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Fjeld looks to coach during time of grief

Fighting a losing battle against cancer, Susan Fjeld asked her only son to do her one favor: Tell no one.

She didn't want to be a burden, didn't want to be a distraction, didn't want people to treat her differently.

She just wanted to be.

And so for the better part of his career at Vermont, Evan Fjeld toted his heartbreaking secret. He didn't mind. He wanted to honor his mother's wishes.

Besides, who could possibly understand what he was going through?

"It's hard to carry a secret, especially a secret this heavy,'' said Evan's father, Jon. "Every time I saw Evan, he seemed fine. He's so mature and composed. But he's young and there's a lot of pressure on him already and I wanted to be doubly sure that he was OK, so I called Matt.''

Who could possibly understand what Evan Fjeld was going through? Matt Hahn could.

For the past three years, the Vermont assistant coach has watched his mother wage a fierce battle, first against ovarian cancer and then against leukemia.

"He didn't have any words of wisdom because there aren't any,'' Evan said. "But he listened.''

This isn't a feel-good story. Even if the Catamounts do the unthinkable and became the first men's 16th seed to knock off a No. 1 when they face Syracuse on Friday night in Buffalo, there will be no happy endings.

Susan Fjeld is gone. She died on March 9, just four days before her son and Vermont beat Boston University to win the America East Championship and claim the conference's automatic NCAA tournament bid.

Some day very soon, the sneakers will stop squeaking on the hardwood, the basketballs will stop bouncing and Evan Fjeld will be alone with his grief.

"There's an incredibly deep sadness that comes with something like this,'' said Jon Fjeld of the passing of his wife of 29 years. "Unfortunately we will live with it and he will live with it forever. He's young, so it will be tempered, but he will have moments of deep sadness for the rest of his life. We all will.''

But for at least a week, there is the beautiful distraction of March basketball.

Evan grew up in Durham, N.C. (Jon is a business professor at Duke), where basketball is king. While Evan starred at Durham Academy, Susan was a regular in the bleachers.

"

It's hard to carry a secret, especially a secret this heavy. Every time I saw Evan, he seemed fine. He's so mature and composed. But he's young and there's a lot of pressure on him already and I wanted to be doubly sure that he was OK, so I called Matt.

"

-- Evan's father, Jon Fjeld

She was the quintessential neighborhood mom, the one who wanted all the boys to hang out in her house, not because she wanted in their business but because she liked having them around.

Originally diagnosed with breast cancer when Evan was a sophomore in high school, Susan thought she had the disease beat. Evan packed up for Vermont and she and Jon bought a condo in Burlington shortly thereafter so they could watch his games.

But early into Evan's freshman season, the cancer came back. By the middle of this, his junior year, it was back with a vengeance. When Susan stopped coming to games, Evan knew some of his teammates were curious, but they never asked and he never told.

Even Matt Hahn never raised a suspicious eyebrow.

"I still feel so guilty that I didn't know,'' he said. "You get so wrapped up in your own life, your mother, your job. Damn, I just didn't realize and I feel like, I feel like I should have seen the signs. I should have known.''

But Susan didn't want him to. Didn't want anyone to, really. She liked her privacy, and more, clung to whatever sense of normalcy she could preserve.

Mostly she didn't want the ravages of her disease preying on the emotions of her children and extended children, Evan's teammates.

Evan knew about Kathi Hahn's battles and even toyed with telling Matt, but didn't want to betray his mother's wishes.

Finally, after leaving the Burlington condo one night just before the new year, Jon Fjeld pulled his son aside.

"My dad told me he had spoken to Matt,'' Evan said. "I was thinking about talking to Matt myself the next day, so it kind of just worked out.''

Evan came to his coach the next day and from that point on, the two met whenever Evan needed to. The type of kid who likes to hang out around the coaches' offices anyway, Evan would just pop his head in Matt's door when he needed to talk.

They'd share stories about their mothers and learned the women were cut from the same cloth: protective, selfless rocks who didn't want to be a burden to anyone else.

Sometimes Evan was angry and Matt let him vent and sometimes he was sad and Matt let him grieve.

Always there was the guilt.

Kathi Hahn was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007, just months after her husband, Billy, jump-started his own basketball career as an assistant at West Virginia. She beat that but less than a year later, was diagnosed with leukemia. In February 2009 she needed a bone marrow transplant, a crippling and debilitating process that made it impossible for Kathi to care for herself.

It was Matt's sister, Ashley, who quit her job to care for her mom so Billy could continue coaching at West Virginia and Matt at Vermont.

Matt, hired at Vermont in 2005, visited when he could but Morgantown isn't an easy commute from Burlington and coaching is a 12-month-a-year job.

With Susan in Burlington, Evan was able to see his mother almost every day -- a gift that everyone cherished -- but he would leave her condo and go back to his classwork, his teammates, his laughs, his college life and know that his mother was at home sick and waging a war she couldn't win.

"It was just this overwhelming feeling of, 'What can I do to help her?' and the answer is nothing,'' Matt Hahn said. "I told Evan to just keep making her proud.''

Hahn paused.

"He did a helluva job of that.''

Compartmentalizing his grief and worry, Evan played in all 34 of Vermont's games, nearly doubling his productivity from the season before with averages of 10.6 points and 6.1 rebounds.

The day before his mother died and just days before his team's America East title game, he finally pulled his teammates together and told them how gravely ill his mother was. Through tears he said, "I don't know about you guys but I intend to play my ass off on Saturday."

"I think it was a little bit of bravado, maybe,'' Evan recalls now.

A day later he came back to the locker room to tell his teammates that his mother had died.

He insisted he would play in the championship game, sure his mother would want him to. He had 9 points, 6 rebounds and a blocked shot before fouling out.

To the undiscerning eye, Evan seemed to channel his grief admirably.

His more discriminating father, though, could see the chinks. Normally a 76 percent shooter from the free throw line, Evan hit only 1 of 5 that game, admitting he felt the weight of it all when the game stopped spinning and the arena quieted.

"That was the most emotional day of my life,'' Jon Fjeld said. "I woke up at 6 o'clock just worried sick. I was so worried that he'd have a bad game, blame himself and carry around more than he was already carrying. Usually I love games. Win or lose, you play well or you don't, you move on. This was different.''

When the game ended and the on-court celebration subsided, Evan climbed the bleachers to hug his father.

"All of a sudden I looked up and he was just there, two feet in front of me,'' said Jon, who could be seen on national television wiping tears from his eyes after the long embrace with his son.

A few days later, Jon was back in Durham for his wife's memorial service.

On Friday, he'll be in Buffalo when Vermont faces Syracuse.

Kathi Hahn, who is weak but leukemia-free, will be there too. She drew the lucky straw: Her son and husband are both in the same sub-regional. West Virginia plays Morgan State in the first game in Buffalo on Friday.

Kathi never met Susan. In fact, Matt didn't even tell his mother about the situation that so much mirrored his own.

"She was pissed, too,'' Matt said. "I just thought, I don't know, she's down there grinding and trying to beat this thing and she needs her strength. I didn't think she needed to know. I mean, why worry about that? It's a heavy load to carry, but I guess she could have carried it.''

Indeed.

As Evan Fjeld has learned, heavy burdens are eased when there is someone to share them with.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at esponeil@live.com.