The kids knew. Oh yes, last spring, they knew. The kids on Casa's basketball team knew how much James Forni loved to coach, loved coaching them, actually. They knew how those cancer treatments sapped his strength. They could see it in his movements, in his weight loss. But he didn't back off. Forni made all 28 games. He only missed three practices. He pushed himself and, in the process, he ended up pushing them.
He pushed them to think beyond their own immediate desires. Coach, how come I'm not playing more? Why do we have to run so much in practice? Why can't I take that shot? Huh? Huh? Huh? Those questions and so many others — so typical in youth sports — were never asked. Through his sheer energy and determination, Forni made them see a world much larger than the adolescent one they were inhabiting, the one of instant gratification.
"They never complained," Forni said. "They knew they couldn't."
How could they, really? They never saw their coach feel sorry for himself. And the more information they acquired, the more they learned what had happened to him, what was happening to him and what could happen to him, the more James Forni became more than just a coach. He became a symbol. Of what courage looks like.
"He's fighting all the time," said Casa guard Brycen Poarch. "He's putting out 100 percent. We need to do the same thing. He has helped me and the team, to make us more mature. This can happen to anybody, regardless of what age you are."
Weeks before his 28th birthday, in March 2007, Forni went in for a routine physical. At 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, Forni was the picture of health. His life was on schedule. He was teaching and coaching at the high school he graduated from in 1998. He had played football and basketball at Casa, was a tight end at the College of Marin, a wide receiver at the University of Redlands and a football walk-on at the University of Oregon. To Forni, there was beauty, grace, health and satisfaction in athletic movement.
"There's a spot in the middle of your back," his wife, Mary, told him. "Have the doctor check it out."
Sure, OK, whatever. It was a spot, irregular, dark.
"The doctor had examined me," Forni said. "I was leaving his office when I remember saying, by the way. ..."
His doc took a sample of the growth. Again, whatever. Forni was in San Diego with Casa's other athletic director, Rick O'Brien, when the lab results came back. Melanoma. The growth was removed in May of 2007. Forni was injected with radioactive dye. Six lymph nodes were removed. All tested negative.
"Felt like I got a clean bill of health," Forni said. "I was under the assumption it was over. I had check-ups every three months. I was told later I fell under the 96 percentile of success."
Aggressive therapy applied
In June of 2011 Forni was taking a shower and felt a lump under his right armpit. It was the size of a softball.