Fighting spirit: Whether on a football field or in life, the Cottners are hard to tackle

Friday, September 21, 2007
Kris Cottner, right, and his father, Bill Cottner, have forged a strong bond through adversity and athletics. Kris is the Pirates' leading rusher and a college prospect. Bill has coached his son over the years and overcome two battles with cancer. (Fred Lynch)

Perryville running back Kris Cottner runs for end zones and his father, who has waged two battles against cancer.

Perryville senior running back Kris Cottner still vividly remembers back in seventh grade when he learned that his father, Bill Cottner, had been diagnosed with cancer for the second time in nearly 13 years.

"He picked me up from track practice one day, and he was being really quiet, and I asked him how his doctor's appointment went and he told me," Kris said. "At first I was kind of in shock and I really didn't show much emotion. I guess it kind of hit me when we got home and my mom was sitting on the couch crying."

Having to tell Kris about his diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in the ileum was extremely difficult on Bill. He said he was shocked when he learned he had cancer.

"Before the second time, I had been told I had been cured," Bill said. "I actually went to the doctor for a six-month checkup and they turned me over to a new doctor because mine had left. And the new doctor looked at my file and said, 'Why are you here? You've been cured and have been cancer free for 13 years. I've got more important things to do,' is literally what he said."

Perryville running back Kris Cottner has rushed for nearly 425 yards in three games this season, including 205 yards last week in a victory over Ste. Genevieve. (AARON EISEHAUER ~

The cancer was detected a brief time later by a family doctor during routine tests, while Bill had no real symptoms and was feeling fine.

Nearly four and a half years have passed by since Bill's second round of chemotherapy treatments, and again he is cancer free.

Kris said lessons he learned while watching his father battle through cancer, such as mortality and continuing to live life despite difficult times, motivate him now whenever he steps onto the football field. He said he thinks of Bill as not just his dad, but a friend who has helped him become the athlete and person he is today.

Kris, the Pirates' co-captain, has achieved much success in athletics and is drawing interest from the football programs at Missouri State and Southern Illinois, although he has yet to be offered a scholarship. He rushed for approximately 1,200 yards last season and has nearly 425 yards in three games this season, including 205 yards last week to help the Pirates beat Ste. Genevieve for the first time in 14 years.

Cottner and the rest of the Pirates (3-0) play at Parks Hills Central tonight at 7 p.m.

Perryville running back Kris Cottner (22) found a whole earlier this season on Friday, August 31, 2007 in Perryville. (AARON EISEHAUER ~

"I kind of think of it in the sense that [my dad] might not be here a year from now or a month from now and I want to play every game like it might be the last game he'd ever get to see," Kris said. "So I always try to put on a show. ... I just look up to him because of how tough he was and how he just fought through things and didn't let things get him down."

The cancer Bill contracted the first time, about 13 years ago, was non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Sherry Cottner, both Bill's wife and Kris' mother, said when her husband was diagnosed the first time, his doctor gave him about a 50 percent chance of survival. She said Bill told the doctor that he had two young sons and that he needed to live so he could watch them grow up and graduate from high school. Kris has a brother, Kyle Cottner, 21, who currently attends the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Priority at home

When Bill beat cancer the first time, Sherry said, she and he decided to spend as much of their free time as possible with their two sons. Although Bill never played sports, he began coaching his sons' ice hockey, soccer and baseball teams.

"Their dad especially devoted all his spare time to his kids," Sherry said. "We practically have a library at the house because my husband would go to Barnes and Noble and buy all these 'How to Coach' books and read the books and figure out how to do it and then coach the boys. He didn't play sports, but he went and studied and learned how to coach."

Bill and Kris also enjoy watching sports together. Bill said he and his son look at the football schedules for Southeast Missouri State, Southern Illinois and the University of Missouri before each season to make plans to see in person all three teams. The two went to Southeast's 13-10 victory over Indiana State last Saturday.

"We always make it a plan to go down early and go to tailgating stuff and we like to watch the teams warm up," Kris said. "We sit together and talk about every play.

"Every opportunity we get, we go watch a game live or watch it on TV. We kind of look forward to that each week -- as soon as the TV Guide comes along we look and see what games are going to be on. ... We just want to see good games and always try to learn from them."

Bill said he and Kris also enjoy the drives home together when they can discuss school, grades, football and whatever else is on their minds.

The second time that Bill contracted cancer it was not a relapse of the first illness because it was a different cell type. Kris said when it happened, he became stressed out and temperamental because he could not figure out why it had happened to his dad. He said he was so young the first time his father had cancer that he could not remember that experience.

Kris grew to understand that he had to continue to live life according to the example set by his father. Bill continued to consistently take Kris to college football games, always found time to pick his son up from athletic practices and was in the stands each time Kris played a sport.

"Kristopher learned a lot from the experience and grew from the experience," Sherry said. "[Bill] tried to teach the boys that going through something like this is difficult, but you have to move on with your life and you have to stay in your routine. And that was kind of instilled in Kristopher at a young age ... The whole time his dad has been sick over the years he has never missed one of Kristopher's games."

When Kris recently sat down to talk about how his father has never missed one of his athletic events, a quick smile flashed across his face.

Kris, who still feels nervous on days his father has a doctor appointment, said there was one time about three years ago when he told his dad he did not have to attend a football game if he did not feel like it. It was after Kris had finished the season with the Pirates' freshman squad and had moved up to play with the varsity.

Varsity debut

It was a district game against New Madrid County Central and Kris told his dad there was no chance he would play. But Bill went anyway. That was the night Kris saw his first varsity action.

"We were up three or four touchdowns in the fourth quarter and coach called my name and my heart almost jumped out of my chest," Kris said. "They threw me a sweep, and I never ran that fast hardly in my life. I had two carries for 12 yards."

Bill even said he was surprised that Kris played, but would have been there no matter what.

"I wouldn't have wanted it any other way but to be there," Bill said. "If he was dressed on the sideline, I wanted to be there even if he didn't get in."

While Kris has learned a great deal from his dad, Bill said he has also learned a lot from Kris. He said the biggest lesson his son has taught him is that hard work pays off in the end.

Kris has played an important role on the Pirates for the past three years and could be on the verge of achieving his long-term goal of playing college football. All the members of the Cottner family said Kris has a strong work ethic. They said he would always run around the field near their home without being told as a youngster, wake up at 5 a.m. in the eighth grade to lift weights and be interested in every aspect of games he watched.

"Even when he was younger, he used to always throw his two cents in about what should have happened in a game I was playing in," his brother Kyle said.

Ste. Genevieve football coach Bob Stolzer said Kris is a legitimate college recruit because of his good size, strength and speed. Stolzer added that he heard that colleges are looking at him to play defensive back rather than tailback. The coach said it is well known that Kris has worked to build himself into a strong player.

Kris might not be considered by colleges as a running back because of his height. While he has good overall size, he is only 5-foot-10. Many coaches want tailbacks to be 6 feet or taller. But Kris said he likes a challenge and proving people wrong.

For now, however, college can wait. He is excited about helping the Pirates go far in the postseason this fall, and continuing to spend as much quality time with his father.

"Kristopher was the last one to come off the field [after the Ste. Genevieve game]," Sherry said. "I kept looking for him and looking for him. And he did the usual 'Hi mom.' And then did a beeline for his dad and they shared the joy together. His dad was the first person he looked for. So I think that pretty much says it all."

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