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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
Once during the basketball playoffs, Mike looked across the court to see Becky in the huddle. He rushed over to take her back to her seat, but when he told people about the incident later, he laughed and said the advice he'd heard her giving was spot on.
She still had that spunk.
But then in 2005, Becky had another grand mal seizure. Mike had to start caring for her like never before, bathing her, dressing her, putting on her makeup, fixing her hair and doing what she no longer could. He credits their families, who have always helped, but much of the job of caring for Becky fell to him.
She needed nearly constant supervision because while she might do something goofy like using toothpaste for eyeshadow, she might also do something dangerous.
Mike looked around for somewhere she could go while he was at work. He visited several places but found none suitable. He decided he was going to resign his job and go back to teaching so he could better care for Becky.
It might sound rash, but not to Mike.
“It's about Becky,” he said simply.
Mike made one more phone call to Easter Seals Oklahoma Adult Day Care Center. After visiting, he decided to give it a try.
“I don't know what a parent experiences on the first day of kindergarten,” Mike said, “but I think I got an idea when I dropped her off. I thought I had abandoned her. I thought I was throwing her to the wolves. I was terrified of what was going to happen.”
He picked her up at 5 o'clock.
“How was it?” he asked.
“School was great,” she said.
Turns out, the adults would sometimes play with the kids at Easter Seals' child care facility.
Becky thought she was teaching again.
* * *
Becky and Mike wanted to have lots of kids. He was one of three brothers so tight that they wore the same jersey number in high school. She was from a family of 10 kids.
But they hadn't had kids before Becky got sick. They were still early in their marriage, still young, still thought they had all the time in the world.
Becky tried to come off her meds once so they could try to get pregnant.
It didn't work.
“But,” Mike says now after Becky has battled for more than 20 years, “I would have never wanted a child to have to sit here and say, ‘That's Mom.'”
No doubt they would've been wonderful parents. They have more than 50 nieces and nephews, and to many, Becky and Mike are their favorite aunt and uncle.
Edmond Memorial athletic director Bill Bays has two daughters. Sometimes during the summers, he'll bring them to work. They always want to see Mike.
“He just has that way with young people,” Bays said. “He has a gift for connecting.”
Nowadays, Mike wishes he had a chance to get to know kids like he did when he was coaching and teaching. But he confesses that he's more plugged in to the adults, the coaches and the administrators.
That's why it thrills him when he gets to see Edmond North tennis coach Dee Wallar stepping back to watch her players celebrate a state title. Or Edmond Santa Fe track coach Carl Hawkins running up and down the stands taking tons of pictures at state. Or Cimarron Middle School volleyball coach Ed Wilson managing a match and molding future players for Edmond Memorial.
And yes, he does watch middle school events. Lots of them. He goes to five or six games a day, everything sorted by days in a three-ring binder that he keeps in his pickup, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays, middle school has priority.
His dedication makes for long days. He talks or texts nonstop on his phone. He puts upward of a hundred miles a day on his truck. He eats little. But he does it because he has a passion for the kids.
“I don't want them to ever think they're not important,” he says.
He does what he does because it's what he wants to do, but in some ways, he does it because it's what he needs to do. His job keeps him busy.
Keeps him from sitting in an empty house.
* * *
Mike pulls his pickup into the parking lot at Grace. The quiet residential area south of Wiley Post Airport, where Grace is located, is familiar. When he worked at PC West, he took his daily walks around these neighborhoods.
He never imagined Becky would live here.
Mike walks through the front doors and lights up. He says hello to a gal in scrubs. He waves at a woman in a wheelchair.
He admits that if you would've asked him to visit a nursing home a few years ago, he would've concocted an excuse for not going.
Now, the people at Grace are extended family.
Mike turns down the first hallway to the left and walks into room No. 108. He says hello to Joyce, Becky's 90-year-old roommate, hands her the newspaper that he brings her every day, then looks at his wife.
“Hi,” he says. “You OK?”
Becky looks at him with glassy, tired eyes. Does she see him? Does she know him?
It's impossible to say.
On May 18, Mike was with Becky when she started having what he thought was a stroke. Over the next two days, she had several hundred seizures. Doctors tried numerous medications to stop them, but nothing worked.
They finally placed her into a medically induced coma.
She remained there for 32 days.
When the doctors finally brought her out of the coma, the seizures had stopped but the damage had been done. The seizures she'd endured and the meds she'd taken had zapped her ability to talk and walk.
“The brain has to recover,” Mike says as he sits in one of those pop-open canvas chairs parents use at their kids' soccer games. “Those synapses — poof — they're separated. So, you pray that as the brain recovers, they go back to their place.”
Becky sleeps quietly in a chair next to him, a pillow behind her head and a blanket over her lap.
“Then she had so many medications,” Mike says. “She was given five different types of seizure medicines. And the amount of medication she was given was enormous. When you pull her blood work, an elephant would be asleep.
“It's got to filter out of her system.”
Becky's eyes twitch and open slightly.
Mike looks at her blank gaze.
“I see you're waking up,” he says.
She says nothing.
“Huh?” he says. “Are you waking up?”
She stares at him.
“Feeling better?” he says.
Listening to Mike's one-side conversation is as painful as seeing the effects of Becky's cancer. She is no longer the perky, petite woman that Mike married, no longer the brown-haired beauty in the wedding-day picture on his desk.
He still dotes on her just like he did the day he took the vow “in sickness and in health.”
He cleans under her fingernails. He washes her face. He puts balm on her lips.
She barely moves.
But when he raises his hand into her line of sight, she does something that she hasn't done in months. She reaches out and high fives him.
“There we go,” he says.
He squeezes her hand.
“Pretty big moment for us.”
He mimics the sound of a cheering crowd.
* * *
Mike walks through the rain and climbs back into his pickup. There are fields to check and phone calls to make and ballgames to watch.
He'll visit eight schools, some of them more than once, and see hundreds of other people's kids play before the afternoon's done. And when he stands on the Wantland Stadium sidelines in the cold and wind and rain before Edmond Memorial's football game, he'll wonder why he didn't study medicine.
“It doesn't rain in the E.R.,” he'll joke.
And yet after riding around all day in his Chevy Silverado, you know Mike Nunley wouldn't want to be anywhere else doing anything else. He is intensely proud of his schools, his coaches and his athletes.
But he is prouder of no one more than Becky.
When doctors removed her tracheotomy tube a couple weeks ago, it was an emotional day for Mike. So was the day she started eating extremely thinned down oatmeal, the first food she's not taken intravenously since May.
“When I walk in the door over here,” he says at Grace, “I am Becky's husband.”
“Best gig I've ever had in my life.”