LA VERNIA -- For the first time in 25 years, Jim Blackburn is not the head coach of the La Vernia Bear basketball team.
Earlier this year, the long-time coach, who just happens to be one of the nicest men you will ever meet, had what he believed would be a routine surgery. As it turned out, though, while the surgery may have been routine, his recovery was anything but. Jim was forced to undergo two additional surgeries, and still continues to face a long recovery period, now six months after his initial procedure.
Many years ago, Jim had a knee injury that resulted in a surgery. For years the knee has bothered him, and for years he had contemplated knee-replacement surgery. He personally knew of a number of people who had knee replacements, and everyone encouraged him to have the procedure.
In June of this year, Jim decided to go ahead and have the surgery. He did his homework, selected some of the best surgeons in the area, and felt confident things would go smoothly. After all, he was using the same doctors that treat professional athletes. He was in great hands.
Jim had the surgery, and at first it appeared as though everything had gone well. On the day following the procedure, however, it became very clear that something was wrong.
It was quickly determined that Jim had contracted a Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection -- better known as MRSA. This particular strain of bacteria is resistant to antibiotics commonly used to treat staph infections. People have been known to die from such infections, and Jim’s fight was just beginning.
In order to keep things from getting worse, the affected tissue had to be removed from Jim’s leg. The surgeons moved quickly to contain the issue, knowing that if the infection were to spread too far too quickly, Jim could lose his leg, or even worse, his life.
The second surgery was believed to be a success, and Jim started to get better, but the good news was short-lived, and a second MRSA infection occurred, requiring a third surgery.
Fortunately, Jim is doing much better now, though he spends much of his time at home. He is doing his best to remain comfortable, allowing his body time to heal properly. It’s a hard thing to do for a man like Jim, though, and he is constantly fighting the urge to return to a life of normalcy.
See, Jim isn’t out of the woods just yet. While his knee remains bandaged, and he continues to move forward slowly with physical therapy now several months behind, he is also fighting a constant battle to keep the MRSA infection at bay. Jim even has a peripherally inserted central catheter, better known as a PICC line, which runs through his arm to his heart. He uses the line every day, as he injects himself with daily doses of antibiotics. Jim doesn’t know how long he will have to do this, only that for now, he must.
“Maybe months, maybe years,” he said when asked about the antibiotics. “My doctor said I may be on antibiotics of some kind for the rest of my life.”
Having to deal with such a life-threatening situation makes a man think about a lot of things in his life. Jim is no different. And while his private thoughts remained as such, he did share the angst he felt over his Bear basketball team.
“I knew I had to resign as head coach,” Jim said, curling his lip in a disappointed manner. “I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to end it like this, but I had to. I knew it was the best thing for the team.”
Jim offered reassurance that he was never forced out of the position. He was not encouraged to resign. The decision was his to make, and he believes he did what was best for his team.
“It’s obvious I can’t do all the things I need to right now,” he said, pointing to the bandaged leg carefully propped up on an ottoman. “I can’t be at the practices, travel with the team, and be the coach that they need. It was a tough decision. I was excited about coaching this group. They are special. But I believe it was the right thing to do.”
Taking over as the Bears’ new head coach is Scott Grubb. Grubb has been Jim’s assistant all 24 years at La Vernia, and Jim has tons of confidence in him.
“Scott will do a good job with the boys. I know that,” Jim said. “He is a great coach.”
So without basketball, what is next for Jim Blackburn? Well, a “full recovery” would be No. 1 on his list, followed by a return trip to teaching.
“Once I am able to, I would really like to get back in the classroom,” Jim said, a bit of enthusiasm returning in his voice. “I don’t know that I will ever coach again, but I would like to get back to teaching. I’m not ready to retire just yet.”
The coach leaned back in his chair, gazed upward, and smiled.
“Besides, it’s hard to complain too much. I feel like I’ve had a good run,” he said. “I coached an all-star game and my team won on a last-second shot. I was named the coach of the year for Texas one time. I even got to go out on the floor and was honored at the state tournament for winning 500 games.
“I’m also pretty proud of the fact that I was never called for a technical foul in all my years,” he added, “not even once.”
Jim’s days of coaching the Bears may be over for now, but he isn’t ruling out a return to coaching altogether. For now, he just has plans to get better and get back to school.