Originally Published: January 17, 2009 10:33 p.m.
Chuck Apap, veteran high school football coach and heart surgery survivor, compares victory on the gridiron to that of a fleeting butterfly.
"If you leave it alone, it will land on your shoulder," the Bradshaw Mountain High School football coach says in a warm, sincere voice. "But if you chase it, it will fly away. It's just like I tell my players, if you do all the things that are right, that butterfly's going to land and we're all going to enjoy it."
For Apap, how true that eloquent statement is - not only in his quest for championships, but life in general.
On the morning of July 27, 2008, Apap was working hard in his yard at home when, unbeknownst to him, he had a heart attack. His wife, Carrie Ann, was at a conference in California.
After a couple hours, Apap's neighbor, who had heart surgery six months earlier, walked over to Apap and told him he looked a little tired.
"We were doing some work around the house cutting trees and moving rocks and stones. I went and sat down and my chest started bothering me," Apap said. "I went in the house and laid down on the floor and said, 'Something's wrong.'"
Apap called his niece and nephew and asked them to take him to the hospital.
"Fifty-five minutes after I was there, they confirmed I had a heart attack," he said.
Shortly thereafter, doctors determined Apap had six blockages in the arteries leading to his heart, all of which were major clogs.
Doctors took care of Apap in the hospital for four or five days until renowned heart surgeon, Dr. Pierre Tibi, performed Apap's three- to four-hour surgery in Prescott.
Apap's two sons, Chris, 35, and Chad, 33, flew in from his native Michigan to comfort their father.
After the procedure, Carrie Ann, a certified hypno-therapist, told her husband she did not want him coaching at all in the coming fall. She prepared Apap for surgery by making a CD for him that focused on staying positive and avoiding stress.
He was chasing the butterfly and not letting it come to him.
"My wife is not a demanding person, but she became one," said Apap, who has been married to Carrie Ann for 38 years. "I don't like upsetting her, but I felt I had to do what I had to do. She knows I'm better now."
Carrie Ann said her first priority initially was getting Chuck's mind right to prepare him for a major surgery.
"It's an interesting experience because Chuck has always been really vital and really healthy," she said on Saturday. "All of the sudden, he's in this situation and, for me, it was kind of scary and yet I am so aware of how the mind and body work together."
A week after his surgery, as he was heading for a follow-up exam with Tibi, Apap suffered a mini-stroke and went to the hospital again for three days. Although he did not suffer any permanent paralysis, Apap still has trouble with the peripheral vision on his right side.
Despite his struggles, Apap decided to return to coaching immediately. He felt so committed to his program, particularly his coaching staff and players, that he did not want to leave them in the lurch amid criticism from fans.
Apap was chasing the butterfly and not letting it come to him.
"There were some people that were giving them (my assistants) a really hard time," he said. "So I talked to my doctor and said, 'Let me go back a little.'"
Before autumn hit, doctors told Apap he could coach from the press box, but they prohibited him from pacing the sidelines.
"I didn't feel it was appropriate for him to coach this year," Carrie Ann said. "That was a tough experience. I know how passionate Chuck is about coaching and I've always supported him in his choice to coach and dedicate so much of his life to that. But I could see that he was really pushing it. I wanted him to heal his body first."
As the 2008 season progressed, Humboldt Unified School District Superintendent Henry Schmitt called Apap into his office.
"The superintendent said, 'Look, you're not teaching right now and we're going to reassign you because we think you need to go home and rest,'" Apap said.
Although it was emotionally heart wrenching, Apap listened to his boss and momentarily left football, staying away from his players and coaches. He went back to teaching math in November - and stopped chasing the butterfly.
After administrators kept a close eye on him for two or three weeks, they talked about reinstating him as head coach.
Now, he's back as the Bears' coach and ready to go with Carrie Ann by his side.
"I knew I should've gone on leave, but I care about my assistant coaches and the program we put in place for the past three years," he said. "Everybody thinks they're like Superman. I was a little different. I wasn't as patient as I normally am."
Today, Apap said he's glad to be coaching again.
"I'm not bitter. I'm not upset at anybody," he said. "I'm there to coach kids."
Since the end of September, Apap has been working out at Yavapai Regional Medical Center's Pendleton Center for an hour and 20 minutes three times a week.
He arrives on the second floor of the Del E. Webb Outpatient Center, 3262 Windsong Drive, at 2:45 p.m., right after school.
Apap hits the treadmill first before moving on to the stationary bike and weightlifting. He labors to strengthen his leg and arm muscles, as well as his abdomen.
Prior to and after each workout, an exercise physiologist takes and charts his blood pressure to ensure it's in the normal range.
"I work about 55 minutes on these types of machines to get my heart going," Apap said.
YRMC exercise physiologist Sheila Brawn said Apap has gone through cardiac rehab and is doing well in the center's adult fitness program, which is medically supervised without an EKG monitor.
"He's been very dedicated and very motivated to make the lifestyle changes that he's needed to," Brawn said. "He's following a lower saturated fat, lower sodium diet. He needs to stay active and keep moving, along with keeping a good diet and managing stress."
Apap has exercised more in the past three months than he has in 15 years. As a result, he's shed 25 pounds from his 5-foot-7, 195-pound frame. At his peak weight, Apap was 230.
Months before he had his heart attack, Apap said his energy level would drag occasionally.
"The one thing I noticed by the end of the school day and at practice is that I didn't have the total energy that I always had," he said. "I thought, 'Well, I turned 60, I must be getting older.'"
Currently, Apap eats a steady diet of chicken, fish and turkey, but he stays away from red meat.
"This program is exceptional," he said. "I can do things again. I feel good."
Fifteen years ago, Apap had a knee replaced and cut back on exercise. Now, he has no choice but to do it.
He knows better than to chase the butterfly too far this time.
"I'm just happy I'm alive," Apap said Friday, as he walked the treadmill. "Right now, we're all excited. I'm back on the horse, and I'm riding it hard."