A welcome escape from daily tribulations

With two sons hospitalized in little more than a year and mounting medical bills, coaching soccer keeps Largo's Gary Kolb "sane."

Published January 23, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - The whispers started to circulate through St. Petersburg Catholic's gymnasium during Saturday's girls junior varsity basketball game. As the varsity tipoff neared, the bleachers began to fill.

By the time the Barons peeled off into their pregame layup lines, spectators craned their necks toward the door, all searching for the same familiar face.

"Where's Joe?"

Whirlwind year

In one season, Largo boys soccer coach Gary Kolb has taken a team that won five matches last year and transformed it into a 13-game winner entering today's district tournament.

But as remarkable as the turnaround has been, it's just a small part of a whirlwind year for the Kolb family. Oldest son Adam is recovering from a pair of operations to remove a tumor on his brain stem. Youngest son Joe was paralyzed in November.

The brothers were playing backyard football in late 2005 when Tim, the middle son, pasted Adam.

Both boys were athletic and tough from playing soccer at SPC, so Adam dismissed the ringing in his head as nothing more than a battle scar.

"I just thought I'd whacked my head and maybe had a concussion or something," he said.

But the pain lingered, and occasional dizzy spells ensued.

"He refused to go to the doctor for like three weeks," the boys' mother, Eileen, said. "The dizziness was the last straw for him."

What the doctor found shook the family to its core.

"The doctors said it was a 50-50 chance, because the tumor was on his brain stem," Gary said. "He might wake up after surgery and be fine, but he might also not come out and be in a coma or become a vegetable."

The first operation to remove the tumor in December 2005 left Adam feeling surprisingly spry. But a followup visit revealed a second brain operation was necessary.

"Not again," Adam, 23, remembers thinking. "I was scared out of my mind."

This time, the recovery wasn't so easy. Neither was the infection caused when hydrocephalus, an accumulation of spinal fluid, set in. Nor the shunt, a permanent valve inserted in Adam's body from head to torso, to relieve the pressure. Nor the 38 days of radiation that followed.

"I stayed in bed all day for like five months," Adam said. "Who would want to go out?"

Gary, 51, knew his son needed a push. So, at the urging of some parents who remembered him as an assistant on the 1999 SPC team that went to the state final, he took the Largo job.

"Part of my plan was to get Adam out there with me," Gary said. "Soccer was something he loved, and I thought it would help him."

So father and son began coaching at Largo, which hadn't won a district tournament match since 1998. The team's success was satisfying, and Adam was active again. Life, it seemed, was back in order.

"Then the other shoe dropped," Eileen said.

More than a cut

Joe and a group of friends originally planned to see a movie on the night of Nov. 10. Instead, they headed to St. Petersburg's Demens Landing Marina. Joe and a friend were walking along one of the short docks when they lost their balance.

The two tumbled about 5 feet into the water. The top of Joe's skull smashed on the end table-sized rocks submerged just below the waterline.

His body went numb.

"Everything seemed like it was in slow motion," said Joe, 17. "And then I felt calm. Just so calm."

Gary and Eileen were watching television when a call came just after 10 p.m.

"Joe's friends said we needed to come to the hospital because Joe had cut his head," Gary said.

But when Gary and Eileen saw the look on their faces at the hospital, it became apparent Joe had suffered more than a gash.

Joe was paralyzed from the chest down.

Different meanings

Coaching and soccer have different meanings now.

"I coach to get away for a little," Gary said. "I need this to stay sane."

That's because there's a seemingly insurmountable number of things to do, whether it's taking Adam in for a followup visit, spending four hours a day with Joe or remodeling the family's Largo house to make it wheelchair accessible.

Help from friends has made the situation manageable.

Some bring the Kolbs meals, others have set up a trust fund. Mike McKenna, who runs Gulfshore Sports Store in Pinellas Park, sells T-shirts and rubber wristbands with Joe's name on them.

Gary, who makes around $80,000 a year from his flooring business (his coaching stipend is $1,750) and Eileen, who makes around $47,000 taking calls for the Pinellas County Sheriff's office, estimate the cost of their sons' medical bills at just under $500,000, and that doesn't include the price tag on overhauling their home.

"We all do whatever we can," said Dan Porter, a family friend for nearly 15 years. "This family is an inspiration."

Happy homecoming

With the rest of the family in tow, Gary wheeled Joe into SPC's gym Saturday night, the first time Joe had been back to the school since his accident. Unlike his brothers, he didn't play sports at SPC. But he seldom missed a basketball game.

"He was always the vocal leader of the student section," Porter said.

One by one, students, teachers and fans greeted Joe, who has regained partial feeling in his arms. They offered courage, faith and strength - the three words engraved on the wristbands McKenna makes. Then, just before the national anthem, the announcer introduced Joe.

The crowd responded with a standing ovation - one that lasted more than a minute. Spurred by the sight of one of its biggest fans, SPC went on to defeat rival Academy of the Holy Names.

"It's incredible how this tragedy has brought our community closer," Porter said. "And despite the circumstances, we are all better people for knowing the Kolbs."

. Helping Hands

Trust fund

A trust fund has been set up to assist the Kolb family. The address is:

Joseph Kolb Family & Medical Assistance Fund

Bank of America

13625 Belcher Road South

Largo, FL 33773