If I Could Be Like…Coach Mike
06/10/2016 08:00AM ● Published by Robert Frey
By Scott Brazda / Brad Kemp Photography
“When you go down, that’s when you need your team.
When you go down, that’s not when you walk away from them.
When you go down, that’s when you need their help.
You need their support and you need their love.
In the bad times…. is when you need your team.”
– Coach Michael Lotief
Ragin’ Cajuns Softball
In 13 seasons at the helm of the Ragin’ Cajuns Softball team, Coach Michael Lotief had certainly faced his share of adversity: player departures, painful losses and the ongoing challenge of keeping up with the other elite programs in the country. Whenever the world ‘health’ came up, it always involved one of his athletes, at least until the spring of 2015.
“I had never been put in that position where I’ve got to miss a practice, or a game, or not be around my team,” says Lotief. “The paradox was, first, whether or not to take the larynx out and the second was, ‘What do I do with... with this team?’ I had never been put in that position where I’ve got to miss a practice or a game or not be around my team.”
What Coach Mike had was an upper respiratory infection that ended up being pneumonia, and from that, a paralyzed left vocal chord and an infected larynx that had almost stopped working. There were clearly some serious issues going on, issues that Lotief soon realized transcended the sport of softball. “We think this is life-and-death out here (gestures toward field), and hey, it’s you against me. For two-and-a-half hours, we’re getting after each other. But you realize when you walk outside of this place, there’s a whole other world going on, too that has some permanent consequences.”
The true beginning of Lotief’s health issues – with, as he says, potentially permanent consequences – can be traced to his college days of 30 years ago. That’s when Lotief was diagnosed with cancer, specifically a tumor in his nasal pharnyx, the part of the throat that is behind the mouth and right above the esophagus and trachea. “I was 20 years old and as part of my treatment in the 80s, they radiated me (gesturing from his nose to the top of his chest) from here to here. That’s the problem now, residual affects from the radiation, not the tumor.”
Back to spring 2015, Lotief’s esophagus had closed. Doctors wanted to take care of things right then and there, but Lotief stubbornly refused. It was just a week later that he was rushed to the hospital because the infection and the pneumonia were wreaking havoc on the major organs and now everything was shutting down. “And I kept telling ‘em, ‘I need to get back. My girls need me.’ It was April – the heart of the season.”
Lotief, well on his way to yet another season of 40 plus wins, was back within a week and never missed a practice at Lamson Park after that. “But a lot of people said, ‘Why don’t you just walk away for the rest of the season and take care of your health?’ That was the prevailing advice that most people gave me: ‘Walk away.’”
But walking away from his girls was the furthest thing from the coach’s mind. Coaching and interacting with the likes of Lexie Elkins, Jordan Wallace and Shellie Landry, he says, was the greatest medicine of all. “And I tell you what people don’t realize is, being with the team helped me take care of my health. People don’t understand this, what you might call, this insanity.”
Thing is, though, Lotief’s doctors didn’t want him to travel and so for the first time, he missed road games at Appalachian State, Oregon and UL Monroe. The first week of being without his players was tough, he says, but when he told the team, they simply responded that they were going to keep it going, they were going to soldier on. “Those kids are amazing; they are amazing,” he smiles. “The way they love me, the way they care for me. We call it a ‘sisterhood’ and the ‘sisterhood’ is strong here.”
Having to stay at home gave Lotief time to do some self-examination. He knew he had to take a break, knew that he wasn’t able to put himself emotionally and physically through a game. “People think that coaching, you just sit there, but it’s very physical,” explains Lotief. “At the end of the game, you’ve put everything you have into it and at that time in my life I didn’t have anything to put in. Even sitting at home, I’m not sure I even invested emotionally into the games. Maybe I’d just turn it down or turn it off and sometimes I just went walking, took a ride or went to church. Seems like when I struggle, it always traces back to my faith.”
There were other lessons learned. Lotief, having attended Teurlings Catholic High and USL, knew about Acadiana’s caring spirit, but his health crisis enabled him to experience that love first-hand. “You coach because that’s what you love to do. But then you get so much back from our community, our fans, from people you don’t even know. There were people coming up to me telling me they appreciate me, they love me, they’re pulling for me, they’re praying for me and to keep fighting. It’s just amazing.”
But while he appreciated the good wishes, hugs and prayers, Lotief was adamant about one other thing: He didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him. If anything, in fact, he wanted his fans and supporters to take a step back, take a breath and realize there were so many people in need.
“You know, you sit in the hospital or in a doctor’s office and you’re able to take a look at all of the pain, all of the suffering, all of the loneliness, all of the brokenness. And although it gives you an appreciation for the love and support that we have, it also needs to bring awareness, not only to my team but to the community, that we need to get out of our comfort zone sometimes and make sure that we connect with, have empathy with, walk with a lot of people in our own community that are broken and suffering and hurting.”
Lotief returned to full-time duty when the Ragin’ Cajuns took part in the 2015 NCAA Regionals and Super-Regionals and every step of the way his admiration and love grew and grew for those who wore the team uniform. “One, it’s our competitive spirit,” smiles Lotief, “but I think it’s deeper than that. It’s this assurance that if something bad happens to me, you’ve got my back.”
This past summer, Lotief had a trachea tube inserted into his windpipe, but it didn’t slow him down for long: he was back with his girls in time for fall practice. He can’t quite yell the way he used to, but he’s raspily doing his very best. “I yell, but they don’t hear me. Those girls, the sweetest girls in the world, give me a hard time. And I love it.”
And what do the doctors say? “Who knows?” he laughs. “But I’m blessed. I don’t have cancer. I feel good. They still want to take the larynx out because it is damaged, obviously, and the vocal chord is paralyzed and it’s not going to come back and the scar tissue is there. But I’m not gonna’ do it. As long as I have a voice and the vocal chords are working, even if it’s 20 percent, 25 percent… how many years until they stop working? When they stop working, then I’ll take ‘em out.”
As of this writing, Season 14 as head coach (and season 16 with the program) finds Ragin’ Cajuns Softball Coach Michael Lotief in a familiar position: his club is ranked in the Top 10 and is considered one of the top contenders for the national title. But there are moments that Lotief ponders a life after softball. “Did I think about quitting? Sure. I realize now more than ever that there is an ending. There is an exit coming – there is an...endgame.”
None of this is to say that Michael Lotief plans on checking out any time soon. If it’s up to him, he says he’ll coach forever. But the health issues of the 1980s and the repercussions of those issues in the 2010s have given him an altogether new perspective. “You’re not shocked by mortality and you spend a lot of time reflecting, a lot of time trying to find meaning and purpose. So it’s not like it’s gonna’ hit me like a ton of bricks.”
All of which leads to a carpe diem sort of mantra for Coach Mike.
“In fact, I’m grateful for today; that’s kind of the way I look at it. I get another day, rather than ‘when’s my last day gonna’ be?’ I get this day. It’s all lagniappe today.”