'It's about Becky': Caring for his wife is Edmond AD Mike Nunley's top job

Mike Nunley has plenty of responsibilites as the district athletic director for Edmond Public Schools. None, however, take precedence over caring for his ailing wife.
by Jenni Carlson Published: October 6, 2012
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photo - Edmond athletic director Mike Nunley  says good bye to his wife after a visit, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman
Edmond athletic director Mike Nunley says good bye to his wife after a visit, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman

EDMOND — Climb into the red Chevy Silverado with Mike Nunley, and you never know where you might end up.

There might be a ride to Edmond Santa Fe High School to see if the softball field is too muddy. There might be a stop at Cimarron Middle School to watch a junior varsity volleyball match.

But there will most certainly be a trip to Grace Living Center to visit Becky.

As the district athletic director for Edmond Public Schools, Nunley shows up everywhere. He pops up at high school events, watching from the back of the end zone or the corner of the gym, which you might expect in one of the state's biggest, most sportscentric school districts. But he goes to middle school and junior varsity events, too.

Why?

All of them involve his kids.

Wearing his standard black and khaki — don't want to show up at a game wearing another school's colors — he is a behind-the-scenes guy. He hires coaches and purchases equipment and does dozens of other things in hopes that every experience is as good as possible for upward of 6,000 Edmond kids.

For as much as Mike and his kindergarten teacher wife love kids, they never had any children of their own.

That's because Becky Nunley has brain cancer.

When doctors first diagnosed her, they gave her six months to live. She has been rushed to the emergency room dozens of times. She has been radiated and medicated. And now she is bedridden at Grace, a nursing home in Bethany.

That doesn't stop Mike from breaking away from trips across Danforth and down Broadway and making the 16.7-mile drive to visit Becky.

Nothing does.

“It's not for her,” he says of his daily visits. “I have to admit that.

“It's for me.”

Those who know Mike best say he is an inspiration for the way he's cared for Becky yet still worked 12- and 15-hour days. Some even say he is their hero.

Mike says they've got it all wrong.

Becky is the hero.

* * *

Michael Nunley and Becky Goss were high school sweethearts. He was a junior and she was a sophomore at Waurika High when they started dating. He played a bunch of sports but took basketball the most seriously. She played basketball and softball and belonged to FFA.

He was tall and funny.

She was short and spunky.

“Becky was a beautiful girl,” Mike's youngest brother, Lonnie, said. “As a young kid, I always thought my brother had such a hot girlfriend.”

Mike graduated and went to Western Oklahoma State College in Altus on a basketball scholarship.

Becky graduated the next year and went to USAO. The scholarships and grants she received paid for her school.

After two years at Western, Mike went to Kansas Newman in Wichita. Becky would make the drive whenever she could in her two-door black Datsun, then joined him there a year later even though it meant giving up her scholarships and paying for private school.

Once his playing days were done, Mike and Becky returned to Oklahoma and got married. He became an assistant basketball coach at Central Oklahoma, and she started teaching kindergarten in Crescent.

Life was grand.

Mike even heard from Division-I basketball coaches who wanted to hire him. He got calls from the likes of Hawaii, New Mexico State and Utah State. None were powerhouses, but all would be the first step toward Mike's dream of coaching big-time college basketball.

Then at 4:30 early one morning, Becky had a seizure. She lost consciousness. She convulsed violently.

While the world slept, their life changed forever.

* * *

Doctors weren't sure what had caused the seizure. Not the ER docs who saw Becky that night. Not the neurologist who did a CAT scan later.

But when Becky continued having headaches, she and Mike decided to try what was then a new technology — the MRI.

They waited eight hours at Mercy Hospital just to use the new contraption, but once the images of Becky's brain started coming in, the problem was instantly obvious. She had a grade four astrocytoma tumor.

“Popped up like a golf ball in the middle of the fairway,” Mike said of the MRI image.

Worse, the tumor was intertwined with her temporal lobe, the part of her brain that controls language, speech and memory. There was no way to remove it.

Her life expectancy: six months.

Becky and Mike decided they were going to try to beat that prognosis. They've always been competitors, so they tried everything allowed. Radiation. Meds. But in 1990 when Becky was diagnosed, cancer treatment was in its infancy. Radiation on Becky's brain couldn't be pinpointed like nowadays.

“It's like Roundup in the yard,” Mike said of the weed killer. “You hope to just get it on (the weeds). But you know ... you're going to get some of the grass. Now, your hope is that the grass will not be saturated and that other grass will replace it. But at the end of the day ... ”

He shrugged his shoulders.

Becky never wanted to know what might happen with treatments or meds.

“Michael,” she would say, “just tell me when the next doctor's appointment is, tell me what they're going to do, so I can be prayed up and ready to go.”

Mike was the exact opposite, asking questions and researching everything.

Becky instead immersed herself in her Bible and devotionals. Faith has always been her bedrock. Those who know her best say they never heard her cuss and never saw her drink.

“I would like to cuss and drink all the time,” Mike deadpans. “I don't do either, but ... in my present job, I would think there would be a bit of leeway.”

He laughs as relentless rain pelts his pickup.

A small, leather-bound devotional sits in the front-seat console where Mike keeps it.

“I tell people all the time, she raised me to a point where she didn't get really bad until she felt like I was able to take care of what I needed to take care of for her.”

* * *

Becky continued teaching, but her doctors didn't want her driving. Mike shuttled her 30 minutes north to Crescent every day. Most days he would see the small district's superintendent, who told him to come to work there.

He wanted Mike to coach boys basketball.

“I don't want it,” Mike would say, chuckling. “I want to be a college coach.”

The men bantered about the job for months, but then, Crescent parted ways with its coach and needed a new one. The superintendent wanted Mike, and he wasn't kidding.

Finally, Becky weighed in.

“You need to take it,” she told Mike. “It's the best thing for us.”

Mike relented.

“Little did I know,” he says, “it was a true blessing.”

It wasn't just that Becky got to stay in Oklahoma where her family and her doctors were. It was also the start of a career in public education where Mike realized his passion.

Mike coached and taught at Crescent for almost a decade, went to Ripley for a year, then landed at Putnam City West. That's where he became an athletic director, which led him to Edmond a few years later.

Mike's career accelerated while Becky's condition deteriorated.

When he moved to Edmond in 2004, Becky was no longer teaching but was still able to take care of herself. They eventually hired a young woman who came to the house and spent time with Becky, maybe even taking her to lunch or to the movies.

In the evenings, Mike took Becky to games with him.

“She was a very actively engaged fan,” Edmond Public Schools Superintendent David Goin said, laughing.

Becky had always been opinionated with Mike when he was coaching, and that feistiness didn't change. She let everyone — coaches, players, officials — know what she thought.

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by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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