Carlson: How OU football provides respite from pancreatic cancer for member of Sooner radio crew
Wednesday and Thursday are Greg Blackwood’s worst days.
He gets chemo on Tuesdays at the Stephenson Cancer Center, and the next two days, his side effects peak. Weakness. Fatigue. Nausea.
Thankfully, the rest of the week is good for Blackwood.
But Saturday is his best day.
It’s not just because his side effects subside. Blackwood is part of the OU football radio crew, working as the spotter for play-by-play man Toby Rowland. Once the game starts, Blackwood has found those three or four (or more if Texas is involved) hours are paradise.
“I’m just so excited to do it, maybe endorphins, something inside of you, blocks out all of the bad stuff,” he said. “I’m just so into that moment, so focused on doing that job, and it hasn’t been a problem.
“Not one time have I been in the middle of a game and thought, ‘This is pretty hard.’”
There is no pain.
There is only Sooner football.
During a season in which many Sooner fans have been disappointed — two losses and blown leads have caused lots of grumbling — Greg Blackwood sees hope in OU football. Games are his happy place. Football is his escape.
He has relished being part of the OU radio crew since his first game in 2011, but now his job has taken on added importance.
“The fact that he is there despite everything he’s going through?” Rowland said. “It would be really easy to just say, ‘You know what? I don’t feel good this week.’
“We know what it means to him, and we know what he means to us.”
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Blackwood has long thought of Rowland and the rest of the crew as a dream team.
Now, they are helping him live through a nightmare.
Greg Blackwood had never worked as a spotter when he asked Toby Rowland if he needed one.
“I’ll be your spotter the rest of my life,” Rowland remembers Blackwood saying.
“That’s funny,” Rowland replied.
The two have known each other for years, working together at News 9, the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City. Blackwood was the easy-going, always-smiling photojournalist covering sports, and Rowland was the ever-accommodating weekend sports anchor.
“We were great friends,” Rowland said. “It’s hard not to get along with Greg.”
But as tight as they were, Rowland didn’t think he needed a spotter back in March 2011 when OU selected him as its new play-by-play man. The previous crew was carrying over. No one was leaving.
After the spring game, though, Rowland decided to make a couple changes. He wanted more chemistry in the booth, wanted to have some people he knew alongside him. So, Rowland called Blackwood.
Rowland: “Were you serious about that spotter thing?”
Blackwood: “It would be an absolute dream.”
For the past decade, Blackwood has perched right next to Rowland and provided an extra set of eyes. Substitutions. Injuries. Who made the block, drew the penalty or caused the fumble.
Blackwood will point to the spotter boards or use hand signals with Rowland as much as possible.
“So there’s not a lot of traffic on the headsets,” Blackwood said. “Just to really help him so he can concentrate on providing the image for people.”
Blackwood might make it sound easy, but Rowland says Blackwood does his job as well as any spotter at any level anywhere. He sees so much at once, picking up on key details and knowing where Rowland needs his assistance.
“He can tell if I didn’t immediately pick up who the wide receiver was who caught the pass — sometimes a guy will be turned sideways, and you can’t see the number right away — and he will see it,” Rowland said.
“It’s a position that I don’t know that everyone out there knows even exists that is extremely, extremely valuable in what we do.”
Blackwood, who still works at News 9 as chief photojournalist, has also carried some of his day job into the radio booth. He’s always taking pictures, and early on, he started mounting his cell phone in a corner and turning on the video recorder when he thought something big was about to happen. He captured all sorts of cool moments.
Now, radio and television crews everywhere have cameras mounted in front of them to capture notable calls.
He brought that innovation to the radio booth.
But more than anything, he’s brought his positivity, his energy, his spirit.
“It was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my career, bringing him on board the OU radio crew,” Rowland said.
Blackwood had no idea how important it would be to him in 2020.
Early in March, Greg Blackwood started having pain right below his rib cage after eating.
“And I couldn’t get comfortable,” he said.
He tried laying down, moving around, going for a walk, but nothing relieved the pain. After about a week, Blackwood scheduled an appointment with a digestive disease specialist.
Then the pandemic hit.
His appointment got pushed back nearly a month, and when Blackwood finally went, the doctor thought the problem might be irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis or even Crohn’s disease. Tests were scheduled.
Right before Blackwood’s first test, he was diagnosed with COVID-19.
He recovered, but he continued having pain in his stomach. One night, it was so severe, Blackwood decided he needed to go to the emergency room. Doctors there did a scan and discovered the problem.
Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Over the next few days, Blackwood and his wife, Dana, researched their options and decided to go to Stephenson Cancer Center at the OU Health Sciences Center. Not only is it one of the country’s leading cancer hospitals, but it also does clinical trials such as immunotherapy similar to what Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek and former U.S. Senator Harry Reid took for their pancreatic cancer.
In late July, Blackwood started treatment.
Three weeks on.
One week off.
Initially, his treatments were on Wednesday, but after he realized the two days after were worst, he knew he didn’t want Friday to be bad during football season. That’s a travel day when OU has an away game, so he asked to change his treatment to Tuesdays.
Yes, he moved chemo for OU football.
But even his good days aren’t perfect. He has constant tingling in his feet and fingers, and his taste and smell have been altered. Sometimes, he’ll even have a wave of nausea. It’s happened a couple times before games.
But nothing has kept him out of the booth.
“It’s a dream job,” he said. “If it paid better, that’s all I would do.”
“I’m just kidding. I’d do it for free.”
Greg Blackwood understands the road ahead will be difficult.
Those who know him best say he’s a realist.
“He understands the severity of it,” said Jenny Wagnon. “But he also knows that a positive attitude goes a long way.”
Wagnon and Blackwood have been friends for the better part of three decades, meeting and getting to know each other at News 9, but their circle of friends drew even closer after the OSU plane crash killed co-worker and friend Bill Teegins. Blackwood was one of the speakers at Teegins' funeral, and in those days after, the friends realized they needed each other’s support.
And after Blackwood got his diagnosis, the group got on a call with him. There was Wagnon, who now lives and works in Philadelphia. There was Alex Cameron, who is still with News 9 but works out of Washington, D.C. And there was Chris Harrison, who got his start at News 9 and now hosts “The Bachelor.”
They talked and laughed and cried.
“I think at one point, he was kind of carrying the other three of us on the call,” Wagnon said of Blackwood. “He was like, ‘We’re not gonna be sad, and we’re gonna live life.’
“Honestly, his hope really inspired us.”
Blackwood’s always-positive attitude is coming back to him now. There have been so many wonderful tokens of support. Food deliveries. Text messages. Videos. A blanket made out of OU T-shirts that keeps him warm in the treatment room. A bike from Wagnon, Cameron and Harrison that allows him to get outside and work on building up his strength.
Blackwood has so many family and friends on his team.
“I can’t let those people down,” he said.
So many have done so much to give him hope. He clings to it.
But Greg Blackwood has generated much of the good will that he is receiving these days. People see his attitude — still working for News 9, still being part of the OU radio crew, still smiling — and they can't help but be hopeful, too.
“He’s just one of the most positive people I’ve ever met,” Rowland said. “That positivity is the reason he’s gonna beat this.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.