustle, head coach at Louisiana-Lafayette. He was looking for a new offensive coordinator. He wanted to interview Blake.

Wendy was angry. She knew what football had done to their family, and she wasn’t interested in reliving the experience. But Blake promised her this time would be different.

They drove to Lafayette and met with Bustle. In the interview, Blake spelled out his demands. If he took the job, he needed to recruit locally. He needed to set his own schedule. He needed time with Wendy and the kids. Family first, always.

Still, Wendy worried about what a return to the game would bring.

“I actually prayed he’d laugh us out of the building,” Blake said.

They didn’t even make it home before Bustle called with a job offer.

“I was mad at God for a long time,” Wendy said. “I wanted to know why. Why are we doing this? Why do I have to do this again? But he finally shook me enough where I was listening that there was a purpose.”

A year later, Larry Fedora hired Blake to run his offense at Southern Miss. When Fedora was lured to North Carolina, he brought Blake, too. Each time, Blake reminded his boss of his priorities.

“I learned from him on how to do a better job balancing my family and the job,” Fedora said. “I’m an old-school, hard-nosed guy, and there were a lot of times Blake got me to lighten up.”

Blake made a point of coming home each night for dinner. When the kids would go off to bed, he’d open his laptop and watch film. He’d wake up early to study recruits, then have breakfast with the family before going into the office. They’d go skiing or to the movies or play laser tag, and if it meant also inviting half the offense, that was OK, too.

“My heart was different,” said Blake, who was hired as head coach at Arkansas State in 2014. “I truly wanted to do it with them, the way it was meant to be done in the first place, the way I should’ve been doing it for years. We’ve had a blast. It’s overwhelming at times, and I’m sure my kids have seen enough ball to last a lifetime, but we do it as a family.”

WENDY HAD gotten a nasty sunburn in the spring of 2017. It itched like crazy. She couldn’t sleep. She kept scratching her chest, and suddenly she felt a lump.

She went to see her doctor, who recommended tests, which led to an ultrasound, then a biopsy. All the while, she downplayed the situation. She was young and fit and healthy. Why worry?

“I kept hearing, ‘It’s nothing, it’s nothing,'” Blake said. “Then it was, ‘We have a problem.'”

They met with the doctor, who read over the biopsy results. It was cancer, he said. A rare kind. She should find an oncologist. He offered few details, so Wendy went home and Googled her diagnosis: triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease immune to most standard treatments.

Wendy was gobsmacked. The next morning she called the doctor’s office and talked to a nurse.

“Is this what he’s saying I have?” she asked.

A long pause.

“Yes, honey,” the nurse answered. “I think so.”

A FEW weeks before fall camp opened at Arkansas State in 2017, Wendy and Blake flew to Tijuana, Mexico. Her doctors told her she was crazy, but to Wendy, this felt right. There was a clinic there that offered alternative treatments not available in the U.S. She received low-dose chemo, but also learned a new diet, experimented with homeopathic treatments, had transfusions of her own blood, designed to create antibodies to fight the cancer. It cost about $1,000 a day. She was there for seven weeks.

When she came home, doctors discovered the treatment had shifted the tumor, and there was an opportunity for surgery. They removed the tumor and said the results looked good. Wendy still had her hair, her energy and, as best her doctors could tell, she was cancer-free.

Arkansas State opened that season at Nebraska. In the student section at Memorial Stadium, fans draped a large sign that read: “Get well soon, Wendy Anderson.”

But her cancer was insidious. Even if the tumors are removed and the cancer is in remission, in the vast majority of cases, it returns in new places within a few years. Wendy got less than two.

In November 2018, Blake noticed his wife was coughing a lot. She felt fine, played tennis routinely, but she kept getting sick — colds, strep throat, bronchitis. And that cough. She’d see doctors, and they all downplayed cancer. It was probably acid reflux, one told her.

Wendy was in the stands for Arkansas State’s final home game of the season, a victory over Louisiana Monroe on Nov. 17. When they got home, she was running a fever. She was exhausted.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said.

Blake went into his work the next day, but Wendy was still drained. She decided to visit the urgent care facility, a red-and-white brick building just steps from the Red Wolves’ stadium and her husband’s office.

She explained to the doctor her symptoms, told him about her cancer battle, said she was worried it had returned. He ordered a chest X-ray. He wasn’t Wendy’s primary doctor, and he was no expert on cancer, but Wendy said when he looked at the test results, the color drained from his face.

“So you’re telling me the cancer is back?” she insisted.

“I really can’t say,” he told her.

“You don’t have to,” she said.

IT WAS early January, and Wendy was getting headaches. She didn’t think much of it. She was sick, and cancer made everything hurt. She consumed an assortment of medication, and there were always side effects. She would lie down on the couch, prop her legs on Blake’s lap, and he’d rub her feet, which usually helped.

She’d been forgetting things, too. This was a running joke in the house for years. Where’s mom’s phone? Where’s the remote? Wendy was forever losing her keys. This was different, though. She wanted to send a text message, but she couldn’t remember how to unlock her iPhone. She needed to pay her housecleaner, but filling out a check was impossible.

By the afternoon of Jan. 10, the headaches were unbearable. Wendy tried to rest, but the pressure in her head woke her, screaming.

“Make it stop,” she yelled between sessions of profuse vomiting. “Blake, make it stop!”

Blake scooped her off the couch, and dropped her in the tub, where she threw up to the point of exhaustion. He called Arkansas State’s team doctor, Jeremy Swymn, told him to meet them at the hospital. Wendy was admitted immediately. She’d spent the past hour screaming in agony, but when a doctor asked for her pain level, on a scale of one to 10, she said six.

Blake and Swymn looked at each other, astonished.

“No,” Blake said. “It’s a 12.”

Everything from there was a blur. Doctors did an MRI. They found five tumors, one the size of her fist that pushed against her skull, shifting her brain out of position. Wendy lost consciousness. Doctors administered a steroid in hopes of reviving her. They told Blake the only option was emergency brain surgery. They asked him what to do if she crashed. Should they perform CPR? What was their plan if only machines could keep her alive? Blake and Wendy never talked about it. They were supposed to have more time. Two months ago, Wendy was playing tennis. Now, she was dying.

Blake grabbed his wife, shook her.

“Wendy, wake up!”

Shook her again.

“Wake up!”

Again.

Finally, she opened her eyes. She couldn’t speak, but it was enough. Swymn convinced the doctors to delay surgery, to wait for the steroid to work. Surgery might have killed her. She was too weak for radiation treatment. Eventually a neurosurgeon decided to drill two holes in her skull to relieve the pressure. Fluid shot across the room. The largest tumor collapsed, and almost instantly, Wendy was better.

“She shouldn’t have made it,” Blake said. “She should’ve had a stroke or a heart attack. But when she came out of it, it was unbelievable.”

OVER THE next few months, Wendy went through radiation treatment, which eroded her energy. She tried an immunotherapy treatment that didn’t work. She did round after round of chemotherapy, which stole her hair and degraded her body. She was fiercely independent her whole life, but now she was stuck in a bed, asking Blake to blend an organic juice for her every few hours. She left the house sparingly, an oxygen tank in tow, for a trip to Target or a night at the movies. The cold air played havoc with her lungs.

She’d alternate among a litany of in-home treatments — Vitamin C doses, ozone therapy, saunas and hypothermic flood lights, used a device that broadcast sonic frequencies to attack cancer cells. She carried a spit cup because the combination of drugs and cancer made it hard to talk much without needing to clear the mucus from her throat.

“I just refuse to give in,” Wendy said. “I was born a fighter, and I’m still fighting.”

“We were best friends, and we didn’t want to be apart. But she had no fear. She had complete peace.”

Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson

The results followed a familiar pattern, a small step forward and another tumble back down.

She found solace in small victories. In June, she gained four pounds.

“That sounds funny, but it’s a lot when you’re fighting cancer,” Wendy said. “I haven’t weighed this little since I was 13.”

WENDY TURNED 49 on Aug. 15. She had been in the hospital for a while now. Her pain was becoming difficult to manage. Her breathing was increasingly labored. She knew what was coming, in all likelihood, but she didn’t want to go this way. She wanted to go home, to have one more normal day. She didn’t beg. She insisted.

Her doctor was blunt. She could go home for her birthday. She might be there a week, a day, an hour. But when it was time to leave, the next step was hospice care.

The hospital discharged her around 4 p.m. When they got home, Wendy opened the door to flowers and cards, balloons and gifts, a half-dozen friends who’d spent the day planning and decorating.

Wendy always struggled to trust people. She’d been burned too many times, people she thought were friends who disappeared when football got tough. But now, more than a half-dozen coaches’ wives and friends from each of the stops they’d made throughout Blake’s career were here to celebrate. Rhonda Brewer, whose husband, Gunter, worked with Blake at North Carolina, had gathered some of Wendy’s favorite things — custard from Andy’s, a little shop down the road, and cake. Cason asked for chocolate-covered cherries, which his mother loved.

“Wendy could only take a few bites of each,” Rhonda said, “but she loved every bite.”

It was a girl’s party — Wendy and Rhonda and Callie, a handful of other wives and friends, the dog. Blake sat in the back of the room and watched. Wendy was 90 pounds, her “Birthday Girl” tiara pulled over wisps of hair, but that smile and those bright eyes, electric and alive, she looked just like that girl he’d fallen in love with so many years ago.

It was the grace of God, Blake said, that she felt better for the party. Or, he wonders, maybe she was in pain the entire day and refused to show it. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

“She had a truly great day,” Blake said. “She looked amazing.”

The crowd departed around 9 p.m. By 11 p.m., Wendy was hurting. By 2 a.m., she told Blake she was ready to go. She took a sedative, slept a few hours. In the morning, they met with the kids. It was time.

WENDY WAS admitted to hospice on a Friday. She was on a steady stream of drugs to dull the pain, but she talked with Blake about the future. She wasn’t afraid of dying, she said. She was worried about all she’d miss.

She talked to Blake about the kids. Coleton is still figuring things out, she told him. Be patient. Give him time. When Callie got married — years from now, maybe — Wendy wanted it to be beautiful, so she made Blake promise to find help, knowing it was a task beyond a football coach’s expertise. She talked about Cason’s graduation next spring. She talked about grandchildren she’d never meet. She talked about the little house on the lake where she and Blake planned to retire. She told Blake to be nice to the cat.

“We were best friends, and we didn’t want to be apart,” Blake said. “But she had no fear. She had complete peace.”

By Saturday evening, Wendy’s pain was unbearable. More drugs.

On Sunday, the attending nurse told Blake that things were moving quickly, to be prepared.

On Monday, she told him not to leave the hospital. It wouldn’t be much longer.

Blake officially took a leave of absence from the football program that morning. He had a plan in place, but it wasn’t supposed to happen now. There was supposed to be more time — days, weeks, more.

Wendy was sedated most of the day, but woke for a few minutes in late morning. Blake brought her water, helped her adjust her pillows. He kissed her on the forehead.

“I love you,” he said.

“I love you, too.”

“Do you want to go back to sleep?”

“Yes.”

He laid her down. She closed her eyes. She didn’t wake up again. Blake was curled in bed beside her when she died late Monday night.

BLAKE HAD been the fifth Arkansas State coach in as many years when he was hired, and initially they’d found it hard to make friends in a small town that didn’t expect this coach would stay long, either. But now hundreds of folks showed up at Central Baptist Church to pay their respects, and buses lined the parking lot, more than 100 players filing out and into the chapel.

On the projection screen at the front of the church, a slideshow flipped through photos of Wendy. There she was at the beach. There she was skiing. There’s she and Blake, back at Sam Houston State. There’s Wendy, holding baby Coleton. Only a few of the photos involved football or cancer.

“I keep thinking she’ll walk in the door, like she’s been on a long vacation. I miss her every minute.”

Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson

Their pastor, Archie Mason, offered a eulogy. He talked about Wendy’s courage, about her love for people. He talked about how competitive she was even at a game of cards. He told the story of how a young student she mentored once called her “spicy” because she was so passionate. He wanted to talk about her mission, too, about what brought her to the church. Instead, he said, he wanted Wendy to tell her story.

The screen above the pulpit flickered to life, and there was Wendy. The church had recorded these videos years ago, giving congregants a chance to share their testimony. Wendy talked about growing up in Texas, about how her dad struggled with alcohol, about how her parents’ divorce shattered her world, about being dyslexic, and how it forced her to read the Bible more closely so she could understand it, about her kids and Blake and what it meant to have a family. She talked about a little of everything really. Spiderwebs. But the point she returned to, the thing she was really getting at, was that hard times are inevitable for everyone. To survive those challenges, she said, you needed to have a foundation, something to keep you steady as the rest of your world swirls into oblivion. For Wendy, that was God and her church and her family. She hoped others there would find the same solace that she did.

She’d recorded the video in February 2017, less than two weeks before her first cancer diagnosis.

BLAKE WILL coach his first game since Wendy’s death on Saturday against Georgia. The past few weeks have been hard on everyone. There’s so much work that goes into a memorial and a funeral and a burial, and then suddenly, everything is quiet and the house is empty and dark.

A week after Wendy died, Callie sent her a text. It was habit.

Every few hours, Blake picks up his phone in hopes of talking to Wendy. Sometimes he’ll actually call her phone.

“I keep thinking she’ll walk in the door, like she’s been on a long vacation,” Blake said. “I miss her every minute.”

On Saturday, Sept. 7, the Arkansas State team met in a conference room of a hotel in Las Vegas, hours before taking on UNLV. Assistant coach David Duggan, who’d filled in for Blake for the past three weeks, told players they had a special guest.

In walked Blake. The room erupted.

“It was awesome,” Blake said. “These guys have been amazing.”

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Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson returns to the team for the first time since his wife, Wendy, passed away from breast cancer.

When it was over, though, after the team took the field and marched to a dominant victory, Blake was thinking about Wendy. For 27 years, after every special moment, she’d been there to hug him.

A DAY after that long, silent car ride from Memphis, Wendy was talking about death. Well, not death, really. It started there, but … spiderwebs.

There was a massive oak tree, she said, that grew in the backyard when she was a kid, back in Texas. Limbs sprawled in all directions, one that reached almost to the ground. It was, as Wendy saw it, an invitation.

She was 3 the first time she climbed the tree. She’d been at home with a babysitter, who’d turned her loose in the yard. As soon as Wendy realized she was unsupervised, she grabbed hold of that branch, stretched for the next one, up and up, higher and higher, refusing to come back down.

The babysitter freaked, called Wendy’s mother, who drove home from work.

“That’s kind of high isn’t it?” her mother said, craning her neck to get a glimpse of her toddler.

Wendy wouldn’t budge. She was happy, high above the world. So her mother threw up her hands, went inside, and fixed lunch. Eventually, she figured, Wendy would get hungry. Nothing else was prying the girl from her tree.

What did Wendy Anderson think about death? She thought about that tree, about her mother staring up, about her view, high above the suburban Texas rooftops, out onto the horizon.

“I had no fear in the world,” Wendy said. “And I don’t think that ever changed.”

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