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John Giesler basketball coach, history teacher, father
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John Giesler’s Story

I’m Trying to Get People to Reach Out and Benefit Others

When John Giesler—known as “Coach G” to his basketball players—was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July 2017, a couple of his former players reached out via email.

“Hey coach,” they said, “hang in there. We’re behind you.” And at the bottom of the email, it said “GACA.” John had misread it at first. Years ago, he had borrowed an old saying from a former co-basketball coach at Illini Central, where John had coached for almost twenty years. The saying was “Get After Their Ass,” or “GATA.”

“This was the attitude of the team,” John says. “We were going to be hard-nosed, we were going to get after people, we weren’t going to sit back; we were going to be the aggressors. That’s not a cute little saying. That’s our way of life, this is how we do things.”

After realizing that the letters at the bottom of the email read “GACA” and not “GATA,” John replied back to his players asking what it meant. “It means ‘Get After Cancer’s Ass,’” they said. Loving it, John adopted it just as he had adopted “GATA” from his colleague, and it has been the rallying cry of John’s cancer battle since.

John originally graduated with an associate’s degree in civil engineering and technology, but that career didn’t pan out, and he worked in a printing factory for 17 years. Unhappy at work and looking for something else to do, he started volunteering as a basketball coach. Suddenly, he had found his passion: coaching and teaching high school kids.

He didn’t see his career at the printing factory going anywhere in the future, so he went back to school while working to get his teaching degree.

“One summer, I had three classes, and one of them was a 7:30 a.m. class. I left straight from those and drove to my workplace, where I worked ‘til midnight.” He says that schedule just about burnt him out, but he made it, and he considers it now one of his greatest life accomplishments. “My children saw the sacrifices I had to make, and I think that had an impact on them. I think they looked at it like, if you want something bad enough, you find a way to make it work. And maybe you make sacrifices here and there.”

Having earned his degree, John could fulfill his dream to teach full time and coach after school. He taught world history at Illini Central, most fascinated by past wars and the events that led up to and caused them. “People who know me as a coach might not realize how much the teaching part meant to me. I loved being in the classroom, I loved teaching history—almost as much as basketball.”

Coach G felt it was important to use basketball to teach as well. It wasn’t just about teaching the game of basketball; it was about teaching the players to make the right decisions on the court when they don’t have the coach right there to tell them what to do. “But beyond that, I wanted to teach them to make good decisions in life. I wanted to teach them to be good people.”

And when two of his former players reached out to him and introduced “GACA,” John was touched to know that some of his teaching had sunk in. He had worked hard to create a feeling of family with his players in the basketball program. “If we go out and we’re facing bad times on the basketball court, we’re family, and we’re going to pull together. We’ve got each other’s backs. We’re going to make sure we get through it together.” That’s the spirit John put into his basketball program and that’s precisely what he got back when faced bad times himself. “You encourage each other and you get each other through it. That’s what we did on the basketball court, and that’s what these young men did for me whenever they knew I was going through some rough times. They picked me up.”

In addition to his basketball family, John has a supportive nuclear and extended family. He lives with his wife, Mardell, and nearby most of his children. Shane, the oldest son, works in construction in Mason City. Chad works for a car dealership in Jacksonville, and the youngest son, Lance, works in Havana in insurance. John’s only daughter, Lindy, is at Western Illinois University finishing her senior year and choosing a law school.

John describes his family as close-knit. “I’ve tried moving away from the boys a couple of times, and they just keep following me!” After John’s cancer diagnosis, he was able to coordinate a family vacation for everybody—him and his wife, their kids and their grandkids altogether. They had never done anything like that before, and it was a special time, especially in the face of his diagnosis.

John’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis came after weeks of stomach pain.  “I thought it was stress. I was dealing with some things in my personal life: My mother had just passed away, I was executor of the estate, and there were some problems, so I associated my stomach problems with stress then.” Looking back, he realizes that all the warning signs were there, unheeded. Finally, the pain was so great he and Mardell went to the emergency room to get it checked out. The doctor gave him the diagnosis there.

“My wife probably took it harder than I did. It’s strange. I was really pretty calm about it.” Part of it, John says, is his faith. He knows where he’s going to “end up,” and he knows what he has to look forward to. Another part was his contentment with his life. “I’ve been blessed with a great life. Even if I lived twenty more years, I couldn’t be more blessed."

John has been going to Springfield Clinic Lincoln’s infusion room for his treatment since his doctor, Mary Bretscher, MD, with the Cancer Center, helped develop his treatment plan. At first, his chemo dosage was too aggressive. When he told Dr. Bretscher, she helped him adjust to a less aggressive treatment plan. “I’m not sick like I was. I felt miserable after that first treatment. I felt a whole lot better after that second treatment.” Dr. Bretscher even commented on his improved appearance and feeling when he saw her after the second treatment. “Next time I come in,” John told her, “you’re gonna have to watch me out in the parking lot. I’m going to do cartwheels for you.”

John’s appetite was back, his stomach pain was gone, and he has a high quality of life despite his terminal illness. “I feel great. It’s hard to believe it. I look forward to coming in to get my chemo treatments because I get to see these good people here.”

John believes having the infusion room available in Lincoln has made things that much easier as well. “It’s a blessing. This facility here is a blessing for us. I can’t begin to describe how handy this is for us to be able to come in for bloodwork earlier in the week and then come back for treatments on this day.” He also loves seeing the nurses in the infusion room as well. “I know my nurses; they’re from my hometown. It makes you feel comfortable. They’ve always got a smile on their faces and are joking around. You talk about how I stay positive, and a lot of it is the care I get. These people treat you so well.”

Now that John has his energy back, he’s putting it into his Facebook page, “Coach G’s Team Against Cancer.” On the page, he updates his followers on how he’s feeling almost daily and uses it to organize community involvement events as well. Recently, he led a group of people on a visit to a children’s cancer ward at St. Francis-St. Jude. “We were trying to make those kids’ day better. I saw some of that, saw some kids up there that were having a bad day, and, because of the interaction with our group, had a little bit of a better day. And it’s great to see that. We try to raise money, but I’m not really trying to just be a fundraiser. I’m trying to get people to reach out and do other things and benefit people.”

And that’s the attitude that’s been adopted from “GATA” to “GACA” by Coach G, his family, friends and players. “It’s a fitting name. It’s the kind of attitude we promote: We’re not going to sit back and just take it. We’re going to get up and do things.”

For his years of coaching and the legacy he’s leaving behind, John was awarded a place in the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Illini Central High School has also named a scholarship after him to help basketball players with college expenses, called the Coach Giesler Boys Basketball Scholarship Fund. “It’s a change to pay back to the basketball program. They talk about what I did for the program, but I see it as the program did a lot for me. I feel like I got a lot out of the basketball program.” He’s incredibly touched to have his name attached to the scholarship. “I just wanted to be able to help somebody, to help a student who has a dream, who wants to accomplish something. We are hopeful this scholarship will be able to do that.”

John’s legacy extends past his scholarship. After inspiring basketball players and students with his coaching and teaching, he’s inspiring his friends, family and followers through “Coach G’s Team Against Cancer.” His greatest hope is that just like “GATA” stuck with his players past graduation, the feeling of camaraderie and desire to do good in the world will stick with his Facebook followers. “If we can do these little things, if we can help people out, that’s my goal. If people can continue to do that and do the little things that make a difference in people’s lives, that would be very gratifying to me to know that this isn’t going to stop. This is going to go on.”

When asked if there’s anything John hasn’t accomplished yet that he wants to, John laughs, replying, “I’m still working on that cartwheel in the parking lot.”