UMass soccer coach Sam Koch rediscovers himself through cancer battle

Last modified: Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Sam Koch’s legs hurt and he couldn’t have been much happier about it.

After spending the majority of the last 13 months in varying states of discomfort battling sinus cancer, the fact that the origin of his soreness is the natural result of a 58-year-old returning to running is reason to embrace the pain.

“I went for a run yesterday. My legs are sore today, which is the best feeling ever,” the longtime University of Massachusetts men’s soccer coach said Monday, sitting in his Boyden office.

Koch had a round of chemotherapy scheduled for Tuesday. After months of chemo and radiation, he appeared to be cancer free in January, but it returned in March prompting more chemo.

Koch said the expected length of his treatment schedule is still uncertain.

“The chemotherapy has stopped it from spreading. It’s gotten smaller, but it’s a constant battle,” Koch said. “They’re determining as we go. I just do whatever the doctors tell me to do. They keep telling me to keep doing what I’m doing. Keep walking, keep running. That’s helping not hurting. They say when you feel tired, you have to pull back. I’ve had some incredible power naps. You have to listen to your body, but keep pushing it.”

With preseason practice just over two weeks away for the Minutemen, Koch expects to be close to full strength, a peak he rarely reached last year. Even when he was feeling much worse, being on the field helped keep him going.

“Being able to coach and do what I do is a tremendous help. It’s my sanctuary. I appreciate it more,” he said. “I appreciate what our players have done. I have so much respect for guys that make it through four years here. We’re in a generation with instant gratification. For them to be able to do what they do and still wait to earn their playing time is hard. To do it here where we don’t have many frills is especially hard.”

With his energy and strength often sapped by radiation last year, Koch’s ability to push his team was inconsistent at times.

“In the middle of the all the radiation treatment, I just couldn’t (yell at them). Physically I just couldn’t do it,” said Koch, who relied heavily on veteran assistant Devin O’Neill. “Devin did a great job. Once I got over the hardest part of the treatment and was gaining my strength back, I knew I could yell at them. I think they wished I was still sick.”

This kind of joke is typical of Koch’s humor, but when he heard it, he realized the absurdity of it and adjusted: “Well, sicker than I was.”

Koch shares a sense of humor with most sitcom dads and he relishes the chance to deliver a joke, usually at his own expense. His mouth starts to smile and his eyes light up mischievously before he’s even reached the punch line. The black hairs are gone from his head and his trademark mustache, but the white ones are returning steadily, with perhaps a little help of “some turf-builder” according to him. While the darker locks didn’t return, Koch’s vibrancy certainly has, and when he breaks off a wise crack, Koch doesn’t look like a man battling anything.

He’s not taking his fight lightly though. Koch, who placed a high premium on his family before his diagnosis, has gone out of his way to make sure he’s not only spending time with his wife, Suzanne, and four children, Chris, Jeff, Ben and Katie, but relishing it.

He’s found inspiration remembering a conversation he had with former University of Portland coach Clive Charles, who died of prostate cancer in 2003.

“He was a great man and a great mentor when I was starting out. He said ‘cancer was the best thing to ever happen to him,’” Koch said. “He said if I didn’t have cancer, I never would have gotten to know my wife. I never would have gotten to know my family.”

The line didn’t really sink in until Koch’s own diagnosis.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew exactly what he was talking about,” Koch said. “I never would have gotten to realize (long pause to steady his voice) how special my wife is, how lucky I am that I found her. She is absolutely amazing. I knew my kids were special, but I wasn’t there enough. I’ve gotten to know them better.

“I’m certainly more appreciative of things. I value things a lot more,” he continued. “I realize I’m not superman and I’m not going to be here forever. I’m not sure you ever realize that until something like this happens. I hope I didn’t let things that were special go by, but I’m sure I did. I don’t do that now.”

That isn’t stopping him from making superhuman plans. When Koch graduated from college he biked across the country. He’s optimistic enough about his health and those sore legs coming around that he hopes to repeat that trip next summer.

“It’s definitely a goal. My goal is to get healthy and to get the program sorted out so I’m able to do it again next year,” Koch said. “I want to try to do the same trail that I originally did. Newport, Oregon, to Newport, Rhode Island. I want to finish the spring season and then go.”

Until then, the idea of returning to the routine of soccer is appealing. He’s eager to attack the season in hopes of bringing the Minutemen back to the Atlantic 10 tournament. While he’s appreciative of how supportive his players were last year, they shouldn’t expect him to be easy on them.

“In the end, they want me to expect things from them. They want me to be disappointed if they don’t play well,” he said. “They want to be held accountable. We have a great group of kids coming back. We’ll be back to the battling UMass teams that we haven’t been in a couple years.”

Led by a coach who certainly knows how.

Matt Vautour can be reached at Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at


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