PADECKY: Forni's fighting spirit

BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

PETALUMA

The kids knew. Oh yes, last spring, they knew. The kids on Casa’s basketball team knew how much James Forni loved to coach, loved coaching them, actually. They knew how those cancer treatments sapped his strength. They could see it in his movements, in his weight loss. But he didn’t back off. Forni made all 28 games. He only missed three practices. He pushed himself and, in the process, he ended up pushing them.

He pushed them to think beyond their own immediate desires. Coach, how come I’m not playing more? Why do we have to run so much in practice? Why can’t I take that shot? Huh? Huh? Huh? Those questions and so many others — so typical in youth sports — were never asked. Through his sheer energy and determination, Forni made them see a world much larger than the adolescent one they were inhabiting, the one of instant gratification.

“They never complained,” Forni said. “They knew they couldn’t.”

How could they, really? They never saw their coach feel sorry for himself. And the more information they acquired, the more they learned what had happened to him, what was happening to him and what could happen to him, the more James Forni became more than just a coach. He became a symbol. Of what courage looks like.

“He’s fighting all the time,” said Casa guard Brycen Poarch. “He’s putting out 100 percent. We need to do the same thing. He has helped me and the team, to make us more mature. This can happen to anybody, regardless of what age you are.”
Picture of health

Weeks before his 28th birthday, in March 2007, Forni went in for a routine physical. At 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, Forni was the picture of health. His life was on schedule. He was teaching and coaching at the high school he graduated from in 1998. He had played football and basketball at Casa, was a tight end at the College of Marin, a wide receiver at the University of Redlands and a football walk-on at the University of Oregon. To Forni, there was beauty, grace, health and satisfaction in athletic movement.

“There’s a spot in the middle of your back,” his wife, Mary, told him. “Have the doctor check it out.”
Sure, OK, whatever. It was a spot, irregular, dark.

“The doctor had examined me,” Forni said. “I was leaving his office when I remember saying, by the way. …”

His doc took a sample of the growth. Again, whatever. Forni was in San Diego with Casa’s other athletic director, Rick O’Brien, when the lab results came back. Melanoma. The growth was removed in May of 2007. Forni was injected with radioactive dye. Six lymph nodes were removed. All tested negative.

“Felt like I got a clean bill of health,” Forni said. “I was under the assumption it was over. I had check-ups every three months. I was told later I fell under the 96 percentile of success.”

Aggressive therapy applied
In June of 2011 Forni was taking a shower and felt a lump under his right armpit. It was the size of a softball.

“Oh, that can’t be good,” he said to himself.

Twenty-seven lymph nodes were removed and all tested positive. Based on the recurrence, an aggressive therapy was applied.

Forni received 10 radiation treatments in the infected locations. Then, starting at the end of September of 2011, Forni began five weeks of Interferon treatment. For four to five hours, five times a week, at the Kaiser facility in Terra Linda, Forni was injected with Interferon, a man-made copy of a protein produced by the body to respond to infection. The side effects are substantial, including fever, chills, fatigue, nausea, insomnia, irritability, depression and low blood counts. It’s an array of misery.

“Think of it as the flu times 100,” Forni said. “That October I consider Hell Month. And I have a fear of needles.”

Beginning in November 2011, Forni received Interferon injections three times a week from his wife. That was to continue for 11 months. Forni asked off the medication after four months.

“I felt so broken down,” he said. “I either slept or stayed on the couch. It was no way to live.”

By February of this year, when he stopped Interferon, Forni’s weight had dropped to 157 pounds.
But he never missed a Casa basketball game.

“Those two hours were something I looked forward to,” he said, “because it was a return to normalcy. I would sleep all day, then go to the games or to practice.”
‘Here we go again’

Forni missed three practices when his white blood cell count dropped. He had to be rushed to Kaiser’s emergency room. During one of those visits, Forni turned to Mary and said, “I’m still alive, right? I’m still here?”

Forni has no memory of saying that.
“I was so out of it,” he said.

By June of this year Forni, 33, had regained some of his weight and was feeling, in his opinion, “90 percent healthy.” He was on a camping trip at Lake Pillsbury when he awoke one morning to find himself really sore and achy throughout. He found two lumps under his left arm.

“Here, we go again,” Forni said. “Round Three.”

Another 27 lymph nodes were removed. All tested positive. Forni rejected Interferon treatments, as well as others. He didn’t want to go through feeling so depleted again.

“That’s not what I call living,” Forni said. “It was like near-death. That’s the last thing I want to do (undergo again such disruptive treatments). I’m a teacher, a coach. I want to go on adventures.”

Strong support system
His weight now up to 180 pounds, Forni feels healthy, coaching his kids in summer leagues as well as being on the Casa bench now. The last five years of his life have redefined how he views today, tomorrow and the next day.

“I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me,” Forni said. “That’s not why I am telling my story. It’s about helping people. Maybe if there’s someone out there who’s going through stuff, who reads this, maybe they can learn something from what I’ve gone through. If I can help just one person it (by going public), it will be worth it.”

Yes, he admits, dark moments have visited him. Sure, despair and depression are there for the taking, for absorption, the temptation ever-present. That, said Forni, is where he found himself in others.

“What this disease doesn’t take into account,” Forni said, “is the army behind you. And I’ve got one hell of an army behind me. I couldn’t have made it this far without all the support.”

Support? Forni doesn’t even try to list the names, they are so plentiful. Mary is at the top of the list, along with Ron Petroni and O’Brien at Casa. Family, friends, friends of friends, he said “even friends of friends of friends, people I have never even met” have reached out to him. Alaska, Japan, New York, Texas, these disparate regions all have one thing in common — James Forni. He has received cards, letters, phone calls, texts, tweets, e-mails from near and far.

‘Each day an opportunity’
In a world occupied with plenty of suspicion and violence, Forni has found a community that has propelled him in the most unlikely of directions.

“It may seem ironic,” Forni said, “but I look at each day as an opportunity. What adventure is in store for me this day?”

He thanks sports for that.

“Athletics has prepared me for this,” Forni said. “You know that old line in sports — ‘Don’t let success go to your head and failure to your heart’? It’s true. Sports teaches resilience. Life knocks you down, but you can bet your last dollar I’ll get up and keep fighting. That’s what sports has taught me. You fight. You adapt. You adjust. You find out how tough you are.”

The result, for him, is absolutely spectacular.
“I couldn’t be happier,” he said

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.