Most coaches step up at a season-opening press conference and talk about how excited they are to be there, how excited they are for a new season to begin.
West Chester coach Bill Zwaan one-ups them.
“I’m excited to be alive right now," Zwaan said Wednesday at the first small college football luncheon.
Coaches get accustomed to rattling off an injury report. This week, Zwaan did that, except each of the offseason injuries and ailments he described belonged to him, as he scatter-shot around body parts.
Five knee surgeries -- starting with maybe arthritis, through a staph infection, leading eventually to a knee replacement.
Chest pains. Was this a heart attack?
At least that one was a no, not a full heart attack, although it meant several more days in the hospital.
“I got a funny text from my nephew," Zwaan said. “Hey, you know you can’t build up points in the hospital.”
It must seem like a long time ago to Zwaan, 64, but the 2018 season was a milestone one. For the first time in 47 years, West Chester won the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, going undefeated in the regular season.
Now if this story were told cinematically, maybe there would have been dark notes played as West Chester prepared for its playoff game. The Golden Rams got upset at home by New Haven. So, overall, that season doesn’t rise to the top of his resume, as West Chester has won six PSAC East titles since Zwaan got to West Chester in 2003, reached the NCAA playoffs nine times in his 16 years, and the national semifinals twice, after his Widener team had reached the D-III national semifinals in his six prior seasons there.
You get the idea. The man can coach football. He still wants to coach football. He just needs to go about it a little differently as this season begins Saturday at noon, hosting Bentley.
Will he be able to stand for the game?
“I’m going to find that out," Zwaan said.
To say his whole offseason was taken down by all this is not an exaggeration. He’d waited until last season ended to go see a doctor about arthritis in his right knee.
“It had been painful all year," Zwaan said, describing how he got a cortisone shot for the pain, and got it drained, but the knee got infected, leading him back to the emergency room. “I had three clean-out operations, but they couldn’t get rid of the infection. Then I had a fourth more major operation.”
Next, a knee replacement. Did that stem from being a football player? Zwaan had been a quarterback himself at Delaware.
“No, actually my right knee was fine," Zwaan said. “I had my left knee replaced due to a football injury, but my right knee was fine going into this.”
So the weeks after that proceeded as you’d expect. Zwaan used a walker, then a cane. He got rides to campus. The knee replacement had been near the end of February. Stamina was an issue after that but Zwaan got into work as much as he could.
“I’d go in for a couple of hours," Zwaan said. “My wife was mad at me every time I went in. But it’s football. You’ve just got to go.”
It helped that he had a veteran staff, which includes his own son, Bill, West Chester’s offensive coordinator. Zwaan just tried to get in front of his players, talk to them, be seen by them. He felt that was important.
“Kids were in the offseason program," Zwaan said. “Spring break, third week in March, that Monday, I went in that morning, walking from the locker room to the weight room, I had no feeling in my right arm. I couldn’t move it. It was moving, but I wasn’t moving it. It lasted about ten minutes.”
Zwaan went to the first assistant coach he saw. He was already thinking stroke. Was his face drooping? Was he slurring his words? He was not. But maybe he was trying to do too much. He decided to stop at Wawa for a bottle of water.
“I was standing at the end of one aisle,’’ Zwaan said. “All of a sudden, there was a person right there. I was like, whoa. I didn’t see them coming. I had no peripheral vision.”
It was his right side. Zwaan knew he had to get to the hospital. Tests confirmed what he feared. Stroke. Two spots. More medicine prescribed. No more symptoms. Still, Zwaan isn’t the type to block out the outside world. He’s known loss in his life, on his team and in his family.
Enough pain for one offseason? Not quite. Zwaan was in the locker room before a spring practice when he felt chest pain. He went to a trainer. What do you think? Quick answer: Go to the hospital.
“They found some blockage but not enough to go in and clean it out,’’ Zwaan said. “They could handle it with medication. I was in for a couple more days. I have a heart monitor in me. The heart could have gotten out of rhythm, which could have caused the stroke.”
All that got settled enough to Zwaan’s satisfaction, but West Chester’s spring game was another wake-up call. Zwaan sat in the press box the first half, stood on the sideline the second half.
“That’s when my leg completely swelled up," he said, and he realized any length of time on his leg caused swelling. This summer, not being able to take his grandchildren for ice cream at the shore on vacation stuck in his mind. He has to be smart about all this.
Seeing Hugh Freeze coach a Liberty game last weekend from a hospital bed in the press box, Zwaan was like, “No way, you can’t do that. If you’re in a hospital bed, you shouldn’t be at a game."
Maybe the good news: There’s somebody crazier than him. (Freeze had his own staph infection after back surgery.)
“It’s not that important," Zwaan said.
His players know their head coach is still their head coach, even if Zwaan is using a golf cart at practice.