CASTLE PINES — Yo, cancer. Did you even bother to read the scouting report? You really want to throw down with John Stearns?
You want a piece of the “Bad Dude?” A catcher who once got run over by 6-foot-5 Dave Parker at home plate, flew 10 feet and hung on to the ball anyway? A safety who knocked the ball out of the mitts of 6-4 Riley Odoms, the future Broncos tight end, on fourth down in the Bluebonnet Bowl?
That John Stearns? You sure?
“If the word is out that I’ve got cancer, and that people are concerned about me passing away right away, it’s incredibly amazing that they would reach out to me,” Stearns said as he leaned back on a couch at his apartment inside Legacy Village. “And it gives me the incentive to fight even harder.
“Because I’m going to battle this.”
See, he’s got a team. Brother Rick helps with planning, shuttling and appointments. Rick’s wife Rachel handles social media and scheduling. Old CU buddies such as Dave Logan and longtime pals such as “Big” Bill Ficke are keeping tabs.
Pete Rose called to offer support. So did Johnny Bench.
The Bad Dude hasn’t played in a Major League game since 1984. He still gets 20-24 letters and cards per day from fans and autograph seekers who never fell out of love with the backstop who refused to back down.
You might have his prostate, cancer.
But they’ve got his back.
“And I don’t plan on passing very soon,” Stearns, the former Thomas Jefferson High and Buffs great, the former Mets All-Star catcher, vowed with fists and teeth clenched.
“I’m not passing away with this. I’m gonna beat this.”
* * *
A walker rests untouched in a corner, just in front of a retired TJ jersey and behind a table of memories piled one on top of one another.
Pictures, mostly, symbols of the eternal verities: Faith. Football. Family.
“The strange thing about it is that I don’t feel like I’m sick,” John, who’ll turn 71 next month, observed. “I don’t have any aches and pains.”
“Well, John, that’s since you took these meds,” Rick countered from the other side of the room.
“Did I have pain earlier?”
“Oh, yeah, John. It was hard. Really hard.”
The Dude was first diagnosed with prostate cancer this past January. In April, he fell and broke his hip.
John cracked the spotlight a three-sport standout at TJ, helping the baseball and basketball teams win state titles in 1967. When the Spartans held a ceremony in his honor two months earlier, old friends and loved ones were startled at Stearns’ weight loss, a drop of roughly 50 pounds since last Christmas.
But a hip replacement and dosages of Xtandi, an anti-androgen drug that slows the spread of the cancer, has stopped the soreness and strain. The summer’s felt like a ray of sunshine compared to the winter and spring that preceded it.
“Can’t even feel it,” John said. “I’m walking regularly.”
“It wasn’t like that before,” Rick reminded. “You were really in pain.”
“OK, well, see, some of those things, I don’t remember.”
Being a Bad Dude comes with a price, eventually. Stearns recalls details from Pony League games in the 1960s as if they were yesterday. But his short-term memory fades in and out the way an AM radio signal does on a lonely highway in the dead of night.
He attributes that to football, mainly. To hitting first and asking questions later as a Big Eight safety. And to a life behind the plate in an era, the ‘70s and ‘80s, when catchers and middle infielders were expected to be plowed over, when contact was an accepted, occupational hazard.
“I think it’s (from) football,” said Stearns, still the Buffs’ all-time leader in interceptions, with 16. “Because I used to run in there and half the time, I was getting my bell rung playing football.
“Up at CU and before that, at TJ, I was ringing everybody’s bell because I wanted to be great. I wanted to be at the top of the line athletically at everything that I did. I think I’m paying the price right now with this.”
Day-to-day, he gets by. Stearns moved to an assisted-living facility earlier this year and keeps a thick datebook within arm’s reach, scribbling down appointments and notes instantly, before the ether can take them.
Brother Rick, another ex-CU football letterman who recently moved back to the area, and Rachel provide backup, keeping the Dude on track and out of trouble.
Well, most of the time, at any rate.
“He likes to take the candy from the nurse’s station,” Rick said.
“That’s what they’re for,” John insisted, unwrapping a gummy bear and puckishly easing it into his mouth.
“John,” Rachel scolded, “they’re not for you.”
“They have a big jar,” John replied. “It’s for everybody.”
* * *
His team helps to keep the Dude connected, digital or otherwise, to friends scattered by life and the winds.
Rachel posted a video to Stearns’ Facebook account earlier this month in which former catcher was gleefully singing karaoke in tandem with Rick, the brothers crooning to the soundtracks of their youth — including Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” and the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”
I … can’t get no-ooo …satis-FAC-tion … I…can’t get no-ooo …
“I shoulda been a rock star, Rick,” John laughed.
In many ways, Stearns was. And still is. Rick and John were three-year football lettermen for the Buffs in the early 1970s. With brother Bill and sister Carla, a stellar softball player at UNC, the Stearns kids became part of one of the most talented sports families in greater Denver history.
Bad Dude was the headliner, though, a hard-hitting safety on a ’71 Buffs team that finished 10-2, won at LSU and at Ohio State, rolled Houston in the Bluebonnet Bowl and finished No. 3 in the final Associated Press poll.
The No. 2 overall pick in the 1973 MLB Draft, John played 10-plus seasons in The Show, primarily with the Mets. In the dark days in Flushing Meadows between the eras of Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden, Stearns’ no-B.S. mantra — he once tackled a fan who’d run onto the field at Shea Stadium and famously trucked Atlanta’s old mascot like it was a slot receiver running a seam route — endeared him to Mets faithful and saw him chosen to the National League All-Star team four times.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” Stearns said. “I mean, I’ve made mistakes along the way (that) anybody would want to change. But I wouldn’t change anything.
“I’d still go to CU. I’d still want to play for (coach) Donnie Day at Thomas Jefferson. And before that, play in Little League with my dad as the coach and the way he kicked our butts and made us what we are today … looking back on everything, I wouldn’t change anything that happened. It just all came together.”
With that, he reached for another piece of candy, more delicious contraband. If gummy bears were nickels, Stearns would be a millionaire six times over. Cancer picked a fight with the wrong Dude.