Bill Speltz: Cancer-stricken coach reminds us all about value of high school sports (2024)

Bill Speltz

Missoulian sports editor

MISSOULA— The spring sports season came and went with lots of trophies and medals handed out to Montana high school athletes in late May.

Chances are good you never heard anything about Paul Yarbrough, assistant coach for the Missoula Hellgate softball team.

Nothing about how he drove two hours round trip every day, from Superior to the Rattlesnake field, for practice and games. Nothing about how he did so while battling bladder cancer.

Nothing about how he continued to make it to home and away games even after it became too difficult to attend May practices because of chemotherapy.

Yarbrough wasn't driving all that way and devoting all that time because he knew the Knights were destined for a championship. He wasn't doing it because his granddaughter was on the team, either.

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The 69-year-old did it because he wanted to join in the fun and help out. The Knights won one measly game, but Yarbrough basked on the glow of the girls' positivity and they basked in the glow of his unshakeable optimism.

"You don't need somebody to pat you on the back when you're 4 for 4 or you're striking out 15. It's when you're 0 for 4 and you're getting belted," Yarbrough told 406 MT Sports.

"And that's what they did for me, too. They uplifted me."

The Hellgate players surprised Yarbrough with balloons and "Together for Coach Paul" bracelets after his first chemo treatment in late April. That's the trophy he'll never chuck in the trash.

In this crazy, cruel world, where life is constantly throwing curve balls and some are headed right for your melon, it's nice to know someone other than family truly cares. Because I guarantee, we're all going to get beaned and suffer through losing streaks sooner or later.

Wearing scarlet from head to toe and coaching third base has made Paul's spring much better than it might have been otherwise. He's one of those sports enthusiasts that seems to enjoy every moment of every day — even when it's early April and overcast with a wind chill around 28 degrees and the Knights are trailing, 15-0.

"Almost universally, I've found the top memory for high school athletes is not about a game they won," he offered. "It's about the bus trip to Butte or Flathead or wherever. That's where they're bonding."

This sports scribe can certainly relate to the struggles of the Hellgate softball team. I played on struggling teams all through high school.

Winless football teams, doormat baseball teams, hapless basketball and tennis teams ... It got to the point where my favorite part of playing sports was simply hanging out with my buddies. Such a wild concept, I know, for those who refuse to accept anything less than a championship.

I wouldn't change a damn thing. The memories made with teammates and coaches will never tarnish.

We all get to control how we handle things after stumbling. It's been my experience that Yarbrough, whom I consider a friend, is just a little better at it than most.

He's focused on getting well these days. He receives chemo treatments next door to Fort Missoula and the softball complex where he served as public address announcer for the state tournament two years ago.

His dream is to help get Hellgate back to state someday. He can't help thinking about it while he peers out the window receiving his treatments.

It's not just the softball coaching that makes Yarbrough a beloved figure in Missoula. For eight years he's been the voice of the Knights, delivering silky-smooth announcements as public address man for football, volleyball, soccer and girls and boys basketball.

Unless you stop to say hello, he's probably someone you've simply taken for granted. Few realize he was also a beloved figure doing PA chores in Oregon or that he was once an important part of newsrooms for The Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, and the Santa Barbara News-Press in California.

Even today, with all he's endured, planning his life around chemo treatments and bladder removal surgery in the fall, high school sports are still near the top of his priority list. God willing, he'll be ready for football, volleyball and soccer season and he'll be there with bells on when the state cross country meet returns to Missoula in November.

He hears from well-wishers and it warms his heart. Not just those with Hellgate ties, but caring souls from Missoula Sentinel and Missoula Big Sky. Plus there's some from his days doing PA duties for the Missoula Mavericks and that one year he served as radio voice for Montana Lady Griz basketball.

Today, I'm presenting my first-place medal to Paul Yarbrough. Not that I have one to give. But if I did ...

He has given a lot of us something that has so much more lasting impact than winning. He sets a shining example with his hope in the face of adversity.

You don't have to wear Hellgate scarlet and gold to admire that kind of character.

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Bill Speltz: Cancer-stricken coach reminds us all about value of high school sports (2)

Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor. Email Bill atbill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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Bill Speltz

Missoulian sports editor

Bill Speltz: Cancer-stricken coach reminds us all about value of high school sports (2024)

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