Lanett assistant Wise, three-time cancer survivor, faces alma mater

Published 8:59 am Friday, November 15, 2019

LANETT — 1A No. 2-ranked Lanett (10-0) is prepared to host Elba (8-3) in the second round of the state playoffs this Friday night. The matchup is more than a step closer to a state title for every member of the Panthers as Lanett assistant football coach James Wise is a 1986 graduate of Elba High School.

“Of course, I want to win,” Wise said. “I have some kinfolks who are playing on that team, I’ve talked a little junk to them and they’ve talked some to me. There are mixed emotions because I want my alma mater to do well, but they’re not us. I want us to do better. It’s exciting to see kinfolks playing that you’ve watched growing up as little boys now on varsity. It makes me feel old, but it’s nice to watch them play.”

Friday marks the first time Elba and Lanett have faced off against one another in football after both programs have played a combined 196 years all time.

Email newsletter signup

Wise focuses on the defensive and offensive line at Lanett. He began coaching under head football coach Clifford Story, Jr.’s staff in 2012 before leaving in 2014 to become the head coach at Red Level High School. Wise returned to Lanett in 2018.

Wise had to put his two passions of coaching and teaching aside this past summer when his cancer returned for a third time, with the disease spreading to his right eye.

“I hated it because it left Coach Story shorthanded, but he’s been great and understanding,” Wise said. “He told me to take care of my health first. Don’t get me wrong, he loves football, but he cares about his staff, his players and them taking care of themselves long after football has come and gone.”

In July, he had a procedure to remove skin cancer. During the procedure, the doctors discovered the cancer was worse than anticipated.

In 12-hour surgery at UAB, Wise’s eye had to be removed and he now wears a patch over it. He still has to have radiation treatments.

“Other than that, they got everything out. I’m good,” Wise said. “It could’ve been a whole lot worse. I’m happy to be here coach, and as Coach Story says ‘I’m happy to be around when the grass is brown.’’

He was first diagnosed with cancer 15 years ago. Back then, Wise had to undergo a facial reconstruction and five years ago, he had to have another facial reconstruction.

Wise returned to the team after game four this season because the bacteria cleared up at that point, and it was fine for him to be around people again. He still hasn’t returned to the classroom yet, where he teaches seventh and eighth-grade geography, civics and world history.

“I miss my kids,” he said. “I don’t have any kids of my own so I refer to my students and my players as my children. I miss them, especially my seventh graders, I want to see how they’ve matured as eighth-graders. I also want to see the new seventh graders. I don’t feel complete without both [coaching and teaching].”

He said his goal is to return to the classroom in January.

The coach keeps an upbeat and lighthearted attitude around the team in part thanks to the game that has groomed him as a man.

“It’s an old saying, but football is probably the best sport to teach you about life,” Wise said. “You’re part of a team, but sometimes it’s just you versus the person in front of you. It may not be going your way, they may be bigger, you may be tired or sore, but there are only two choices. Either you lay down and get beat or you stand up and win. I just try to do what I teach my kids ‘life gets tough, just keep going day-by-day.’”

Wise also said he keeps in mind the message his grandmother gave him.

“Things could be a lot worse,” he said. “I’ve gone up to Birmingham to MRIs and I’ve seen eight-year olds and nine-year-olds get MRIs in a lot worse shape than I am, but it makes you appreciative of life. Do I wish I had my eye back? Of course, but it could be a whole lot worse.”

Missing the Panthers’ championship season by only a year, Wise said winning a championship this year will be the ultimate satisfaction for him. As a high school senior, he played in the state championship game but fell short. He has watched every game of that season on DVD except for the championship.

If the Panthers complete the perfect season in December, then Wise promised himself that he’ll go back and watch that old game.

“It may be bittersweet, but I would be like ‘hey, I got what I wanted,’” he said. “I think this team can do it. There’s a lot of character on this team, there’s good leadership and I think they’re hungry. Last year, we got to the third round and got beat by Maplesville, a very good team that advanced, but I think that left, the old cliche, a bad taste in the senior’s mouth. They want to redeem [themselves].”

Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. EST at Morgan-Washburn Stadium.