After 31 years in education, Duluth High School teacher and basketball coach Joe Marelle retired at the end of the school year.
Marelle always thought of himself as the head coach. After all, he was head basketball coach of the Wildcats from 1980 to 2004 and led them to more than 300 victories. But in the late 1990s, when he became involved in his first life-and-death struggle with cancer, he learned the hard way who the real head coach is.
"I always thought I was the head coach," Marelle said. "But I learned God is the head coach. He makes up the game plan. He decides when you get to play overtime. And when he says game over, it's over."
It was nearly game over for Marelle in 1998.
During a trip to San Antonio where he was a coach in the National Basketball Coaches Association's Final Four, he began to experience severe pains in his side. When he returned home, he went to see his doctor who diagnosed the symptoms as mononucleosis. But when the pain persisted for many months he scheduled an appointment with an oncologist. It was then he received the most terrifying news of his life: He had stage four Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and only six months to live.
"I didn't like that game plan," Marelle said. "So I went to see Dr. Anthony Landis whose son played recreation league basketball for me." With the doctor's help, Marelle finally went into remission for a couple of years.
Thankful to be alive, Marelle tried to be an inspiration to others. In 2001, Clemson University's basketball team was going through a very tough season and was about to face No. 1-ranked North Carolina. Marelle fired off a letter to Tigers Coach Larry Shyatt telling him and his players not to give up. Not to quit. They didn't. After Shyatt read Marelle's letter to his team, the Tigers pulled off a miraculous upset victory over the Tar Heels.
Grateful for Marelle's motivational letter, Shyatt brought the entire basketball team to Marelle's home for a surprise visit following a game in Atlanta against Georgia Tech. Unfortunately, he was back in the hospital with an infection. Not to be deterred, Shyatt got the players back on the team bus and headed to the hospital where they presented Marelle the game ball for the Carolina win.
Two years later, Marelle suffered a setback.
"The doctor told me he had good news and bad news," Marelle recalled.
"The good news was I no longer had Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. The bad news was I had acute leukemia, and if we didn't do something quick I wouldn't be around in 30 days."
Marelle was sent to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where he underwent a bone marrow transplant. As it turned out, his oldest son Joey was a match, and the operation saved his life.
But years of battling cancer took its toll, not only on him, but also on his wife Kathy, their sons Joey and Tony, and daughter Mary Pat. Kathy is director of the Duluth Parks and Recreation Department.
"It was extremely hard on Kathy because she had to play the role of mother and dad," Marelle said. "During the whole ordeal, her attitude was 'no matter what, we're going to beat this.' She would try to get me to do things to give me more stamina. Sometimes I'd ask her to bring me a Coke, and she'd say 'you need to get it yourself.' Sometimes that would hurt my feelings, but I knew she was doing it out of love. I was extremely lucky the day she said 'I do.'"
Marelle's courage and his career have been honored in many ways. The gym at Duluth High School bears his name, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution annually awards the Joe Marelle Courage Award to a young athlete who has had serious physical hardships to overcome.
Marelle hasn't coached the Wildcats basketball team for eight years now, but he continued to teach health and science at DHS, and for the past three years has coached the 9th grade and junior varsity teams at Greater Atlanta Christian where he serves as assistant coach to his long-time friend Eddie Martin.
He also conducts basketball camps for young players. In fact, he just led a summer camp at Chattahoochee Elementary School for boys and girls ages 7 to 14.
Even in retirement Marelle says he plans to keep busy.
"I don't like the word retirement just like I don't like the word cancer," he said emphatically. "When I found out I had cancer, I decided I was going to enjoy every day I had left. That's what I'm going to do now. I'm going to find something to do each day. Each day that I'm idle means I'm wasting the gift God gave me. Life is too precious to waste a single day."
And it looks like Marelle will now have many days left. On May 29, his doctor declared him to be cancer-free.