Brantleys raise awareness after father's health scare


John Brantley III, left, horses around with his son, John Brantley IV, in the front yard of their Ocala home on June 25.

Doug Engle/Staff photographer
Published: Monday, July 5, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 5, 2010 at 1:16 a.m.

Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series. Tuesday's final part will focus on Brantley's preparation and readiness for his new role as UF's starting quarterback.

John Brantley IV was just another student sitting in a University of Florida classroom on Jan. 7 when his cell phone vibrated.

It was a text message from his dad.

“Call me after class.”

What resulted was a life-changing conversation between father and son. One that no dad or son ever wants to think about.

John Brantley III, the 52-year-old former UF quarterback, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

The younger Brantley was just six days removed from Florida's dominating Sugar Bowl win over Cincinnati. It had been the final game as a Gator for a larger-than-life quarterback by the name of Tim Tebow. It was also the final game as a backup quarterback for John Brantley IV.

It was the dawn of the Brantley era in football-crazed Gainesville, but John Brantley IV was no longer thinking about football at all.

John Sr. had filled the dual role of father and coach for much of Johnny's childhood.

But he was also his friend.

“We try to get away from the football stuff and just relax because when I come home, it's to get away from that,” the younger Brantley said. “He's around football all the time. I'm around football all the time, so when we're home we just relax and hang out.”

Johnny was worried about his father.

A ‘LITTLE OBSTACLE'

Earlier that same day, Jan. 7, John Brantley had visited a urologist for the results of a biopsy he took after some suspect blood work.

The news wasn't good.

“I was just shocked,” said wife Karen, a registered nurse at Ocala's Munroe Regional Medical Center. “Ninety percent of the biopsies are benign, especially when you're 52 years old. We were both in shock.

“If you're in the medical field, you just panic. You always think worst-case scenarios. So I'm crying and Johnny's just sitting there, and I'm thinking — you're handling this really well — and I'm not.

“Then it's about coping. You've just got to cope.”

So that's just what they did.

John first tried to call his two children — daughter Morgan and son John — but didn't get an answer.

Determined to get his hands around the situation as soon as possible, he reached out via text message and immediately began to downplay the severity.

“Anyone that knows him knows that he's a pretty strong-willed guy, and he acted like nothing was really wrong,” Johnny said. “He made me feel comfortable about it.

“It was hard to kind of grasp at first, but the information that he was telling me — that he should be fine — that made it easier. But it was also difficult to know that your dad does have (cancer), and no matter how early they caught it or whatever, it could turn into something bad.”

The elder Brantley continued to laugh it off. He told whoever would listen that he had prostate cancer, and that he would beat it.

“It didn't scare me,” John said. “It probably scared my wife more than anybody. But being the competitor I am, I just looked at it as another little obstacle or bump in the road. Whatever we need to do to get it squared away, we're gonna do that. That's what I did.

“It didn't hit me near as hard as it did my wife and family.”

Brantley sought a second opinion before settling on a course of treatment.

He decided to visit Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center, where Morgan, a recent University of South Florida graduate, was a newly hired patient education representative.

The 25-year-old Morgan, who more resembles her extroverted father than the son who shares his name, wasn't at all surprised by her father's demeanor following the bad news.

“No one wants to hear their father has cancer,” Morgan said. “It was devastating.

“But he's never one to take anything too seriously, so I completely expected him to downplay the situation.

“You know he's scared, but he would never admit it.”

SPRING OF UNCERTAINTY

Now confident surgery was the best course, John scheduled the procedure and promptly got back to the business of being vice president at an insurance company and Trinity Catholic High School's football coach.

But the timing couldn't have been worse for his son.

Johnny was getting ready to start his first spring practice as Florida's starting quarterback, and all eyes were on the strong-armed UF legacy.

Then news got out about his dad, and the young quarterback was thrust into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. It wasn't enough to answer the endless flow of Tebow-related questions, now he had to talk about a very painful, private matter in a very public forum.

“It's tough hearing it from everybody else,” Johnny said. “But what can you do? There's nothing you can do once word gets out.”

The younger Brantley returned home to Ocala every Saturday to spend time with his dad as the procedure neared.

But his father, a regular at UF practices, simply continued his normal routine. If the kids wanted anything more than the usual shrug and smile they got from their dad, they would have to look elsewhere.

“They immediately came to me to find out what's going on,” Karen said. “I told them I had it covered.

“You never stop trying to protect your kids. So we basically just downplayed it. Because, honestly, what can they do? Worrying's not going to help anything.”

Brantley had surgery March 10. A checkup a few weeks later revealed the surgery was a success. He is cancer-free.

“That relieved me a lot,” Brantley IV said. “I was fine after that.”

A week later, Johnny completed 15 of 19 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns in front of more than 50,000 anxious Gator fans in the Orange and Blue spring game.

Now, nearly three months later, dad has a new theory about the timing of the whole ordeal.

“I knew (Johnny) had enough on his plate,” Brantley III allowed. “But, after the fact, I think maybe (the cancer) took a little bit off of him. Not worried as much about being the No. 1 guy at his first practice, because it made him realize that maybe we've got bigger battles to fight.

“I think it was more of a reality check for him. I think it made him feel more comfortable that first week.”

A NEW FIGHT

Now the Brantley family is trying to do their part in the battle against cancer.

John, who must have blood work done every six months and closely monitor his PSA levels, has continued to openly discuss his bout with the deadly disease. He has encouraged friends and family to get checkups and hopes his public fight will get even more people in to see their doctors.

“It's something we all go through as we get older,” John said. “I think I've moved on beyond it and I've kind of used it as a little platform.

“If I can help one guy, I thought it was worth my time to go out and be a little bit more vocal about it than the norm.”

He says he's already getting positive feedback. A few people he convinced to get checkups have received the same life-changing news he got nearly seven months ago.

But John says because they were able to catch it early, the cases are manageable, much like his own.

“That's why I did it,” he says. “I'm private in a lot of ways, but something like that, if I can help some people, I wanted to do that.”

He's not the only one spreading the word.

John Brantley IV has worked cancer awareness appearances into his busy schedule after his dad's brush with the disease.

The latest stop was in Tampa, where he visited patients and faculty at the Moffitt Cancer Center, where his sister works. The Gator quarterback signed autographs and spent hours speaking with people dealing with the same concerns he shouldered a few short months ago.

“That really hit home with me and definitely made me realize how lucky I was,” he said. “I was fortunate that they caught (my dad's) early. Some people aren't as lucky as I am, and that's what I realized.”

Morgan, who is the elder sibling by four years, said she has never been as proud as when her famous little brother showed up at her new job and turned a normally somber atmosphere into one of joy. If only for an afternoon.

She watched with amazement as the normally reserved Johnny so easily shared himself with patients and families there.

“Honestly, I was blown away,” Morgan said. “To see him come in like that and watch the faces of people struggling with disease just light up.

“It made me tear up. I was a proud sister.”

Byron Saucer can be reached at (352) 387-2491 or byron.saucer@starbanner.com.

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