Cutler shares survivor story as Shrine Game nears

Cutler shares survivor story as Shrine Game nears
West Team coach Mike Cutler talks to his team about his battle with leukemia after practice Sunday night on the Bob Green Field. (Bill Foley photo)

By Bruce Sayler

Gray shadowed the skies and an often wind was hushed. The Bob Green Field atmosphere was football tutorial on the Montana Tech campus and more nodding was seen than yelling heard.

The West Team was in practice on late Tuesday afternoon. Coaches were in obvious agreement that their charges knew how to play. The challenge, then, was in the mold. That’s what they were working on this session.

Mike Cutler is answering yet another call this summer, this time as head coach of the West Team that will go toe-to-toe against the East Team on Saturday in the 73rd annual Montana East-West Shrine Game. It matches the state’s top available senior football standouts from last fall’s prep grid season teaming against each other by geographical assignments. It’s revered.

Cutler himself played in one, in 1988 the summer after he scored 10 touchdowns in a game for Philipsburg in a win over heated rival Drummond one Class C clash of autumn. Now, the two factions are united into a Flint Creek Class C eight-man football program Cutler presides over in addition to his role as Granite High School superintendent in Philipsburg.

The program is the two-time defending state Class C eight-man champion.

It’s not even Cutler’s greatest success.

“There are always issues,” he said, casting a state toward the southwest horizon moments after the team huddle and a conversation with former Montana and Utah State head coach Mick Dennehy, a Butte football legend himself. “It’s been very good since. Any cancer survivor will tell you it’s not about what happened. It’s about what’s coming.”

As the West Team head coach, Cutler, an eight-man football maestro, is coaching an 11-man game. It’s not even a challenge. He played 11-man at Montana Western, coached 11-man in previous stops and has been involved in seven-man football, he noted. The Canadian player on the West team came out of a 12-man football program north of the border. He, Cutler said, is the one who’s had adjustments this camp.

The camp, the game is the stage. Cutler was afflicted with leukemia, helped a daughter fight her own brain cancer battle and answers the bell for every call for help he is able. The rallying by his own communities in his and his families struggles was the subject of attention, even national attention. He has likely repaid the debt infinite times over, and will likely continue.

The Shrine Game raises money for the Shriners Hospital for Children in Spokane and the Montana version of it has become a lifeline for the cause. It is a major contributor.

Affliction spawns hardship — emotionally, financially and all, and Cutler has a good memory.

“In 2001,  I woke up one morning and I couldn’t see,” he said. “Oh, there were signs before then, but I ignored them.

“I was diagnosed on May 20 and had stem cell transplant the following October. I had leukemia.”

The signs, he said, were fatigue, nosebleeds and weakening eyesight.

“I woke up seeing nothing but shadows,” he said of the day he sought help. “I called the Rocky Mountain Eye Center in Missoula.”

It was a Butte native, Dr. Michael Peterson of Missoula, Cutler said, who broke the news to him.

“My son was turning a year old that October and I couldn’t even hold him on his birthday,” he said about the beginning of the fight.

His sister, Kara, was his donor. She was “pumped full of steroids” and the blood cells were harvested like dialysis, he said, then injected into him like a blood transfusion. It was performed in Seattle.

“I had no T-Cells or white cells, no platelets and was in isolation,” he said about the most dangerous period of the procedure. “I was having massive doses of chemotherapy and had no immune system.”

Then 32 years of age, Cutler had been taking the new drug Gleevec while awaiting the transplant and a feared potential complication involved it, Cutler said. He said he learned in pre-procedure consultation that percentages for transplant success had been significantly lower involving patients using Gleevec.

He said the only life-threatening time of it all was during his stay in isolation, due to the absence of immunity.

His competitive nature, reared, however, during this time.

“I wanted to know what was the shortest recovery time they’d ever had,” Cutler said. “They said the record was 11 days, by a woman who was a triathlete. I didn’t quite get it. It took me 18 days.

“There were some complications, but none that need to be talked about.”

He missed work time and normal living had to go through adjustments. Life was still good, maybe better in some respects, but different. Annual checkups, though, have produced clean bills of health, he happily admitted.

However, more fear, hurt and challenge invaded in the meantime.

Sydney Cutler was 9 years old when she was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2009, eight years after her father’s collision with leukemia.

“That’s what was truly traumatic,” Mike Cutler said, choking on emotion. “What my little girl went through compared with what I went through … not even on the same page.”

Cutler, his wife Jody, and the whole family, along with their support network, armored up again and went back to war.

“(Sydney) had a lot of treatment,” Cutler said. “She battled hard. She had a half-a-year of chemo, she had radiation and she had brain surgery. Your mental state with cancer is 90 percent of the battle.

“My daughter lost her childhood — she lost her times of being 10, 11 and 12 years old.”

Like her dad, Sydney is a winner.

“She was just released last month,” the coach said. “Ten years after (being diagnosed) and she was just released. She’s 19 years old.”

He looked at both end zones and heaved a sigh. This is thanks, this chance to take part in such a game, on such a stage for such a cause. Cutler has been an assistant coach on past Shrine Team staffs and is a frequent coach working the Cleverley Classic eight-man football all-star game held each June at Montana Tech.

“The Cutlers aren’t going to be asking for pity,” he said, quickly affirming family relation to the Butte branch as well. “When these things (benefits and fundraisers to combat afflictions) come up, we’re all about it.”

The familiarity with the cause Cutler gained from playing in the 1988 game has stayed with him, he said.

“Every kid in America should visit a Shrine Hospital and see those kids,” he said. “They’re important and (helping) means something.”

It was warm and cloudy, graying at Bob Green Field on Tuesday afternoon while Cutler agreed to relay his story. However, it didn’t rain.

It didn’t dare.

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