Survivor in second round

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Forget about his prolific career coaching tennis at St. Francis Prep in Queens. John Brennan’s life was in jeopardy. The oral cancer that doctors had removed 28 years ago had returned, spreading to his tongue, gums and floor of his mouth.

The prognosis wasn’t good. Surgery was the only option. He sought second and third opinions.

Same result: surgery.

“It was very tough to deal with,” he recalled. “I was down for about a month.”

He eventually went back to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan and renowned surgeon Dr. Jatin Shaw, who successfully operated on him the first time.

On Jan. 19, he went under the knife. Shaw removed the cancerous tumors, replacing an even bigger part of his tongue — Brennan estimated 40 percent of the original remains — with tissue from his right wrist.

“I’m as close as you can get to a surgeon,” he joked. “I told him when it was done, I’ll see you again in 28 years.”

He was motivated to get back onto the court as soon as he came to. In all his previous visits to hospitals, he has never been able to sleep. Luckily, the Australian Open, the first of the four annual Grand Slams was taking place Down Under, airing in the wee hours of the night on ESPN2, when most of the country was sleeping.

Brennan didn’t miss a moment.

“Timing is everything,” he said. “For me, it couldn’t have been a better time to be in the hospital.”

Less than a month after the surgery, Brennan is in high spirits. He is cancer free yet again, and will coach the St. Francis Prep boys’ tennis team in the spring and record-setting girls for the Mayor’s Cup in May.

“I love the life I have,” he said. “I told my doctors, I am very motivated to get better, so just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it. From what I’ve been told, sometimes people aren’t that motivated to get back to their life. But I was always motivated to get back to coaching. As it turns out, I’ll be able to.”

Before the major procedure, Brennan sat down with St. Francis Prep Athletic Director Sal Fischetti, asking him to find a replacement. He told his players he wouldn’t be back. Brennan was told he wouldn’t be able to speak or swallow for up to three months.

Since the operation, Brennan, 57, was eating through a tube, but recently ate soup. The tube will be removed, he said, this week. His voice has improved, getting clearer by the day.

“He’s pretty much back to the way he was,” said close friend Pat Featherston, whose three daughters — Ellenoira, Martina and Shinann, a freshman at North Carolina — played for Brennan. His son, Kilby, is a sophomore on the boys’ team. “It’s a medical marvel and miracle.”

Brennan has yet to actively return to the practice court, although he has removed his tennis rackets from his basement and moved them to his car. He has already scheduled practices for next week, recently held his first team meeting and attended his players’ matches in out-of-league tournaments.

“I would never have thought at the beginning of January he would [be] getting ready to coach the two teams,” Fischetti said. “I just can’t believe how fast he’s recovering. I’m so excited, so proud, he’s progressed so well. He looks terrific.”

“Personally, I look at John as inspiration,” senior Alex Derienzo added. “What he’s been through and fought off, I can’t imagine how hard that can possibly be. … You feel you can do anything after seeing what he’s been through.”

The ordeal has only strengthened Brennan’s resolve and verve to coach. He isn’t worried about cancer returning. He told his brother, Owen, after the operation, “I will die someday, but it won’t be from cancer.”

The 2006 United States Tennis Association’s Coach of the Year is more fixated on the upcoming season. Brennan wants to lead the boys’ team to a third straight city championship, make sure the girls win a 10th consecutive Mayor’s Cup crown and extend their 159-match win streak.

Of course, just being on the court is victory in itself.

“I’m very grateful to have a lot of people praying for me; I’m very grateful things went as well as they did,” he said. “At this point, everything is fantastic. … It was up in the air if I would ever coach again. That would be very hard for me to take. I intend to be here for another 10 years.”

Posted 6:36 pm, October 10, 2011
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