What does it take to be someone's hero? Maria Whitehead graced this earth for just 25 years, but she was more than a few people's hero.
In Whitehead's case, a hero can be 5-foot-3 on a good day. A hero can be a little goofy and can swear with the best of them. Most of all, a hero is unfailingly positive and approaches everything with a passion you just don't see everyday.
Whitehead, who many friends just called "Re," brought that positivity and passion to field hockey, to her personal life-and to her battle with cancer.
She lost that battle Nov. 1 after fighting through a year of treatment at the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at the Duke Medical Center, during which time she served as an assistant coach for Duke's field hockey program. Right up until the final weekend of her life, Whitehead was with her girls, doing what she loved.
Field hockey had been her primary passion ever since her parents bribed her into taking up the sport in the eighth grade, fearing that she would get hurt in co-ed soccer.
"She really wanted this coat, and we said we would buy it for her if she would try field hockey," said her father, Bill Whitehead. "That was the best investment we ever made, that coat."
She had an innate ability for field hockey, and her enthusiasm for the sport-and for life-was contagious.
A small girl in a physical game, Whitehead was always underestimated but used her grit and skill to constantly surpass expectations.
A two-time All-ACC selection, Whitehead led Wake Forest to its first national championship as a senior captain in 2002. Then, two months after graduating, she achieved the goal she had held since high school and became the youngest head coach in the nation at St. Louis, helping to rebuild a program that had posted a 2-18 record the previous year.
She even surpassed expectations in continuing to live.
Whitehead had been through three surgeries to remove melanoma from her body. She survived 12 months longer than some doctors had anticipated. She had been through countless bouts of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
And yet, when the overachiever finally succumbed last month to the cancer that had spread from her back to her brain, lungs and liver, no one who knew her could believe it.
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"She was our hero, and you don't think of your hero as beatable, so we were sure she would beat it," said Angela Lombardo, who played under Whitehead at St. Louis.
The shock came in part from the strong face Whitehead put on around everyone. Even as she went through more than a year of intensive treatment, coaches and players never heard complaints. Her doctors and parents were the only ones to see the truly weak moments that every cancer patient goes through.
"She was always so positive that she tricked us into thinking it wasn't as bad as it was," Duke senior Amy Stopford said.
Like the fighter she was, Whitehead didn't even think about defeat.
"I don't think she ever accepted it," said Dr. Henry Friedman, deputy director of the Tisch Center. "I think she died thinking she was going to win."
Her death also seemed so sudden because of how active she remained-she attended every one of Duke's regular-season games.
On Oct. 28, only a couple weeks after finding out that her liver was riddled with cancerous cells and just four days before she passed away, Whitehead showed up to watch the Blue Devil seniors in their final home game. She was so weak that at the end of the game, she had to be helped across the field to Duke's bench.
There, each of the Duke players embraced her, but she looked so frail, the girls were scared to hug her too tight.
"It's hard to fathom the strength she must have had to come watch us play," Stopford said. "Those were the last few days of her life. It's amazing to think how much we must have meant to her for her to do that."
But her girls were playing, and going through the effort to make it to their game was just like Whitehead. She was the type of person who never met a stranger and often went out of her way to make sure someone was acknowledged-several friends said the hardest part of the illness for Whitehead was that everyone was always worrying about her.
"She always wanted to leave something with you through her personality and her spirit," Lombardo said. "Even if it was just an e-mail or a thank-you note or a comment, you could tell she noticed who you were."
Although, she made it to every game while going through treatment, Whitehead was still not satisfied with her contribution to the Duke team. Whitehead even asked Duke head coach Beth Bozman if Bozman regretted bringing her on as a full assistant for the season.
"It really kind of broke my heart," Bozman said. "With all that she did for us, she was still wishing she could do more."
A bundle of energy, Whitehead always had to be active, and she could-and did-turn anything and everything into a competition. She challenged players and friends to dancing contests, basketball-dribbling competitions and games of Ping-Pong or Scrabble. She would make small bets on anything, even if it was what would happen in a TV show. As long as it was something that could be won, Maria was on board.
"She had all these little fun games, and they were so much better because she would get really into it," said Kristin Lueders, who played for Whitehead at St. Louis.
Lueders and Whitehead had their own traditional competition. After practices, the two would fire shots at the cage to see who could hit the two-inch wide crossbar first. Whitehead rarely lost, but if she did, well, those close to her knew they were probably better off not talking to her for a while.
Whitehead detested losing, so she would avoid it at all costs. Bozman would often remind Re that when she played, she was "the dirtiest player in the ACC."
Friedman once took Whitehead with him to a Duke women's basketball game, where he sits in the front row behind the basket and has a contest with the people in his row as to who can catch the most loose balls that come out of bounds. Friedman decided to let Whitehead play, not thinking the 5-foot-2 dervish would get many balls. He realized just how wrong he was when Whitehead nearly knocked him over to get the first ball that came their way.
"I thought we'd let her catch a ball every now and then," he said. "She won [the contest] that year. Nobody was going to get close to her because they didn't want an elbow to the face."
Whitehead's competitive, whatever-it-takes mentality quickly translated over to her cancer treatment.
"She tackled the problem like she would tackle anything in sports," said Friedman, who grew so close to Whitehead that he called her every night to check on her. "She was going to compete and do anything to win, and she was the ideal patient in that sense."
Faced with metastatic melanoma, which has a normal life expectancy of two to six months, Whitehead was willing to take risks with her medication in order to give herself a chance. With her doctors, she decided to try medications normally reserved for patients with primary brain tumors, rather than her case, in which the cancer had spread from other areas.
"She was willing to think outside the box of therapy in order to get the best chance to live," Friedman said. "She wasn't going to accept the routine gospel of 'You're going to die.'"
Whitehead had brain surgery in September of 2005 and surgery on her lungs in June 2006. She suffered through deteriorated eyesight due to radiation and the constantly weakened state that comes from chemotherapy. Her parents consistently made extended trips from their home in West Chester, Pa., to be by her side, which surprised no one, since they had traveled to most games she played or coached in, driving and flying for years to Winston-Salem, St. Louis and Durham.
In early October 2006, she was accepted into a new treatment program by Dr. Steven Rosenberg in Washington, D.C. that offered new hope. But the melanoma in her liver did not allow her to survive to make it into the program.
Whitehead was first diagnosed with melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer that 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with each year, when doctors found a spot on her back in February 2005. She had caught it early, and with surgery to remove the tumor in April, she thought she had eliminated the threat.
But while still head coach at St. Louis in early September of 2005, Whitehead noticed a small lump on her back the size of a pea. On Sept. 16, just as she and her father were about to sit down for dinner, Whitehead found out the cancer had returned to her back and had also spread to a spot on her brain.
"We were absolutely numb," Patti Whitehead, Maria's mother, said. "We couldn't believe it."
The devastating news would have laid most people up in a bed for days. But her girls were playing at Miami of Ohio, and she wasn't going to miss that game. She and her father jumped in her car the next day and even got a speeding ticket trying to shorten the five-and-a-half hour drive.
Whitehead got to the game at halftime and saw her team fall to Miami. After the contest, Whitehead gathered the players in her hotel room. She sat on a table while the girls, so many just a few years younger than her, sprawled out across the room in nervous anticipation.
The players knew something was up. Re didn't miss practices, let alone games. The previous April, two days after her first surgery, she was out on the field, coaching and demonstrating in spring practice, clearly against doctors' orders. And Maria paid for it-she tore open her fresh stitches.
"She never let cancer hold her back from who she was," said Marcie Boyer, who was an assistant under Whitehead that spring. "She was going to still be out on the field. It probably wasn't the best thing for her, but she never held back. She just pushed through it and never let her cancer slow her down."
Sitting in that hotel room, Whitehead was direct, while still trying not to let on how serious her situation had become.
"She told them, 'My cancer's back and it's in my brain now. So basically they're going to have crack my head open, go in there and cut it out and sew it back together, and I'll be good to go,'" Katie Kanara, then an assistant at St. Louis, recalled.
But the players could see beyond the tough talk to their young coach's fear. Whitehead finally broke down as she saw all the tears in her players' eyes.
"You work with these kids every day, and you see them all over emotionally, but we saw the look of them being scared for her, and that's not something we're used to," Kanara said. "We get the pissed-off, the tired look, but not that. And the hard part for her was seeing the girls' reactions."
The next day, Whitehead coached her final game at St. Louis, a win over Davidson, before leaving to search for a hospital where she could receive treatment. Bozman reached out to the Tisch Center on her behalf, and the center made a fairly rare exception to treat her, even though she did not have a primary brain tumor.
"Once we met her, it was impossible not to want to work with her," Friedman said.
Whitehead moved to Durham last fall and volunteered to help out with the Duke field hockey team in whatever way she could. Many of the players already knew her from national teams and summer camps, and it was only a matter of days before Whitehead was a full part of the team.
But her other girls were playing, and she flew back to St. Louis to surprise them on Oct. 30-Senior Day.
As the team emerged from the locker room, there, standing on their way to the field, was Whitehead, wearing a hat to cover her now-bald scalp. Tears flowed as the players saw their coach for the first time in more than a month, but Re wouldn't let things get too emotional.
"Get over it guys," Whitehead told them with a smile. "I flew all the way here to watch a win."
Whitehead didn't get to see a victory, but after the game, she challenged Lueders to a round of their crossbar competition.
"She said, 'You know what we've got to do.' So I went and got the bucket of balls, and we played like we always did," Lueders said.
Well, it wasn't exactly like old times. Whitehead was physically weak and the girl who could amaze on the hockey field had lost some of her touch.
But she was as lively and competitive as ever, laughing with her girls and firing shots at the crossbar.
What does it take to be someone's hero?
Sometimes, it's just about being there, no matter what.