MINERAL — From begging future New York Giant Kerry Wynn to join the football team at Louisa County High School to pulling his future quarterback out of an eighth-grade science class for a pep talk, Mark Fischer has more stories from his 12 years as the Lions’ head coach than he could ever share.
The characters in those stories are what he’ll miss the most.
“There have been so many great kids come through here and those relationships are special,” Fischer said. “I wanted to win as much as anybody, but more than that, I hope that I’ve had a meaningful impact on their lives.”
Fischer confirmed on Thursday that he will step down at the end of the season. A few yards away under a baking sun, his team prepared for its Aug. 25 season opener at home against Courtland.
He made the decision about two weeks ago.
“I put in a lot of prayer time and discussion with my family, coaches and administration,” Fischer said on Thursday. “At the end of the day, it’s the best thing for the program and for my health.”
Fischer has been battling cancer since 2012. He was diagnosed less than two years after leaving the Louisa program he spent seven years building into a state contender to take a job at St. James High near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
He has since twice been declared cancer free — once in 2013 and again in 2015 — but the disease has progressed and taken a toll on his body.
Failing kidneys require dialysis treatments three times a week and kept him out of much of the Lions’ summer conditioning program.
Finding the energy to make it to the field is a challenge, the summer sun requires much more frequent trips to the canopy set up in one corner of the Lions’ practice field and bouts with what Fischer calls “chemo brain” leave him frustrated.
“It’s been a challenge, but it’s a good challenge because I believe God gave me this to teach and to show if you put your mind to it, you can do anything you want,” he said.
More than anything, Fischer said he doesn’t want his illness to distract anyone from his mission to prepare young men to succeed despite life’s trials. That was clear as practice wrapped up in Mineral on Thursday with a series of sprints and an echoing message from the coach, “We don’t let weakness and pain dictate what we do. We push it down and get it done.”
“I don’t want to be a detriment,” Fischer said. “I told the guys that if I’m pulling this team down in any way, I’ll step away now, but they all said they want me here and I want to be here. Every day I know I won’t get this day back, so I try to soak up as much of it as I can.”
The last thing anyone would call Fischer is a distraction.
Offensive coordinator Will Patrick graduated from Louisa in 2002 — one year before Fischer’s first stint began. Fisher gave Patrick his first varsity coaching job, and the duo have spent more time together over the past four years than anyone on staff.
“I can tell when he’s having good days and bad days, and I know just being out here can be tough for him,” Patrick said on Thursday. “He inspires me and he inspires these kids, and when it comes to football, it’s like a beautiful-mind situation. I’ve learned so much from him.”
Fischer said the same was true of Patrick.
“He’s a perfectionist, he’s a motivator and he’s a student of the game,” Fischer said. “He’s the brains of this outfit. He knows more about football than I’ll ever know.”
Patrick and the rest of the assistant coaches — two of whom played for Fischer during the Lions’ state finals run in 2006 — handled summer conditioning sessions and the teams’ annual summer camp at Hampden-Sydney College.
It was there in Farmville in mid-July that Fischer broke the news to his players that this season would be his last.
“I’m an emotional guy, and that was very emotional for me,” Fischer said. “You can think those words and say them to yourself, but when they actually have to come out, that’s a whole different ballgame.”
Senior quarterback Malik Bell called the news bittersweet. He said he can’t imagine Louisa football without Fischer, but relishes the opportunity to ride off into the sunset with the only high school football coach he’s ever played for.
Bell and fellow running backs Job Whalen and Raquan Jones were freshmen when Fischer returned to Louisa in 2014.
“We brought the three of them up early and invested in them and it looks like it’s paying off,” Fischer said. “It’s pretty poetic to be able to go out with those guys.”
Bell remembers first meeting Fischer when he was in the eighth grade. Fischer, excited about what the future may hold, popped in and pulled him out of science class to let his future quarterback know how excited he was to get him on a high school field.
“To me, [Fischer] is everything to Louisa football,” Bell said. “He put it in my head that I was going to be a superstar. He always believed it and that made me believe.”
Whalen, who lost his mother to cancer last fall, said his bond with Fischer goes way beyond football.
“I think we have a tighter connection than most players and coaches,” Whalen said. “He was there for me and supported me just like he has for so many other kids. We want to make this season last as long as possible for him.”
Even while flying to Tennessee for treatments and struggling to find an appetite, Fischer always found time to remind his players that there was work to be done.
“Coach has been on me since my freshman year, but his intentions were always good,” Jones said. “We’re going to miss him and it won’t be the same without him, but he has to do what’s best for his health.”
Before leaving for South Carolina in 2011, Fischer went 58-21 in eight seasons and led Louisa to six playoff appearances, including the 2006 AA, Division 4 state championship game.
The Lions missed the playoffs in two of the three seasons Fischer spent in South Carolina. Louisa has been in the postseason ever since his return, going 7-4 in 2014, 6-5 in 2015 and 8-3 last season.
“It has been a fun ride and an amazing career,” Fischer said. “I can’t imagine having any other life.”