Bobcat brave: Coach's son battles past pediatric cancer

Georgia College head men's basketball coach Mark Gainous and his son Abe prepare for a round of chemotherapy. (Courtesy Natasha Gainous)

MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. (WGXA) – Coaches always talk about the grind of a season: "How do you get better each day?" "How do we not continue to go through the motions?"

In basketball, it’s as much of a mental wear and tear as it is physical. In a day in age when coaches demand perfection and bark orders like a drill sergeant, Georgia College head men’s basketball coach Mark Gainous takes a different approach.

“I think the players would say I’m positive but I’m also very direct,” Gainous said. “Guys like to be praised for doing good things and I just want the players to know I believe in them.”

The fourth-year leader of the Bobcats preaches a daily positive attitude and an infectious smile to his team and family.

“If he’s not in a good mood, something is going on big time because he is usually pretty happy,” said wife Natasha. “He can find joy anywhere.”

While Gainous serves as a positive motivator, he’s also a dreamer. He’s been that way since long before he and Natasha began their family.

“I had this dream we had this boy and he played football for Penn State. Linebacker. You never know what the future holds. It’s been a lot of fun.”

A father of two, Mark dotes after 3-year-old daughter Annie Grove. His firstborn is his right-hand man on the bench.

“Anytime Abe wants to be here, he (Mark) wants him here,” Natasha said. “Sometimes I’ll watch him out there and I’ll think, this is awesome.”

Seven-year old son Abram, better known as Abe, is your typical second-grader.

“He’s big and athletic,” Mark said. “He’s like the hurricane. Whatever he touches he just kind of blows through.”

On the surface, the Gainous family seems to have it all. Looking back after a long, five-year journey, they’re happy to have each other.

While Natasha was coaching John Milledge Academy at a track meet in Albany, she noticed Abe wasn’t himself. After slipping in and out of consciousness multiple times, Abe was rushed to an urgent care center, where a doctor noticed his symptoms were abnormal.

“His fever was 105,” Natasha said. “She said, 'This is really high. I’d like to do blood work.'”

Back home, Mark quickly learned Abe’s results suggested something wasn’t right.

“With the blood count, it looked like a possible case of leukemia,” Mark said. “I said, 'No, that’s not what it is. I’m sure everything will be fine.'”

Abe was transferred to a hospital in Macon, where the Gainous family learned their son’s fate.

“We were there for a week before he got diagnosed with ALL leukemia,” Mark said. “Acute lymphoblastic leukemia.”

The moment the diagnosis arrived, the coaching side of Mark and Natasha emerged.

“When he was finally diagnosed, we were like, OK, we got this,” Natasha said. “No problem.”

Mark quickly took the Xs and Os approach to the battle.

“We do this as coaches; this is the diagnosis, now how are we going to move forward?” Mark said. “What are the next steps?”

In pain, star-player Abe tackled the disease head-on.

“It felt like I was sick,” Abe said. “It wasn’t scary.”

After initially failing to go into remission, Abe battled for close to a year before he was cancer free. Mark and Natasha were hesitant to begin the celebration.

“We knew there was still a long road ahead because with blood cancers it’s not really the getting in remission that’s the hard part,” Natasha said. “It’s the staying in remission.”

Five years later, Abe remains in remission, taking a huge weight off the family’s shoulders -- particularly Mark’s.

“It’s so nice to see him just relax and focus on everything else in life that’s not cancer,” Natasha said.

Life is back to normal for the Gainous family. Smiles that continue to widen on a daily basis, none bigger than the ones on the faces of Mark and Abe.

“He takes me somewhere fun every day,” Abe said.

Abe continues to make bi-annual checkups at Egleston Hospital in Atlanta. Abe has a clean bill of health and recently wrapped up his first season of tackle football.

The Georgia College men’s basketball team is off to a 2-2 start. The Bobcats return to action Monday night at Lander University.

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