By Kris Henry
Eric Guyer’s tale is a cautionary one, but one that hopefully results in a happy ending for all involved.
The St. Mary’s boys basketball head coach just didn’t feel right following a late-July workout with his team. Guyer had chest pains and found himself sweating for no reason, almost as if he had the flu, and chalked it up as heartburn.
Those unusual feelings stuck with him for a couple days but instead of playing the role of tough guy, which is so easily done for anyone in their early 40s, Guyer sought medical help.
And that quick action may have saved his life.
Guyer underwent an echocardiogram which showed some irregularities and necessitated a whirlwind experience that found him taking an emergency ambulance to Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center for open-heart surgery.
“Essentially what had happened is I had an aneurysm,” said Guyer on Monday, fully recovered from the procedure. “My aorta ruptured at 9 centimeters where it should have been 2½ centimeters and so I got a replacement valve on Aug. 3 and I came out of it fine and I couldn’t be happier with it all.”
Every bit of it came as a surprise to Guyer and just about anyone who is around the affable coach, who also manages the Community Justice Transition Center for Jackson County in Talent.
“It wasn’t the type of thing anyone saw coming,” said Guyer, who turned 42 just after being released from the hospital. “We’re active and healthy in my family and eat very well. My wife (Jill’s) cooking couldn’t be more in line for a heart-healthy diet and I don’t drink and don’t smoke. All the right things were in place and yet here comes this unhealthy outcome.”
In the days following his surgery, basketball was the least of anyone’s concerns given the gravity of the situation. St. Mary’s athletic director Adam Peterson and assistant coach Greg Conway, among others, kept in close contact with the Guyer family throughout the process.
“He’s lucky to be alive so all of us are incredibly thankful for that,” said Conway, who also serves as a pediatrician at Southern Oregon Pediatrics. “What he went through was a huge deal. That was always the first priority for all of us was that he’s OK. Once we got through that, it was all about wanting these boys on the team to have a great senior experience this year and trying to bring along our younger guys however we could.”
When Guyer’s health appeared to be improving thanks to his surgery, then came time to focus on his passion of coaching basketball and, more importantly, what could be done to make sure the Crusaders had the best possible experience for the 2015-16 campaign.
“Our message from the outside to him was that this is just a bump in the road, worry about you and your family and we’ll just treat this as a one-year leave of absence,” said Peterson.
When that seemed like an agreeable solution, it didn’t take long for Guyer to suggest his replacement in Conway, whose son Eli is one of 10 seniors on the Crusaders’ roster and was a lead assistant under Guyer as well as his predecessor, Braden Benton. Conway has coached the bulk of St. Mary’s roster from sixth grade to now.
“It was such a natural fit,” Guyer said of Conway. “He knows all these kids and has been involved with them since sixth grade. He’s certainly been super-involved with everything we did this summer. We couldn’t be luckier with how everything turned out.”
“In terms of coaching with me,” added Guyer, “Greg has done so much in developing our style of play and in terms of teaching these kids. He’s been a key voice and key player in what he’s done so the X’s and O’s pieces are there. He’s a great communicator, has high energy and a huge heart for these kids, along with a great basketball mind.”
It’s actually a bigger task than one might think given the preseason optimism surrounding this St. Mary’s boys squad.
The Crusaders return their entire starting lineup, as well as a handful of top reserves, from a unit that shared the program’s first conference title since 2010. St. Mary’s missed out on its first trip to the state playoffs since 2010 when the 16-8 Crusaders fell short against Cascade Christian in a Southern Cascade League playoff that included Rogue River.
“He definitely didn’t leave the cupboard bare, he left it overflowing,” Conway said with a laugh.
Michael Crennen, a 6-foot-5 center, and Connor Vinyard, a 6-4 forward, were each first-team all-SCL selections one year ago, and Eli Conway was co-defensive player of the year. Seniors Tyler West and Kele Eaton each earned all-conference honors for the deep and versatile Crusaders.
“It’s very rare at a 3A school to have eight guys who have three years of varsity experience together and that’s what we have this year,” said coach Conway. “Our hope is that we’re going to have a lot of success this year and we’re doing our best to prepare for that. Cascade Christian and Rogue River are both very good, though, so we know we have no easy walk this year. But if we can get into the playoffs, I think anybody from our league can make some noise.”
In a way, that’s what makes it that much harder for someone like Guyer, who knows full well what the Crusaders are capable of achieving.
“The one thing I’ll tell you that has been hard is being away from those kids,” he said. “I miss the way those kids interact, it’s a lot of fun and meaningful and neat to be a part of. While there’s definitely part of me that feels it’s tough to be away from them, they’ve been great on how they treat me and how they keep me connected. The entire St. Mary’s community has really gone above and beyond with how much they’ve supported me.”
Guyer made the trip this past weekend to watch the Crusaders in action, seeing the first two games of the 61st annual Yreka Invitational before family responsibilities called him home on Saturday, when St. Mary’s wrapped up an undefeated tournament with a 54-45 win over Del Norte.
“It’s going to be a great year for the Crusaders,” said Guyer of the 3-0 squad. “They’re going to be able to play in packed gyms and have one heck of a schedule. I still think the sky’s the limit for this crew and I just can’t wait to see it unfold.”
Watching from the stands has provided a nice perspective for Guyer, who is all about new perspectives these days.
“It’s easier for me to appreciate what those kids do and enjoy it being away from the bench,” he said. “I can just go out and take in what they do and it’s really been impressive what they can do.”
As for the future, Peterson said Guyer is the boys basketball coach for the future if he’s willing and his doctors give him the OK, and Conway has no qualms about reclaiming his assistant’s role.
For now, though, Guyer is just appreciative of all the support he’s received and that he has options at all after making it through such a traumatic event.
“It really took me back and it was life changing in so many ways,” he said. “It quickly instilled what is important and what your focus is and should be.”
“I also think it’s important for people to know that they should get checked when something comes up with their health and take care of business,” added Guyer, “because with these things you never really know, and you don’t want to take chances. Here in the Rogue Valley we have the best surgeons and the best care anyone could hope for so we’re all really lucky.”
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