NATCHITOCHES – In less than 140 characters on May 12, 2016, Northwestern State baseball pitcher Tim Winders offered a rare, powerful glimpse into his emotional state.
On that day, the Demons were in Abilene, Texas, preparing for a series-opening game with Abilene Christian. Winders tweeted, “MY DAD IS CANCER FREE! THANKS TO ALL WHO PRAYED FOR HIM! #GodIsGood”
With those 12 words and one hashtag, the Winders family thought they had found a happy ending in Dan Winders’ fight against throat cancer, a battle that began with more questions than answers.
“In the summer, (Dan Winders) would always go out to eat,” Tim said. “The summer before my junior year (at NSU), he had this weird sensation. He couldn’t swallow. He went to a couple of doctors before one told him, ‘You did the right thing. It might be something more than you think.”
With Christmas approaching, Dan finally had an answer to an ailment that confounded a handful of doctors.
“I had a deep-down feeling it was cancer,” Dan said. “I had to go to three or four doctors. My family doctor couldn’t diagnose it. They kept giving me antibiotics. Another throat doctor couldn’t figure it out.
“We went to another throat doctor, and she said, ‘Dan, I think you need to go to M.D. Anderson.’ I thought, ‘Oh, boy. Here we go.’” I went over there and saw the head doctor in that department. She diagnosed me in 30 minutes. It was shocking at first.”
It was not as shocking as what was to come.
Approximately a month after being given a clean bill of health, Dan learned the cancer that had metastasized and spread to his liver and lungs.
“The nice thing about (the first diagnosis) was the doctors immediately said you have a 90 percent cure rate,” he said. “We were all very positive. The second one really set everybody back. They give you a time frame and say, ‘You can expect to live this long.’ Three years. It changes your perspective on everything you do – your day-to-day life, your kids of course. All of that. I was so focused on my job and work, thinking that was the most important thing. That changed. It immediately changed.
“You go to your faith, your family and then comes work. I never had that before. That was a huge change for everybody. They had to get used to Dad being home more. That was kind of different.”
In the 1999 movie, “For Love of the Game,” Kevin Costner’s character, aging Detroit Tigers pitcher Kevin Costner, reminds himself to “clear the mechanism” on the mound.
With every pitch Tim has thrown across 50-plus innings as a Demon, his mechanism has yet to be completely clear.
“It wasn’t easy at first,” Tim said of dealing with his father’s diagnosis. “It’s always hard when you hear a family member has cancer. It wasn’t easy, especially coming onto the field. It’s not something you want to bring on the field with you, but it’s definitely in the back of your head. We just try to stay faithful. Prayers are being answered right now. It looks like everything’s going to be all right.”
Dan underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatments to fight the throat cancer. When he learned the disease had spread, he took a couple of months to research other options.
He settled on immunotherapy, which included being accepted and rejected from several clinical trials. Dan said one such trial initially accepted him then rejected him because the size of the tumors on his liver and lungs were too small.
After a roundabout circle of decisions, Dan found himself as the lone subject in a trial that has reduced the size of his tumors by at least 40 percent.
That said, the daily battle has been a mental one for both father and son as well as Dan’s wife and Tim’s mother, Linda.
“Tim’s really a quiet kid. He keeps his feelings inside,” Dan said. “I did the same thing when I was a kid. It affected his pitching. I’m trying to get him to forget about that when he’s pitching.”
During his first season at Northwestern State, Tim confided in then-pitching coach and now head coach Bobby Barbier about his father’s battle with cancer. He did the same with Fellowship of Christian Athletes director Randy Price and his wife, Christie.
It also makes moments like the Demons’ upcoming three-game series with No. 23 McNeese a little more real for Tim Winders. Saturday’s game is NSU’s annual “Fork Cancer” game when Winders and his teammates will pull on specially colored jerseys for the game.
“When I was younger, I’d see things for breast cancer awareness,” Tim said. “You see guys in the majors with the pink bats and the pink gloves. It’s something I never thought of. Seeing my dad fight it, this is a big deal. It affects a lot more people than you really think.
“You have to have faith. It stresses the importance of what it really means. Some people may not understand it until you’re in that situation. It’s definitely something close to our family now and will remain close to me for the rest of my life. (Saturday’s game) will have a little more meaning now.”
Two days ago, Tim earned the first home victory of his career as a Demon, tossing five innings in a 16-1 win against Prairie View A&M.
The NSU athletic department has extended an invitation to Dan, who was a football and baseball player at the University of Colorado, to throw out the first pitch prior to Saturday’s game against the 23rd-ranked Cowboys.
Most baseball-playing sons grow up playing catch with their fathers. Often, the fathers will squat down and serve as a catcher for their sons.
Should Dan’s health allow him to make the trip from Katy, Texas, to Natchitoches this weekend, the roles could be reversed with the father throwing to the son.
Ask Dan about himself and his voice does not change. Mention the possibility of taking the same mound as his son and his voice quivers, fighting back tears.
“I can’t tell you (what that would mean),” Dan said. “I’m so proud of him, I can’t even put it into words. He went to (Northeast Texas Community College) and got picked up by coach Barbier. He’s so grateful for that, and I am too. Every parent wants to see their kid succeed, and for me to be there, with him by my side, I’m going to be so humbled and proud. I just don’t know what to do.”