About two weeks ago while playing tennis on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon at The Racquet Club of Memphis, I met Gerry Finney. What happened as a chance meeting left me walking from our encounter a few hours later wanting what this guy has – and lots of it.
Over the past few months I've heard Gerry's name brought up many times.
"Gerry is a great guy," said one mutual friend. "Have you heard Gerry and his band play around town? He's a great musician," remarked another. "Hey, did you hear the news? Gerry has cancer — again," I heard yet another person say.
Cancer: that's a bad word. Especially when the phrase "again" is used which means there has been a "before" and as cancer goes, that's not good. Cancer is that scary word that stops most of us in our tracks. Cancer, yeah, that's bad stuff; really bad when you hear the term "stage 4" as a preface. Really freaking bad when you hear the word lymphoma attached to it.
You may be wondering why I want what Gerry Finney has. Do I long to have stage 4 lymphoma? No I don't. I hope I never hear a doctor utter that phrase to me.
What I want is Gerry's smile, attitude and outlook on life. I want it as bad as he wants his cancer gone.
Tons of people in the Memphis area have known Gerry for many years. Some grew up with him, went to school with him, played sports with him or heard him play music somewhere over the past 20-some years. Yes, many know him quite well. Yet the contagious nature of his warm and engaging personality made me feel as if I've known him for years too. Some people are just like that, but not enough people are like Gerry.
Our introduction came during a break in our match when a mutual friend went over to speak to him. Before I knew it we had talked our way into a doubles match on a neighboring court and Gerry came over to watch. There were quick introductions and within a few minutes Gerry was substituting when someone needed a quick break. That's right. The guy with stage 4 cancer was subbing when someone else got a little winded. He was just happy to be there.
I enjoyed playing with and against Gerry that day. He's a good level and a half above me as tennis skill is measured, but he taught me a great deal simply by being on the court with him. Forehand, backhand, serve or volley, this guy has the complete tennis game. I suspect the same is true for other areas of his life too.
Yet it wasn't his tennis game that impressed me the most. It was his smile and demeanor. "I heard his guy was going through chemotherapy. What in the heck is he doing out here?" I asked myself. "Isn't he supposed to be in bed and in tons of pain?"
Maybe for some, but not Gerry. He was laughing and having a great time. Even when his ball sailed out of bounds or was prematurely captured by the net, Gerry never lost his stride and composure. Well, there were those two comments that "accidently" slipped from his lips when he doubled faulted, but hey, it's tennis and we have to give him a break. With or without stage 4 lymphoma.
You never know what to say to someone who has a serious illness regardless of how well you know them, so I did what any stranger might do as we interacted — treated him like I would treat any other person I just met. It was even better that he made me feel like we had played together for years.
As our marathon match ended late that afternoon, some of us, including Gerry, had been playing hard for almost three hours. I casually walked toward Gerry and said it had been a pleasure to meet him and offered what remarks I felt were appropriate.
"Gerry, I just wanted you to know we have several mutual friends who think highly of you, and I'm praying for you. I hope you get better soon."
His smile never left his face. "Thanks man, I appreciate it," he said. Never mind that he had just finished plummeting us with those amazing groundstrokes of his.
It was as if he was thanking me for saying how sorry I was he strained a calf muscle or tore his Achilles — something that would devastate most tennis players but could be easily repaired with surgery or rest. If only it were that simple an injury. But this guy has stage four lymphoma — again.
Gerry and I exchanged numbers and I asked if he would be willing to hit with me sometime. I want to take my game to the next level and playing with someone like him would help me improve my groundstrokes and volley's.
But's there's lots of guys who can do that. What I really wanted was to be around someone who displayed such an addicting smile and attitude in the midst of a treatment regimen I cannot even begin to comprehend.
Since then, I've been on the court with Gerry a handful of times. After one match last week we headed over to Houston's for dinner and a beer and ran into several guys who knew him well. Everyone offered encouragement but none I saw offered pity. Even if they did I don't believe Gerry would have accepted it. In fact, I know he wouldn't.
I played tennis with Gerry earlier this week, talking him into playing a set with my group after he had been playing with another friend for at least an hour. It wasn't like I had to bribe or beg him. He was more than willing to play even knowing he would begin another round of chemo the following day.
"I've got time for one quick set Paul but then I've got to go," he said. An hour and a half later I'm the one that left mid-set for my son's baseball game and guess who was still playing? Yep, it was Gerry, in the middle of a third set.
As I finished this column Gerry was receiving the first of several treatments that will take him away from the tennis courts and his business for a while. I have no concept of what he is going through but find myself wanting to do something — anything to take away some of the pain he must endure. I bet many of you feel the same way.
So while I don't long for cancer, I do long for what my friend Gerry has.
I want his smile, his attitude and his "can do" spirit. I want lots of it and I want it forever.
Am I as happy as Gerry Finney today? It's a question I will now ask myself daily. And if the answer isn't "yes" then I may need to reexamine my attitude and the many blessings God has extended to me.
I believe it would benefit us all who know Gerry if we asked ourselves that very question each day for the rest of our lives.
Get well Gerry and stay strong, brother. There is lots of tennis and music to play. There are lots more memories to make with your long-time friends and there are lots more people like me that need to meet you and your attitude.