Tucker Windle is used to being successful at whatever he has done in life.
The 26-year-old, former all-state Charlotte Catholic football player who graduated in 2009 and University of Virginia linebacker not only excelled on the football field, but has also in his professional life.
Windle has been a project manager for Showalter Construction since 2013, while “living a lifelong dream” to be a Charlotte Catholic assistant football coach, where he serves as linebackers’ coach and calls in defensive plays for Cougars’ head coach, Mike Brodowicz.
Windle, who recently bought a new home in the Madison Park neighborhood in south Charlotte near hte Park Road Shopping Center is close to those who matter most to him in his life, as he resides within a couple miles of both his parents, Al (who also played football at Virginia) and Diane Windle and his twin sister, Erin Windle Daly. His older brother, Steele, lives in Winston-Salem.
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Windle also spends a lot of his time with girlfriend of the last two and a half years, Morgan Williams.
But just as Windle seemed to have nearly everything in his life going right, he starting suffering from relentless headaches, “that progressed from an annoying pain to stopping him from being to finish his daily workouts,” that usually start at 5 a.m. at the Dowd YMCA.
On April 10, urged by his mother, he went to see his primary physician, Dr. Charles Ferree.
Two days later, everything changed when Ferree ordered a computerized tomography (CT) scan that revealed Windle a golf-ball sized tumor near the top of his brain stem at the base of his brain, near his spine.
Before the surgery, I took a lot of things in my life for granted. Now, I feel excited and blessed just to be able to go to work and just to live life the way I want to.
That same day, Ferree had Windle get a magnetic resonance image (MRI) test and referred him to surgeon, Dr. Tony Asher.
Windle would not only need to get surgery as soon as possible, but his doctors said he would likely have to miss three to four months of work, while also being very limited in physical activity.
One day at a time
“Without a doubt that day (April 12) changed my whole world, it’s definitely scary when you’re told you have a tumor in your brain, it’s something you never want to hear,” said Windle, who stands 6-foot-3, 210 pounds. “But I think I was a lot less scared than my mom, my girlfriend and the rest of my family. …
“I’ve always been so blessed in my life, from my family to great mentors on the football field to my professional career, and that’s given me a confidence that no matter what happens that I am going to be okay. I’m a very stubborn person and very stubborn in my belief that I can overcome anything. In my mind, I had taken bigger opponents, and overcome bigger obstacles.
“So, when I found out I had a tumor, I felt like it was just one more bump in the road. I did my best to try to go home and take everything one day at a time.”
Coach Brodowicz had a similar confidence in his former player, current assistant coach.
“I saw Tucker at a 7-on-7 practice earlier that spring and he looked a little skinny, and I talked to him about the headaches he was having and about not be able to finish workouts. Being the workout phenom, that he was, that concerned me,” said Brodowicz, who has known Windle since he was in sixth grade, coached Windle as a player, when he was Catholic assistant (2003-2013) under Coach Jim Oddo.
“So, when I got the phone call from Coach (Kevin) Christmas (Catholic athletic director) that Tucker had a tumor, I wasn’t shocked. But it was still a phone call you never want to get. …
“Even then, I felt confident that he would be OK. I knew the surgery would be tough. But I thought if anyone is going to get through this, it would be Tucker.”
Windle says he did have a lot of time to think about his condition, because his surgeon, Asher, originally wanted to schedule surgery to remove and test the tumor at Carolinas’ Medical Center (CMC) main hospital, just four days after his diagnosis.
However, Windle would have to wait a little longer for surgery because his blood platelet count was too high at the time. The surgery was tscheduled for April 27.
Windle and his family had some tough moments thinking about the worst case scenarios of a cancerous tumor, doctors did find out that he had a tumor known as hemangioblastoma, which is typically benign.
Windle had to live not knowing exactly what was going on his head for the next 15 days.
Windle had a surgery April 27 to remove and test the tumor that was supposed to take three hours, but instead took doctors seven hours to complete.
While Windle was “relieved to find out his tumor was benign,” immediately after waking up for surgery, doctors also told him that he had pneumonia, further complicating his recovery.
Windle spent five days in the hospital, the first three the intensive care unit (ICU), the next two in a regular room. He checked the hospital at 200 pounds, and checked out less than a week later at 176 pounds.
The pneumonia also forced him to be bed-ridden for most of the next week, and he also had to be put a thickening-gelatin in all of his drinks that gave even water, the consistency of maple syrup.
Things would get worse before they got better as Windle not only had to take about a dozen medications that filled a gallon bag, but also developed a kidney stone a week after surgery.
Windle’s medication also caused his blood pressure to fluctuate so wildly that he passed out one time.
While Windle condition’s slowly started to improve, it wasn’t without more setbacks.
“I remember three weeks after surgery, I went to my first physical therapy session with my mom and Morgan driving me, and I stood up to get out of the car and don’t remember anything until I woke up in the office on the bed,” said Windle.
“When I woke up, I saw mom and Morgan breathing heavily and realized they had carried me in after I had passed out. …
“The first few weeks were definitely frustrating, because I couldn’t do stuff on my own and it was a step back in terms of my independence. But people around me, especially my family, made it a lot easier than it would have been. I knew I was never doing this alone.”
Support from school community
The entire Charlotte Catholic community rallied around him as well.
From the day he got out of the hospital for the next two months, Windle and his family were showered with meals nearly every day.
“We have one of the most unheralded ladies in our (Charlotte Catholic) church community named M.J. Dawson, who is one of our campus ministers,” said coach Brodowicz, who is 45-4 in three years as Catholic’s head coach — all of which Windle has been an assistant — including a perfect 15-0, 4A state championship season in 2015.
“I called here to get Tucker on several different prayer lines. From that point until about two months after his surgery, he didn’t have to make a meal. Everybody in the Charlotte Catholic community stepped up to help Tucker. We always talk about Charlotte Catholic being so tight-knit and that is big key to our success on the field. It’s all the little things that people in this community do for each other that add up to big success.”
“It’s hard to be down or frustrated when you have five different families visiting you a week and you know so many people care,” Windle said. “Those meals reminded every day why I need to keep working hard to get better. It was about more than just me.”
Figuring it out
While Windle showed improvement at his physical therapy sessions, he recalls a big moment coming when he went to a follow-up appointment with Asher four weeks to the day after surgery.
“I remember Dr. Asher coming into room and I got up to shake his hand, and he was like ‘Whoa, whoa slow down, Tucker,’” Windle said. “I told him I went to work out at the YMCA that morning and felt great. Dr. Asher looked at me and said ‘I guess you got this figured out. …
“Just a week before that, I went to work out and couldn’t do one push-up. The recovery process has been very humbling.”
While Windle is still supposed to be recovering at home, he returned back to his job at Showalter in mid-June about six weeks after his surgery.
He is also back in the gym every morning at 5 a.m. with his brother-in-law, Matt Daly, working to get back to full strength.
While Windle says is “probably about 75 percent right,” and still has some side effects, including lack of balance on his left side (that is about 50 percent numb still) and a little lisp, he has a new appreciation for the smallest things that he used to take for granted, from going to the bathroom by himself to getting his driving privileges back.
“Tucker is tough as they come, so I was always confident that he would bounce back,” Coach Brodowicz said. “But his recovery is still somewhat of a miracle. Doctors said he wouldn’t back for four months and he was back in basically a month. It just shows you again the type of person he is. You can’t measure someone’s heart.”
Windle has found motivation in many places during a recovery that changed his perspective on life, two dates stansd out: his twin sister Erin’s wedding June 24, and the first day of Charlotte Catholic football practice July 31.
Being able to not only be at both events, but also enjoy them was and still is a daily inspiration.
“Being at my sister’s wedding and being able to celebrate, dance, and have a good time was very important to me, and that day meant a lot to our family for many reasons,” Windle said. “Now, I’m focused on being back at (Charlotte Catholic) football practice ready to go. …
“Before the surgery, I took a lot of things in my life for granted.
“Now, I feel excited and blessed just to be able to go to work and just to live life the way I want to. It’s very motivating to know I have 100 high school football players depending on me, too. A lot of those players and their families wrote me a note or made me dinner when I was recovering.
“So, now I want show them I can be the same guy, the same coach I was before. I can’t wait to be running up and down the sidelines yelling and screaming on a Friday night.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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