Newport coach fights for his life, reaches for his goals
Mother's Day a few years back, and Jeff Hansen is walking the Poo Poo Point Trail in Issaquah. He is joined by his girlfriend at the time, her sister, her nephew and his girlfriend's mom.
None has ever been to the scenic view at the top of Poo Poo Point.
About halfway through the hike, the sister and mom stop. They're done. Jeff's girlfriend asks what he wants to do.
"I'm not turning around," he said, almost offended at the idea. "We came all the way out here to get to the top. That's the goal of hiking: To get to the top and get the reward. Walking through the trees, you don't get the reward. You get the reward at the top."
Worse, he thinks it sets a bad example for his girlfriend's nephew: You achieve what you set out to do. At the top of the point later that day, Jeff, his girlfriend and her nephew watch paragliders soar into the distance.
Much of life is lived in the trees, and we cherish the moments when we get above them and experience the reward.
In a tiny, sweaty locker room at Newport High School on Tuesday, after a loser-out boys basketball game, Jeff Hansen, recipient of a heart transplant and in need of a new kidney, once again climbed above the trees.
Tackling his fears
When faced with his own mortality, certain things became more important in Hansen's life.
He wanted to get certified in scuba diving, so he did. He wanted to learn how to surf, and he did that too. He wanted to get a pug and now has two. And he wanted to coach basketball.
More than that, he wanted to reach the state tournament. A graduate of Newport, Hansen played basketball in high school but never made state. He wanted to experience that, to feel it.
Those goals came into focus when his health started turning nearly a decade ago. He had a heart transplant in 2006, and he's waiting on a kidney transplant he thinks will come this year.
His biggest fear is not death but striking up conversation with random women. "I'm not good at that," he says smiling, "but who is really?"
His parents don't like to hear him say it, but he understands that organ transplants only last so long. He's 37 and doesn't expect to use his retirement plan.
"I'm going to be really lucky to hit 50," he says. "But if I lived in doubt, I'd still be putting stuff off. If anything, it's made me act swiftly with the things I want to get done and experience."
Hansen once tried to write a movie script about his life. After piecing together his story, he had to stop. He tried to fictionalize certain parts, including adding a romantic interest – he is no longer with his longtime girlfriend – but that didn't solve what he viewed as a greater problem with the narrative.
"It's more depressing than it is uplifting," he says. "People hear heart transplant and kidney transplant and stop there. It's just so overwhelming as it is. But they don't know all the little things that happened in between."
When Hansen was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in January 2004, he also had to get an appendectomy that April. In September that year, he had painful shingles on his back.
He once lost nearly all mobility with his right arm when calcium deposits formed in his elbow. He is a master at using Web MD and only half-jokingly says that he should have an honorary PhD after his name. He spent so much time in the hospital, he was allowed to pick his own nurses and estimates that his insurance company has spent more than a $1 million on him.
"I'm a millionaire who doesn't have any money," he says. "But what it's bought me is a second chance at life."
Hansen isn't always so open with his story. In fact, before Tuesday's game, he wasn't sure if he'd ever brought up his conditions with this Newport team. He wants to be Jeff, not Jeff, The Guy With The Heart Transplant.
In some ways, his illnesses have robbed his identity.
But it's not that way at basketball practice. Many of the younger players only knew Hansen's story from asking the older guys or because head coach Steve Haizlip quietly informed them two weeks ago.
"He doesn't want anyone to feel sorry for him," Haizlip says. "On days when he's having a really hard time, he still comes to practice and you never know. That's the most amazing thing to me."
There are days when Hansen feels severely nauseous. There are days when his body aches, and the last thing he wants to do is answer routine questions about how he's feeling.
"It's almost like, ‘Are you going to die tomorrow or what?'" Hansen says. "That's what it feels like to me. I always turn around and am like, 'How are you doing?' Dude, I'm fine."
When he gets in his car and heads for basketball practice, Hansen swears the game does something his prescription pills can't always do. "It's almost like I take a magic pill," he says. "I'm truly the happiest guy there."
Players throw their arms around him. They'll jokingly push him around or put their hands on his shoulders. He is quiet, often sitting under the basket and watching with his arms folded. Later, he sends Haizlip texts with his analysis.
"We love Jeff," Newport senior Isaac Dotson says. "We love him to death."
And so when Haizlip gathered his team after the Knights lost to Bothell on Feb. 5, he added to the team's already high stakes. With the loss, Newport would have to winfour loser-out games to make regionals (formerly the state playoffs).
Then Haizlip told his players about Hansen's bucket list.
Winning means something different to everyone, and Newport's 66-55 victory against Mount Vernon in a winner-to-regionals game Tuesday was no different.
For the seniors in the locker room, it meant their high-school careers lasted a little longer. For Haizlip, it meant he guided his alma mater into the state playoffs for the first time in his three-year tenure.
In the corner of the cramped locker room, Hansen quietly took it all in. When Haizlip finished talking and his other assistants offered congratulations, Haizlip turned to Hansen, who hadn't said a word.
"Do you have anything to add," Haizlip asked.
Hansen shook his head no, his smile saying what his voice wouldn't. Then Haizlip asked Hansen something else, something most of the room couldn't hear.
Haizlip turned back to his team: "Listen up, listen up. I told you guys in practice, and coaches you'll remember this. I pulled the team aside and mentioned Jeff's bucket list."
"Jeff now gets to cross off one of the things on his bucket list."
The room erupted. Jeff Hansen, recipient of a heart transplant, in need of a new kidney and now basketball coach in the state playoffs, smiled and fought back tears.
Jayson Jenks is The Seattle Times' high-school sports coordinator. Want to be a reader contributor to the Seattle Times' Take 2 blog? Email your original, previously unpublished work or proposal to Sports Editor Don Shelton at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Not all submissions can be published. The Times reserves the right to edit and publish any submissions online and/or in print.
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