The day that John Schlarman received his cancer diagnosis was not the beginning of the end. The summer of 2018 was the start of the greatest fight Kentucky football fans have ever witnessed.
On August 3, 2018, Mark Stoops took the Kroger Field podium to preview the Wildcats’ upcoming season. This edition of Kentucky football media day was supposed to be a joyous occasion, filled with unprecedented optimism ahead of a season that was filled with lofty expectations. Instead, Kentucky’s head coach shared news that brought silence to the crowded room.
Josh Paschal was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. Revealing one player had cancer was not enough. Stoops also shared that offensive line coach John Schlarman was dealing with a medical condition. Unbeknownst to almost everyone at the time, that disease was cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and deadly cancer in the bile ducts.
“Our hearts and prayers are with Josh and John as they battle this issue,” Stoops said. “We’re very close to both of their families and spent time with both of the families this week. We will continue to be supportive and be family and be for them in any way we can.”
Amazingly, Schlarman never flinched, never faltered in his duty to his family and to his team. The former Wildcat returned to work and built the backbone of Stoops’ program into one of the best offensive lines in America.
Over the last two years John Schlarman did something rarely seen in the sport of football: he made playing offensive line cool. Now known as the Big Blue Wall, there hasn’t been a cooler group of big bodies in the trenches since the Hogs paved the way for four straight Washington Super Bowls in the late 80s and early 90s. Schlarman’s group earned that reputation by playing a physical brand of football. Win or lose, SEC opponents would feel it on Sunday.
Before he turned Kentucky’s offensive line into a perennial finalist for the Joe Moore Award, given each year to the nation’s top offensive line, Schlarman put players in the NFL. It was evident that UK struggled in the trenches when in 2013 Larry Warford became the first UK offensive lineman drafted in 20 years. 2021 will mark the third straight year a Kentucky offensive lineman hears his name called in the draft, and that doesn’t even count for 2018 First Team All-American Bunchy Stallings.
Stallings and Schlarman’s connection was created in a snowstorm and cemented by tragedy.
In the final winter weeks before National Signing Day in 2014, Neal Brown and John Schlarman went to Alabama to make one final push for a commitment from Stallings, who was being heavily recruited by nearby Mississippi State. Brown and Schlarman were greeted with a blizzard. Without infrastructure prepared to handle the inclement weather, the UK coaches were forced to abandon their car on the side of the road and hike a mile to visit in-person with Stallings, who was holed up in a nearby gymnasium.
Schlarman’s dedication was all Bunchy needed to know to join the Kentucky football family. Once he arrived in Lexington, he quickly learned that family was there to care for him on and off the football field. Stallings’ mother, Cynthia, died of cancer prior to the start of the 2017 football season. As the Christmas holiday neared prior to the Music City Bowl, Stallings shared his gratitude.
“Holidays, it’s not been the easiest thing to go through, but I’m getting through it,” Stallings said. “Without these guys around here in this building, it would be a tough situation. I mean, it’s tough, but at the same time having these guys around here just helping me out. On Thanksgiving I actually personally thanked all of the staff, UK as a whole, honestly. It meant a lot for them to take time out of their schedule because the day of my mom’s funeral, the coaches literally had a (summer football) camp that same day. Literally before the camp, they came down to my mom’s funeral. That right there showed me how much I want to be here, and even the same situation with recruiting, that showed me they actually do care about how I am as a person and not just as a player.”
After Schlarman helped Stallings cope with loss from cancer, the player helped his coach reach unprecedented heights on the field while battling cancer.
Bunchy Stallings lives on a healthy diet of pancakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner pic.twitter.com/4jkOkPZENl
— Nick Roush (@RoushKSR) September 9, 2018
In the second game Schlarman coached after receiving his deadly diagnosis, his offensive line paved the way for a 303-yard rushing performance against Florida to snap a 31-year losing streak to the Gators. The image of Stoops handing over a game ball to Schlarman in the locker room is an image seared in the memories of Kentucky fans forever.
“It’s an inspiration,” athletic director Mitch Barnhart said on that warm September evening in Gainesville. ”If you think you’re having a bad workout or a bad day, how about what he’s doing? These kids recognize that. It’s not lost on any of us.”
That inspiration propelled Kentucky to its first 10-win season in 41 years. In the season finale, Schlarman’s offensive line opened up a hole for Benny Snell to rush 12 yards into the Citrus Bowl end zone to become the school’s all-time rushing leader and provide the final dagger in a 27-24 win over Penn State.
For every high over the last two years, there was a low. Through all of Schlarman’s smiles and celebrations, there were just as many days filled with vomit and painful blisters. No matter how hard the disease fought to tear him down, he was always ready to fight back.
Schlarman’s toughness throughout his battle against cancer was reflected by his players’ fight on the field.
When one quarterback after another was injured at the start of the 2019 season, Kentucky refused to throw in the towel. Instead, they made adjustments and fought and fought till the battle was won, ending the season with a record-breaking performance against Louisville and a Belk Bowl victory over Virginia Tech with Lynn Bowden, a wide receiver, playing quarterback.
When faced with another devastating setback to start the 2020 season, an overtime home loss to Ole Miss, Luke Fortner, a leader on Schlarman’s offensive line, said this in the locker room after the game.
“You’re going to face adversity. We’re facing it right now. You’re really judged on how good of a team you are after you face adversity. We’re going through adversity right now. What matters is how we bounce back.”
Two weeks later they bounced back with a 34-7 win at Tennessee, the program’s first since 1984. Coaching in what would be his final game, Schlarman got one more game ball.
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) October 17, 2020
If the man at the pearly gates is judging John Schlarman on how he faced adversity, they’ll push him to the front of the line. When life dealt him the worst possible hand, Schlarman was at his best. An inspiration to a generation of Kentucky football fans, he set an example for his players, showing them how to succeed on the gridiron and in life after football.
“It’s been nothing but inspiration,” said center Drake Jackson. “You look at him and the character that he still shows everyday, the high energy and just all of the stuff he’s battling with and he can still come here and do his job and try to make us better football players and better people.”
“Every single day he greets you with a smile,” said offensive tackle Landon Young. “Every single day he greets you with enthusiasm, comes out here and pumps us up even though he has every excuse in the world to be sitting at home and resting. I think his goal more than anything is not to just make us great offensive linemen, but to make us great men.”
Just like the Kentucky Wildcats, he fought cancer till the battle was won; in death, his victory is the number of lives he touched by showing us how to live.