Waukesha South football coach Dave Rusch tries to tackle prostate cancer

Scott Ash
Veteran Waukesha South football head coach Dave Rusch has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. The school, which has named the month of April a “Month of Dave,” is holding fundraising events for prostate cancer awareness and an assembly for Rusch on April 23 at the school.
Published on: 4/11/2014

Dave Rusch wasn't alone in his reaction.

His doctors were equally as stunned.

How could Rusch, the veteran Waukesha South football coach who makes his health his top priority and who was considered an unlikely candidate, be diagnosed with prostate cancer?

"They were shocked and had no idea how I ended up with it," said Rusch, who has been South's head coach for 23 years. "They looked at the criteria for the risk factors and I had none of them."

'Tougher than nails'

Risk factors include genetics, obesity, a lack of exercise, and unhealthy eating habits, Rusch says.

Rusch is the direct opposite. He works out vigorously to keep his body in top-notch shape at 54 years old, eats organic foods and does not have a family history of the disease.

"That's why it was a shock," said Rusch, a multi-sport athlete in high school and college.

He did fit one profile — according to the American Cancer Society, the chance of having prostate cancer rises rapidly after age 50.

Waukesha South Assistant Principal and Athletic Director Dan Domach said Rusch told him that the doctors are somewhat "excited" to treat him because they're not used to treating someone so physically fit.

"Dave's tougher than nails," said Domach, recalling how when Rusch turned 50 he tried to break a world record for most pull-ups. "Dave's got muscles like nobody."

Facing the diagnosis

The initial shock from hearing the dreaded "c-word" is still there for Rusch. But his football mentality has already kicked in.

"It's just one of those things, that it's a challenge in my road that I have to deal with," Rusch said. "And there's nothing I can do about it but fight my butt off and try to beat it."

Rusch was diagnosed with the cancer in early February after more than a month and a half of waiting. Not knowing during this time was "definitely a struggle," he said.

Rusch was getting a routine physical in December when a blood test showed an elevated prostate specific antigen (PSA). The PSA test measures the blood level of PSA, a protein that is produced by the prostate gland.

"When they called back to redo the blood test it was kind of weird," Rusch said.

His level was 5.9 nanograms of PSA per milliliter of blood, a mark that is a cause for concern, he said. According to Rusch and the National Cancer Institute, a 4.0 ng/mL and lower is considered normal.

But if a man has a PSA level above 4.0, doctors often recommend a prostate biopsy. Rusch said "even at that point there's a 76 percent chance it's nothing and an 18 percent chance you just want to keep an eye on it."

Rusch scheduled a biopsy for Jan. 31 and less than a week later he was told he had cancer.

"Unfortunately," Rusch said, "I fell into the 6 percent where they have to get it out."

The question now becomes whether or not the cancer has spread and entered his lymph nodes.

Rusch said he's in the intermediate risk, meaning that the doctors believe the cancer is contained in the prostate. But they won't know for certain until Rusch's surgery, scheduled for April 25 at St. Luke's Hospital in Milwaukee. His surgeon will test the lymph nodes during the surgery and if they're clean his prostate will be removed.

"My biggest prayer is it's all contained and they can get the prostate out, and I can go back to a normal life," Rusch said.

Not giving up coaching

For him, a "normal life" includes coaching and running his summer football camp and teaching physical education at South, where he's been a mainstay in the district for 32 years.

"My plan is definitely to coach in the fall," Rusch said. "I would miss it way too much. I wouldn't miss it for the world."

When Domach heard the news, he told Rusch his priority is his health but added "we'll wait for him. I'm counting on him to be back here. It's Dave's job for as long as he wants it."

His players and students would miss him, too. This was evident to him when he missed school while he had extra medical tests earlier this year.

"A few people noticed I was missing a lot," Rusch said. "I'm never gone, and the kids started to say 'Coach Rusch, why are you gone?' ... I've never taken a sick day."

He first told the news to one of his students who has been in his class for the last several years and then he told his team's quarterback before telling his captains, his team and his students.

Huddling for coach

After word spread, Waukesha South Student Council Advisor and Special Education teacher Gina Nordrum and the South student body decided to honor Rusch with a "Month of Dave," culminating with an all-school assembly honoring Rusch on April 23 at the Waukesha South High School gymnasium.

"What happened was our Student Council was looking for something to do in April and when Dave was diagnosed, Gina went to Dave to see if he was OK with us doing something for him during the month," Domach said. "So what Gina has done has been unbelievable."

Half the money raised through fundraisers (which includes a blue T-shirt and blue bracelet sale, a bake sale scheduled for Friday, a root beer float sale and a penny war) will go to prostate cancer awareness. The other half will go to the Fields of Many Dreams field turf project that will install artificial multipurpose ProGrass field turf at the district's three high schools.

The school is also doing some fun activities for Rusch such as "Dress Like a Gym Teacher Day" and on April 22 "Cutoff T-shirt Day," a look Rusch is well-known for.

Nordrum credits the students for taking the initiative and said they wanted the money raised during the month to stay local and go to Waukesha Memorial Hospital.

"The kids really wanted to help him," said Nordrum, who added one of Rusch's daughters is one of her aides in her classroom. "It's been amazing the amount of alumni who have contacted me who want to help. It shows how many people Dave has touched."

Rusch has been touched by all of the support.

"That's where I draw great strength from," Rusch said. "I got to fight this thing hard because I don't want to let anyone down. It's been overwhelming that they're doing this in my name."

Maintaining his focus

Domach hasn't noticed a change in Rusch's demeanor over the last couple of months.

"Dave comes to work every day with a smile on his face," Domach said. "He's here for the kids and is focused on his classes and football team."

If all goes as planned after the surgery, Rusch will return to his students and players after a six-week recovery period on June 9 and then continue prepping for the football season with no limitations and see the new field turf project come to fruition.

Looking ahead to the next couple of weeks, Rusch, who hasn't stopped his workout routine, has some worries about the surgery.

But he's optimistic about defeating it.

"It's in God's hands now," Rusch said. "I've been doing pretty well and have a positive attitude about it. I am drawing great strength from my faith, family and students. Initially, it's a shock and it's hard to handle news like that. But you kind of overcome it, accept it and realize the strength that everyone is offering and you get empowered and march forward."