Cancer battle teaches national champion coaching in Waukesha to focus on family: ‘That’s why you do this’

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WAUKESHA -- In the midst of high school football season, it's easy to focus on wins and losses. AJ Raebel, head coach of the Blackshirts, cares about his team's record, but he's learned that some victories are measured differently.

Raebel is one of those guys who could picture his future pretty early in life.

"Going into eighth grade, I said I wanted to be a math teacher and a football coach," said Raebel. "Eighth grade AJ is very happy."

Two decades later, Raebel, the head coach at Waukesha South High School exudes credibility. He won a Division III national championship at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater before earning tryouts with the Minnesota Vikings and Saskatchewan Roughriders. He's also shown vulnerability, having been thrust into health battles for his life.

AJ Raebel

AJ Raebel

AJ Raebel

"My brother is an orthopedic PA, and I called him and asked, 'Should I be worried about this?'" said Raebel. "And he asked a couple of questions, and it didn't take long to realize that he was asking questions and he wasn't very happy with the answers, and then finally, his last one was, 'What is your health insurance situation like?'"

At 24, Raebel was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

"I was still a professional athlete, by all metrics," said Raebel. "I was still in shape. I could still play ball. I was still working out and seemingly invincible -- certainly feeling invincible."

AJ Raebel

Cut down hard, Raebel embarked on a long journey back from surgery and chemotherapy. He and his wife, Lissa, were also able to have two sons, Elias and Troy, something that was far from certain, given his medical history.

"It's crazy because they're little boys," said Raebel. "They're crazy. They're nonstop. They're super happy. They're super fun."

AJ Raebel

AJ Raebel

AJ RaebelRaebel has other boys, the ones on his team, and he was eagerly anticipating continuing to build the Blackshirts program this season. At 10 years, doctors give testicular cancer patients the all-clear. In March, at 9.5 years, Raebel was diagnosed again. In June, he had a second tumor removed.

"'We think we found the starting point,'" said Raebel. "'We think we got it all. We think you're fine,' but at that point, it had just been like, this month of trauma of being pretty certain I was going to die with a 2- and 4-year-old, and all the worst possible things you can imagine start to go through your head. We sort of had this almost PTSD, really, where you can't not be anxious or afraid, even though they're saying you're probably fine."

AJ Raebel

For 10 days over the summer of 2019, the Raebels were hard to pin down. They essentially went off the grid, camping, and seeing spots across the state, and just being together. They made a group decision that Raebel would continue coaching, but with significant help from his assistants.

Remember young Raebel being able to visualize his life? He now knows family is the most important team picture.

AJ Raebel

"They mean the world, and you forget it when you're grinding," said Raebel. "The ability to have a family to grid for, you forget some of that sometimes. You can't always just be putting work in front of your own health and your own family and you realize that that's it. Those two are why you do everything. Those three are why you do everything. That's why you do all of this. They're not part of the grind. They are what you need to make time for at the end of it."

A football coach makes a game plan, is forced to make adjustments, and hopes to walk away a winner.

Raebel described his health as "in mystery mode," receiving scans every two months, and bloodwork every four months.

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