BANGOR, Maine — In 1957, after spending four seasons as the head football coach at Mexico High School, Gerry Hodge came home and became the football coach at his alma mater, Bangor High School.
“It was my dream job,” recalled Hodge. “I couldn’t believe it. At 27, I was coaching Bangor High School.”
He spent 18 seasons there and guided the Rams to three state Class A championships. He posted a record of 116-50-6 after going 30-4-2 at Mexico, including two undefeated seasons.
Hodge is now 86 and memories of all of his teams, along with the people he met, have played a major role in helping him deal with inoperable colon cancer which has spread to his liver. He has been living with cancer for two years.
Hodge is one of the most influential coaches in Bangor High School history.
Another highly influential Bangor High School coach, current boys soccer coach David Patterson, is facing a similar situation, as he learned he had lung cancer six weeks ago.
Both men said their competitive spirit, attained through years of playing and coaching their favorite sport, is a valuable ally in their battle against the disease.
“I’m used to getting up for every game. Whether you are coaching or playing, the competitive juices flow. You want to be successful,” said the 50-year-old Patterson, who has guided his six Ram soccer teams to a 78-10-2 record and a state Class A crown in 2010.
“You want to make sure you don’t get beat. I’ll take the same philosophies into this fight. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure we push it back,” Patterson said.
Families provide invaluable support
Patterson has undergone two series of chemotherapy treatments. Hodge has received chemotherapy every two weeks for two years.
Both coaches said their respective wives, Maureen Hodge and Lori Patterson, have been terrific in supporting them.
“I wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for [Maureen],” said Hodge.
The Hodges will celebrate their 41st wedding anniversary on Aug. 4.
“My wife has been a rock and my boys [Sam and Jack] have been strong and brave,” said Patterson.
Gerry Hodge calls his wife “my lucky charm” and recalled breaking down game film with her on Sunday nights.
“She knew more than I did,” he quipped.
She also convinced him to install Paul McCarty in his backfield even though McCarty was a first-year player at Bangor High. Hodge was loyal to his seniors, explained his wife.
The speedy and shifty McCarty would become one of the greatest running backs of all time before going on to become a tri-captain at Boston College.
“She was right,” said Hodge, noting that McCarty scored five touchdowns in his first game.
The coaches said they also have been blessed by the medical care and the compassion of the doctors and nurses at Eastern Maine Medical Center and St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor and the Cancer Care of Maine center in Brewer.
“I feel very, very fortunate to have the quality of care we have here. There are a lot of people who aren’t as lucky as we are,” Patterson said.
“They have been wonderful, really,” said Gerry Hodge, who admits he doesn’t hesitate to flirt with the nurses and even his doctor, Dr. Catherine Chodkiewicz.
“Gerry likes to give them hugs,” chuckled Maureen.
Patterson said he will eventually go to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston for a second opinion.
“But it’s not because the care here isn’t good enough. There are more resources at their fingertips [at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute] and we’re simply going to make sure everybody is on the same page,” said Patterson, who has never smoked.
He also said he feels very fortunate “because I still have my strength and my ability to fight.”
A persistent cough prompted Patterson to seek medical care and he stressed that anybody who notices a change in their health should seek medical advice.
“You know your body. If something doesn’t feel right, get it checked out. That’s what doctors are here for,” said Patterson.
Maureen Hodge said one of her friends calls Gerry “the man of steel” and that most people would be “buried” by now if they had to go through what has occurred with Hodge.
She added that a doctor told her he had never seen a man Hodge’s age survive the amount of chemotherapy he has received.
The Hodges were dealt a devastating blow in 1986 when their 8-year-old son, Adam, lost his five-year battle with leukemia, but his memory has served as an inspiration.
“We learned a lot from him. His spirit was unbelievable,” said Maureen. “So I knew what to look for and what questions to ask with Gerry.”
A passion for coaching aids perseverance
Hodge said he began thinking he wanted to become a coach his senior year at Bangor High and he went on to play center at the University of Maine under Dave Nelson and Harold Westerman.
He enlisted in the service under the G.I. Bill in order to have the opportunity to play at Maine because his parents couldn’t have afforded to pay for his education.
He loved coaching, primarily dealing with the players.
“I enjoyed the kids. And it’s great to feel you got the most out of them. That’s the way coaching is,” said Hodge, who has been visited by a number of his former players.
He also said, “I was blessed with [great] assistants. Coaches like Norris Nickerson, Ron Geagan, Gabby Price and Steve Vanidestine. They were all great people and very loyal. I was very, very lucky. They could keep me in line.”
“They could also get you in trouble,” quipped Maureen.
Hodge got emotional when talking about his proud father, Benjamin, who didn’t have a car but would take a bus from Bangor to Mexico to watch the middle of his three sons coach.
Patterson, who also has been visited by current and former players, began his coaching career when he was playing in college in his native Northern Ireland. He coached a women’s club team.
“I love soccer and wanted to teach others how to play it. I love everything about coaching — the strategies and interacting with the kids to help them develop tactically, technically … to improve their decision-making and to further their love of the game,” said Patterson, who was a midfielder as a player.
His coaching resume includes stops at Lenoir-Rhyne College (N.C.) where he was the women’s soccer coach and men’s golf coach; the University of Maine, where he was the women’s soccer coach; and Maine Maritime Academy, where he was the men’s soccer coach.
He also has coached several youth teams.
Patterson was emotional when he talked not only about the support of his family but also about the community.
“My family has been blessed. There has been a meal set at our doorstep every night,” he said. “People have been amazing. They want to know what they can do to help.”
‘Fighters and competitors’
Hodge and Patterson mean a great deal to Bangor High and to the community said Vanidestine, who is the current athletic director at Bangor High.
Vanidestine played for Hodge before becoming his assistant and Vanidestine hired Patterson.
“Coach Hodge is very special in my life and many lives in so many ways,” said Vanidestine. “He made men out of a lot of kids. I consider him a friend and a mentor and I love him dearly.
“And Dave is one of the best hires I’ve made in my 30 years. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever met. He’s very, very knowledgeable and he’s great with the kids,” added Vanidestine.
He said both have taught their players valuable “life lessons” and feels they have several key character traits that will help them in their battle with cancer.
“They are fighters and competitors. They will never give up and they have positive attitudes, which is a huge benefit in fighting this battle,” said Vanidestine.
Some close friends have established a link to a website to help the Pattersons defray the cost of his treatments. Those who want to donate can do so by going to youcaring.com, clicking on the “search fundraisers” tab and put “A goal for the Pattersons” in the search field.
Some of Hodge’s friends have started a move to have his name attached to the football field at Cameron Stadium to honor him. That is where the Rams play their games.
Hodge said he would be deeply honored to have his name on it, but that takes a back seat to a renovation plan for the facility that includes upgrading of the field, including artificial turf.
“I just want them to fix the field,” said Hodge. “I want them to get it back to where it is at least the best field in eastern Maine. I want people to like to come here and play. Now it’s just an ordinary field.”
“Having his name on it may not mean much to him but it does to me. He deserves it,” said Maureen.
Editor’s note:BDN sportswriter Larry Mahoney played football at Bangor High School for coach Gerry Hodge from 1969 to 1971.