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One Tough Customer
Michael Silver
April 26, 1999
Outspoken Niners assistant Bobb McKittrick is battling cancer and liver disease with the same fierce determination that made him one of the best coaches in the game
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April 26, 1999

One Tough Customer

Outspoken Niners assistant Bobb McKittrick is battling cancer and liver disease with the same fierce determination that made him one of the best coaches in the game

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Alas, McKittrick's prowess as a coach is not at the forefront of his friends' minds. Call someone looking for a quote, and instead of answers you get questions: How's Bobb? Is he going to get his liver? The answers are unclear, but things could be better. The chemotherapy has sapped McKittrick, and last weekend he was hospitalized with a 104° temperature. He has another worry. In mid-March, Teckla was rushed to Stanford's emergency room with what doctors feared was a heart attack. It turned out to be a problem with her gallbladder, which is scheduled to be removed in early May. The doctors would like Bobb to finish fighting the cancer before replacing his liver, but he's one of many on a waiting list, and the timing is largely out of their control.

Recently McKittrick was at Stanford shuttling between appointments when a team of physicians tracked him down. They ushered him and Teckla into a room and informed them that a liver had become available. The chief transplant surgeon, Carlos Esquivel, then explained the various risks, including the possibility that Bobb could die on the operating table. The doctors said they needed a decision within two hours. Teckla broke into tears. Bobb stroked her hand, calmly questioned the doctors and finally said, "Let's do it."

He was told to return to the hospital later that afternoon for surgery. Teckla worried that he had rushed his decision, but Bobb said, "I made a life-altering decision 40 years ago in 20 minutes, and I haven't regretted it." He was sitting in the living room of his house when the phone rang. A nurse told him the doctors had found the liver to be unsuitable. When he repeated the news, Teckla's knees buckled and she fainted. Bobb took the news in stride.

"He has incredibly tough skin," Barton says of his coach. "It's a crisis situation, but he won't show a weakness."

Barton lets his thought hang for a moment; it occurs that he might want to say a Jewish prayer right about now. "Believe me," Barton says, "I will." He won't be alone.

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