One man’s rocky journey chasing down a dream

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Ryan Casey

He removes his cap; fingers brush past his left ear and instinctively find the scar at the base of his skull. It’s much smaller now, about the size of a half-dollar coin, and much more manageable. There are other scars: two incisions along the base of his neck, and one right below his larynx — “almost like a tracheotomy,” he shrugs. The latter serves as a reminder of the day surgeons removed samples of his lymph nodes from his chest, found them to be massively swollen and black as coal, and concluded that Mike Newton’s cancer had spread.

His eyes study the nets, artificial turf and pitching machines that serve as the final product of an 18-year dream nearly derailed by that day. Newton’s baby, the 12,000-square-foot baseball and softball training facility Extra Innings, will allow the area’s talent to train year-round — even on days like this day, when two inches of snow blanket the empty parking lot outside. It’s a facility that Newton’s wife, Leta, says is bringing him back to his roots after years of running a Boulder-based legal document support company. It’s here that Newton has removed his cap and is showing a visitor his scar.

“I thought it was an ingrown hair,” he says. “Seriously. I thought it was an ingrown hair.”

Earlier this year while on a spring break vacation, Newton noticed a cyst-like blemish on the back of his head, along his hat line. Ingrown hairs were nothing new: Newton often shaves his head, and, being an assistant on Longmont’s Silver Creek High School’s varsity team, is always in a ballcap — almost the perfect recipe. But he returned from the trip to questions from a few Silver Creek players about the cyst, which had grown. Did you hit your head? they asked.

Newton, 42, shrugged it off. He’d already been diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, a non-lethal form of skin cancer, and was due for an appointment at his dermatologist. So Newton went in for his check-up, had it removed. His doctor didn’t think much of it, either, but sent it along to be tested.

The following Wednesday, April 8, was a late-start day in the St. Vrain Valley School District. While he was at home that morning with his three kids — Capper, 13; Ashley, 11; and Jan, 5 — the phone rang. It was Newton’s dermatologist, who had an urgent tone. The test results came back as melanoma.

Sitting at his kitchen table, Newton gazed at his kids.

“They could kind of hear the change in my voice,” he says.

Still,
not knowing what this news meant — the most dangerous type of skin
cancer, melanoma is often fatal if not caught early — he assured them
it was a client from work. Newton made another appointment, and soon
was meeting with an oncologist from Rocky Mountain Cancer Center.

“He
went through my reports. I went through some scans,” Newton says, “and
he said, ‘Everything’s looking good right now. It looks like it’s going
to be a simple procedure.’” Newton laughs. “As far as that goes.”

Newton
was set for a sentinel lymph node biopsy, which would determine how far
the melanoma had spread. Before he left the appointment, there was a
final procedure to go through: a PET scan, which measures function of
the body’s organs and tissues. It can also be used to detect changes in
the body at the cellular level to determine the progression of a
disease, such as melanoma.

The next day, Newton met his surgeon for the biopsy.

“Everything
was flying fast,” Newton says. “I went from Wednesday, meeting with my
dermatologist, to meeting with the oncologist by Thursday, and then
meeting with the surgeon on Friday. I was in-and-out. Fast. And so I’m
meeting with [workers] on the build out [for Extra Innings], I’m still
working my other job at [Flatirons Document Support], and then still
helping coach at the same time — which was good. Great distraction.”

That
Friday morning — two days after his world was turned upside down —
Newton was having his pre-surgery appointment, where a nurse was taking
him through a series of questions. He’d switched off his phone while
there, so when he went to turn it on, he was greeted by a series of
voicemails. As Newton went to check them, Leta called. Mike’s
oncologist was leaving town for the weekend, but needed to speak with
him right away. He was concerned with the results of the PET scan.

Sitting
in the hospital’s lobby, Newton called his oncologist. The scan had
showed high activity in his chest, neck and abdomen. The biopsy
scheduled for the following Monday was canceled. “Everything we’re
going to do is now changed,” he was told. Newton was scheduled for an
MRI that night, the results of which would be discussed at an
appointment the following Monday. The thought doctors left Newton with
for the weekend was that the cancer may have invaded his lymphatic
system, which is the foundation of the human body’s immune system.

{::PAGEBREAK::}

The
idea for an Extra Innings in Longmont literally popped its way into the
Newtons’ lives. It was 2 a.m. on a weeknight in the summer of 2008.
Leta was working late when a popup ad for the company, advertising
franchise opportunities, found its way onto her screen. She forwarded
it to Mike, knowing that the concept — a year-round baseball and
softball facility in Colorado – was something he’d wanted to do since
he graduated from Regis University in Denver in 1991.

Mike
and Leta had met at Regis, where he was a baseball player, and she
starred in volleyball and softball — she continues to hold a few
records to this day. He was set to be an assistant on the baseball
team, “but I kind of ruined that,” Leta says with a laugh. “I made him
get a real job.” Mike did give private lessons after college, but
didn’t get back into coaching until Capper, his oldest son, was born.

“I think that just kind of rekindled everything,” Leta says.

Four years ago, Trevor Platt, the head coach at Silver Creek, was looking for a pitching coach. It was a perfect fit.

And
so, it seemed, was the opportunity in front of them in the early
morning hours of that summer day in 2008. After years away from the
sport, Mike had long wanted to return to baseball. It gave him life,
helped to soothe his stress. The chance to fully jump back in, and also
the potential as a business opportunity, couldn’t be passed up.

“It was almost like a sign,” Leta says.

“Like,
time for a change. He’s been ready for a change for several years, so
going back to his roots is going to be good for him.”

Together, they decided to fill out a franchise application, and heard from the corporate office the following morning.

They
signed papers for the franchise in late June 2008. By October, the
Newtons had found the perfect location, in a former sports warehouse
off Atwood Street and Ninth Avenue in Longmont. It wasn’t all smooth,
though. The builder working with the landlord was supposed to have
everything done by January of this year. That didn’t happen. Then, just
as the Newtons were trying to secure funding, the market collapsed.

“There
were a lot of loops we had to go through, and just the frustration of
having to wait,” Leta says. “We really wanted to open a year ago.”

Finally,
a loan secured, things moved forward again. But construction still
couldn’t be completed until this past April. It turned into a busy
month for the Newtons. Around the time Mike found out about his
melanoma, Leta learned she was pregnant with their fourth child.

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Mike
tugs on his navy Easton sweatshirt and laughs to himself. He’s just
come from a check-up MRI appointment and is reminded of that first scan
he had on the Friday the week he found out about his melanoma.

“I
was walking out the door today and I looked down, and I was literally
wearing the same clothes that I wore that day,” he says, noting his
grey sweatpants. Down to a snowstorm, Mike says, it was a near mirror
image of that day.

That day. Mike had gone from feeling totally fine, from throwing batting practice and fielding ground balls at Silver Creek, to an
uncertain future. Heading into the first weekend following his
diagnosis of melanoma, all he knew was that he had it. He and Leta
weren’t sure of the course of action doctors would recommend. Still,
she sent out an e-mail to a close group of friends with basic
information and the promise of more news Monday. Those friends sent it
to other friends, who in turn sent it to other friends.

“By that time,” Mike says, “the e-mails had just gone all over the place.”

Baseball
became Mike’s outlet. On Saturday, the day following his initial MRI,
Silver Creek’s practice was pushed into the gym because of the snow.
Arriving late after talking with well-wishers at home, Mike sat down
next to Platt, Silver Creek’s coach, who asked how he was doing.

“I
just need to be here right now,” Mike said. Then, he looked down and
noticed a flash of yellow on Platt’s wrist. It was a Livestrong
bracelet. As Mike looked around the gym, he saw every member of the
team wearing one.

“I
was taken back and I just kind of looked at them,” Mike says. “I didn’t
really say anything about it, or didn’t mention it, until we got done
with practice, and coach (Platt) goes, ‘I ran by Dick’s and got that,
is that OK?’ I said, ‘That’s more than OK. I really appreciate it.’” As
it turns out, every team Mike was involved with — from his son’s
sixthgrade team on up — did the same thing, with some also wearing
yellow sweatbands during games.

“It was emotional just seeing how many people were supporting us in what we were going through,” Leta says.

A
life-long fan of country music, Mike stopped listening to it altogether
after Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” came on the radio. He said I was in my early 40s, the song starts, with a
lot of life before me. And one moment came that stopped me on a dime. I
spent most of the next days, looking at the X-rays, talking about the
options and talking about sweet times. Listening from his office that day, Mike got up and walked down Boulder Creek to gather his thoughts, as he often does.

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Monday
came, and along with it, the results of the MRI. Mike was told, with
certainty, that he had melanoma, and that he was “all lit up like a
Christmas tree” with high activity in his chest, abs and neck. What
doctors didn’t know with certainty, though, was if the melanoma had
spread to his lymphatic system, requiring experimental drugs and things
like biochemotherapy, or if Mike had lymphoma, which would have a more
defined course of treatment. Because Mike’s case was so unusual, they
planned on taking it to a tumor board, made up of a group of
oncologists, pathologists and surgeons.

Full
of questions, Mike couldn’t hold back. “So what are you telling me?” he
asked. “Do I have days? Do I have years? Do I have months? Let’s get to
the nittygritty. What do I got?” “Could be months, could be years,” was
the response he got. “Just don’t know,depending on what it is.”

The
Newtons’ only option was to sit and wait for the opinion of the tumor
board. Mike, furious with feeling helpless, went back to his office at
Flatirons Document Support, where he ran into his mother.

“I’m pissed,” he told her. “Good,” she said. “That’s what you need to be.”

“One way or another,” he vowed, “this thing’s getting out of my body.”

As the tumor board mulled his case over, neither Mike nor Leta heard a bit of news for a week and a half.

“Nothing,” Mike says. “Dead silence.

That
was hard. And I was calling about every other day to see what was going
on … calling the oncology and calling the surgeons — all that stuff —
to say, ‘OK, what are we doing? What are we doing? What are we doing?’
Here you move me rapid speed and all of a sudden you stop me. We waited
and waited and waited and waited.”

Life settled back to its former self over that span.

“You
knew in the back of your mind it was still there, but it was like
everything was normal,” Leta says. “So just waiting to know what our
next step was was very difficult. You felt like life was the same, but
it really wasn’t.”

Sleep didn’t come easy for Mike during that time.

“It
was just crazy,” he says. “A few late nights. A few sleepless nights.
Quite a few. Wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning. I’d go downstairs,
turn on the TV, fall asleep. I had to get my mind on something else. My
mind was just going. Then about an hour later, go back up and go to
bed.” He laughs at the memory. “Or, at that point in time, I’d just
stay up and go into work.”

The
community that was baseball engulfed the family. Some would share
survival stories, which was something Mike greatly appreciated. One
player’s grandmother shared how she’d beaten melanoma, how they’d taken
a piece of her arm. “Look at me!” she said, arm held high over a smile.
“I’m still here.”

He’d turn around, then think, This is in my lymph nodes. They can’t take all those out. But
Mike’s duties as an assistant coach at Silver Creek, and the sport of
baseball as a whole, Leta says, “probably kept him sane.”

“There
were days where he would be coming from work and he would call me and
he would just be in tears, because he didn’t know if he was going to be
gone and if our kids were going to have a father in a matter of
months,” she adds. “So it was hard. He would call me in tears on the
way to the baseball field, and the baseball field just allowed him to
escape. He could be out there and just be one of the guys and joke
around and escape it all.”

Finally,
the phone rang. The tumor board had agreed that the best course of
action was a surgery that went down Mike’s trachea, next to his heart,
and removed four lymph nodes for testing. Lymph nodes, which act as a
filter for the body’s lymphatic system, often “catch” cancerous cells and
thus serve as a good measure as to whether the cancer has spread. There
are about 600 lymph nodes in a human body.

Mike
finally had a concrete plan as to what his team of doctors was going to
do. His first surgery was May 20, and just before he was put under, his
surgeon laid out exactly what was ahead. There were two very likely
scenarios: the melanoma had spread to his lymphatic system, or it was
another form of cancer, such as lymphoma.

There was also a third, “very, very small chance,” the surgeon added, “that it’s nothing.”

It
was during this hour-and-a-half surgery that the massive, blackened
lymph nodes were removed from Mike’s body. The consensus in the OR was
the same: Not good.

{::PAGEBREAK::}

In the waiting room, Leta’s mind wandered.

She
was in the early stages of pregnancy, at a point when she needed her
husband the most. Yet here she was, sitting in a hospital while her
husband was undergoing exploratory surgery to see if cancer had spread
further into his body.

“Not
only the fact that I wasn’t feeling well — I had morning sickness — but
I wanted to be there for him,” Leta says. “He was sick, and I needed to
let him lean on my shoulders.”

Briefly, she contemplated the possible repercussions of news that could be coming her way in a matter of minutes.

“I
fully expected them to come out and tell me it was melanoma [that had
spread],” Leta says. “I was basically just praying for lymphoma.”

“I didn’t know if I was going to be a widow with four kids,” she adds. “I really just didn’t even want to think about it.”

Leta’s
pregnancy also gave the family another focal point during the initial
months of Mike’s diagnosis. “It turned out to be a blessing in
disguise,” Mike says.

“It’s meant to be,” he adds. “That’s all there is to it. It was just meant to be.”

Midway through Mike’s surgery, a surgeon burst into the waiting room. Clearly, the news could not wait.

His first words changed everything. Again.

“It’s not cancer,” he said, referring to the lymph nodes.

Leta
was floored. “I think I was as emotional hearing that as I would’ve
been hearing it was melanoma,” she says. “It was a huge weight lifted.”

When
Mike woke up from the surgery in the recovery room — albeit in a
sedated state — Leta was on the phone around the corner. Upon noticing
him, she hurriedly hung up.

“She
looks at me,” Mike says, “and she goes, ‘It’s great news! It’s great
news! You’re fine! You’re fine!’ I said, ‘What do you mean I’m fine?’”
The cancer hadn’t spread to his lymphatic system, nor did Mike have
lymphoma. Instead, he was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an immune
deficiency in which his body removes toxins, butdoesn’t flush them out, causing his lymph nodes to swell.

On
his follow-up appointment, his doctor simply raised both hands and
yelled, “Yes!” A major hurdle cleared, Mike still had melanoma. A
week-and-a-half later, in the first week of June, he was set for
another surgery — which was the initial surgery the team had planned
before scrapping it for the first procedure: a sentinel lymph node
biopsy. Again, surgeons found nothing.

“All coming down to it, my dermatologist removed everything at that point in time, as far as the tumor goes,” Mike says.

His
next major hurdle is a two-year window he needs to clear in which he’ll
go in for scans, blood work and other tests at three-month intervals to
ensure that the melanoma doesn’t return.

Slowly,
the size of the scar on the back of his head is being reduced through
visits to a plastic surgeon. What was once covering nearly the entire
back of Mike’s skull is now the size of a coin. Eventually, the hope is
to get it down to a minimally invasive, and entirely unnoticeable, size.

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Behind Mike, the front door to Extra Innings swings open. It’s a deliveryman, arms full of boxes.

“You can always tell which ones are the bats,” he says, nodding toward the longest of the bunch as he signs for the packages.

It’s
the day before Extra Innings’ grand opening, and the to-do list is
whittling down. The pro shop is now fully stocked, all eight batting
cages are ready for use, but Mike is on his way out to pick up signs he
ordered. It’s almost as if they’re the final hurdle. After all the
delays, all the tests, all the surgeries, after 18 years of dreaming,
the facility is set to open.

“It
was just one thing after another,” says Leta, now the proud mom of
fourweek-old Colt, “and [the opening] was kind of just like seeing the
light at the end of the tunnel.”

The
new business now stands as a monument of sorts to everything the
Newtons have overcome in 2009. Mike remembers a time between his
surgeries when he walked into the facility while it was still being
built and only had a few interior walls standing. No nets, no fences.
Just walls.

“I
finally had a chance to get it going,” he says. “I don’t want to use
the word, ‘cheated,’ but it was almost like, ‘OK. What other road block
are we going to run into next?’ “I was just in here, walking around,”
he adds, glancing about the facility, “and I was just like, ‘This is
going to get done.’” Extra Innings had been a project, but, like Leta’s
pregnancy, it was also a focal point, an outlet, an escape. And
scrapping those plans had never even been an option.

“No,” Leta says, quickly, decisively.

“Never. No. We never even discussed it.”