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Keyes an example in perseverance

September 30, 2015
By CHUCK?BALLARO ( , North Fort Myers Neighbor

Not many players on the North Fort Myers High School softball team complain about minor aches and pains to their coach John Keyes, considering what he's been through.

Despite some major health issues and the loss of a leg in military combat, he's more than at home coaching third base and leading the Red Knights, who have become one of the class programs in Southwest Florida.

Strokes, heart attacks, infections and cancer are among the physical challenges Keyes has had to overcome. Each time, he's come back, better than ever.

On Sept. 17, the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) honored Keyes as the recipient of its Donna Newberry "Perseverance" Award.

The award, named for the late Muskingum College and 2008 NFCA Hall of Fame coach, recognizes an NFCA coach who has demonstrated extraordinary will and character in the fight to overcome physical, mental or social adversity.

"It's such a great honor. I was nominated by a coach in Ohio at a convention. Then, its voted on by my peers. That's what makes it more special," Keyes said. "It's an honor that you're proud of."

Keyes, a United States Army veteran, has certainly fought on the physical front and more during his 40 years coaching career, which includes success in sports other than softball.

It started in 1968, while serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam. The tank he was in hit a land mine. The explosion knocked him under the tank, which ran him over, resulting in the loss of his left leg above the knee. He was awarded the Purple Heart.

After stays in hospitals in Vietnam, Japan and the United States, Keyes developed peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdominal lining that nearly killed him. He spent nearly two more years in the hospital, undergoing more than 20 operations.

"They put a colostomy in the intestinal tract to prevent infection and when they closed it, I got it," Keyes said. "Back then, not a lot of people survived that."

Following his release from the hospital, Keyes decided he wanted to do something that involved athletics. In 1971, he went into coaching.

"I was an athlete and I knew I had to do something. I started coaching Little League. It was about giving back for me. I did a lot of coaching at a lot of different youth levels," Keyes said.

Keyes started coaching numerous sports. In 1996, he took over as head softball coach at Bishop Verot before going to Falmouth (Maine) High School and now North Fort Myers, while coaching travel ball teams in both states.

Keyes was instrumental in starting the first ASA softball program in Falmouth and guided Florida 14U and 16U teams to top-10 finishes at NSA and ASA Nationals in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

Keyes has not only seen success on the softball field. At Falmouth, he guided the swimming team to five state championships and also coached soccer.

But it hasn't been easy. Keyes suffered a stroke while being treated for pneumonia in February 2011. After recovering from the stroke, which affected the motor skills in his right hand and peripheral vision on his right side, he went into cardiac arrest in June.

Later that year, in December, Keyes was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He was able to recover from that and has been cancer free since July 2012.

"If all those other medical problems would not have happened, they would have never found the cancer," Keyes said. "Because they did, the doctors were able to perform a new procedure which attacked the cancer by burning it off."

The adversity has helped him as a coach and those he coaches.

"With all the things I've had to overcome, I think it's helped me in teaching kids that they have to overcome things to be able to be successful," Keyes said. "I get a learning experience from the kids from the support they give me."

As far as coaching with a disability, his high school girls don't really take it into consideration, Keyes said.

"One of the things about coaching young people is that they don't look at my disability. They look at me as a coach," Keyes said. "With younger kids, they look at it. But with older ones, they don't. It's all about teaching in a way they understand."



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