This is not a story about a basketball coach, but that’s probably why you’ve heard of Langley’s Travis Hess.
He’s the guy who has cut down countless nets in celebrations throughout his seven-year career as the leader of the Saxons’ boys’ basketball team.
This is a story about Hess. A Pennsylvania-native, the 31-year-old just wants to be known — for the rest of his life — as a father.
Hess and his wife, Suzanne, 37, became parents a little more than one year ago — welcoming their daughter, Gianna.
She had the same spiky, dark hair as her father. She had some of the same broad features of the man who teaches six math classes each year for the high school on the edge of Fairfax County. She was the most important child in the life of a man who works with nearly 200 children each year in statistics and Algebra 2. A man students don’t hesitate to call “one of the coolest teachers at school.”
His players, like senior Joey Robinson, saw how much Hess enjoyed being a father.
They also saw, after the last game of the regular season on Feb. 10, a man who was scared to death.
Gianna was in the hospital. An ultrasound revealed a mass the size of a grapefruit on her liver. A CT scan and MRI showed spots on her lungs. A father’s worst nightmare was realized during a Feb. 21 biopsy.
Cancer.A rare form of childhood cancer called hepatoblastoma — what Hess called a one-in-a-million disease — had advanced to Stage Four.
He was told Gianna had a chance of survival, but one even the statistics teacher couldn’t really get his mind around because of all the variables. One doctor told the coach, using a sports term, “you’ve got a shot, and it’s not just a Hail Mary.”
The first of six rounds of chemotherapy treatments at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia began almost immediately. A long trip every three weeks, with maintenance doses given locally, but Hess wanted to be certain his daughter became well-known at one of the few facilities in the country that had successfully treated the disease.
On top of all this, the Hess family’s second child, Jackson, had been born in January, a few weeks premature.
With one child needing to be fed almost hourly and another, her formerly bushy hair falling out in clumps and requiring hourly doses of medication, Hess passed the reins of the basketball team to assistant coach Scott Newman.
The Saxons tried their best, using what their coach was going through for motivation, but the 2012 season didn’t end with a net-cutting ceremony.
But according to Robinson, that’s OK.
“One thing it’s taught me is to keep things in perspective all the time — to think about how much worse it could be. Be appreciative of what you do have going for you,” Robinson said.
And Robinson, his teammates and classmates felt like they needed to do something for the coach who had helped them so much. The students, with some help from their parents, began selling neon-green colored shoelaces, wristbands and T-shirts to heighten awareness of childhood cancer. They gained some support from an organization that supports the fight against pediatric cancer called “Go 4 the Goal” (go4thegoal.org) that has helped their efforts, too.
Hess — who said he and his wife have good health insurance through Fairfax County and his wife’s job with the Alexandria City schools — still will need to deal with thousands of dollars of co-pays and travel expenses. But he’s not as worried about that as he is about his daughter’s health.
Ruthie Robinson, Joey’s mother, said more than 5,000 pairs of laces have been sold. Donations are coming in via PayPal. The Hesses have been named beneficiaries of the May 20 Joe Casella Foundation 5K, which raised more than $25,000 last year. Even students from rival schools such as McLean, have been wearing the laces in support of Gianna.
Hess, sitting in his office, deep inside the Langley locker room, worked through all of his feelings about his situation during an hour-long interview; in-between texts to his wife about a new fever Gianna was dealing with and phone calls to their doctor. Tears welled in his eyes talking about his daughter’s pain, and how they now have a similar hairstyle.
“It’s no life for a baby,” he said.
“All the things I used to get mad about — traffic, waiting in lines, students not understanding concepts because they’re not paying attention in class — none of those things matter,” he said. “It could always be worse. I’m hopeful that through my story parents go home and tell their kids they love them an extra time.”
Hess explained how appreciative he and his family are for the support from the school and the Langley, Great Falls and McLean communities.
“You know that your family loves you, and you know the people you work with love and respect you,” he said. “But you don’t know the level until something awful happens. That’s kind of where we are. It’s taken this to make us see how deeply people cared about us.”
He paused as tears formed again.
“I have every letter. Every card. Every email. And I’m going to personally thank everyone when I get a chance. When this is all over.”
Thomas Van Wazer, one of the top basketball players at McLean the past few seasons, said Hess’ experience has colored his perception of the rivalry between the schools.
“It’s no longer about basketball. It’s about the help they need and the support you want to give,” he said. “There’s stuff more important than just the rivalry. Sometimes the schools take it a little bit too far. Those people are actual people too, on the other side.”
But basketball still will be important, Hess said. A mental image he carries with him is one of the Saxons winning the Liberty District tournament next year, of him cutting down the net while holding a healthy Gianna in his arms.
But at the same time, he thinks maybe this ordeal will clear up a misconception about kids from Langley.
“Maybe that’s what I want people to really understand,” Hess said. “There’s a perception of this community and of this school that is completely wrong. That it’s filled with arrogant kids who have money, and their parents have money and throw their weight around and put pressure on kids and coaches, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“This school is filled with wonderful, caring, giving kids that have far exceeded what I ever thought a high school kid was capable of doing — helping a teacher and a coach. And they just happen to have parents who are financially successful. I’m very fortunate to be a part of this community and this school.
“I pray every night, and I wasn’t a really religious guy before this happened. The first thing I do is thank God for all of the blessings. … All of the people who have come into my life to help me are a blessing. And I’m grateful for that every day.”