Bruce Guthrie

Arkansas Democrat Gazette / Tri-Lakes Edition

These days, a big smile adorns the face of Benton Panthers football coach Scott Neathery.

In recent weeks, Neathery’s Panthers have completed one of the most successful seasons in the program’s history, winning 11 games. The only 2014 blemishes came at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock in a 14-14 tie to Bryant in the Salt Bowl that began the season, and a 51-10 loss to Pine Bluff in the state championship game on Dec. 6.

Even though 2014 ended with a loss, Neathery still glows about his Panthers’ outstanding season. That’s because Neathery and those closest to him have seen him go through much tougher times than swallowing a state-championship loss.

There have been bad days in the last seven years when Benton wasn’t winning more than two or three football games per season. There were even tougher days on the football field when the Panthers were on the wrong end of mercy-rule games.

But for Neathery personally, the lowest points happened in September 2006.

During that preceding summer, Neathery was hired at Sheridan for his first head-football-coaching job. He put his stamp on the program immediately by giving his players the acronym TCC, which stands for trust, character and commitment. Neathery was ready to take the helm and did so with everything he had, pledging himself to those young Yellowjackets.

But his promise would be quickly tested.

On Sept. 1, 2006, Neathery was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. His doctor advised him to leave immediately for the M.D. Anderson Cancer Institute in Houston, but Neathery insisted that he coach that night’s season-opening game at Malvern.

It would be Neathery’s first and last game on the Sheridan sideline.

After a tough Yellowjackets loss, Neathery gathered his players and told them they were also losing their coach and announced that he was stepping away to fight his disease.

Benji White, who is Neathery’s assistant head coach today at Benton, served in the same capacity alongside his longtime friend at Sheridan and was in the locker room following that double loss for the Blue and Gold.

“There were some tears,” White said, “some confusion by the kids, a lot of concern. It was a confusing and upsetting moment.”

White took over the Yellowjackets coaching job after Neathery left that weekend to begin receiving treatments for the disease, a type of cancer which the National Cancer Institute website explains is “of the blood and bone marrow” and “usually gets worse quickly if … not treated.”

Neathery’s wife, Karla, who is Benton High School’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, wrote an account on Caring Bridge — an interactive website at M.D. Anderson — describing how the couple discovered her husband’s illness.

“Scott has been very sick this summer,” Karla wrote. “We had attributed his fatigue to his new job as the head football coach in Sheridan. The symptoms were fatigue, weight loss, mouth ulcers, bleeding gums, painful joints and swollen ankles. We soon realized that this was a lot more than stress.”

Insurance became an obstacle for the Neatherys. When Karla offered to return to Little Rock, doctors in Houston advised her that Scott wouldn’t survive the return trip. Agreeing to stay, Scott was treated for two months on-site in Houston.

Times were hard on the family, but Karla kept faith.

“God simply provided for our family in so many ways during [the] year,” Karla said.

The team, the school and the residents of Sheridan rallied around Neathery. A widespread campaign began not only to raise funds for his family, but to raise awareness of leukemia by distributing “TCC” bracelets throughout several central-Arkansas communities.

Scott never returned to the Sheridan sideline, but he did accept the open athletic director position at Benton in 2007 — a position that would allow him to work in athletics without the daily grind outdoors which, especially during often sweltering August practices, took a toll on him.

During his tenure as Panthers’ AD, he watched the boys basketball team finish as state runner-up and the baseball team win a 6A title. He was instrumental in the early stages of developing the athletic complex that the Panthers enjoy today.

In the spring of 2009, Neathery hired Steve Quinn to take over the football program, and the Panthers won a single game — an overtime thriller with Little Rock Fair. Neathery and Quinn traded positions the next year.

From there, the program slowly but steadily improved. The Panthers won a playoff game in each of the past two seasons, and in 2014, things came together.

The team rallied after the opening tie against Bryant and put up nine straight regular-season wins, scoring 399 points in that stretch, including a 66-0 win over Jacksonville in Week 2 and a 39-36 nail-biter at Pine Bluff in the regular-season finale.

“I’m real proud of our boys,” Neathery said. “I”m proud of our kids and the people that wanted to see our football program flourish.”

Neathery doesn’t like to think about his cancer days much, but admits that he thought about his cancer battle briefly during the days leading up to Benton’s battle with Pine Bluff for the 6A state championship.

“I went from being down and out, and I guess almost dying, to being able to do what I want to do,” Neathery said, “play a game for a living. How many people can say they play a game for a living? I feel very fortunate to be able to do that.”

With cancer a distant memory, Neathery and his Panther coaching brethren are going about the business of winning football games, but more importantly, building exceptional young men.

“He fought cancer, he beat it, and he moved on,” White said. “We’ve kept moving forward with everything we did. We haven’t thought about him being sick until now.”

Now is the key word. The Neatherys live in a now where cancer is no longer part of the vernacular, in a now where Scott is back to a normal life, in a now where Benton Panther football is relevant once again.

The Panthers may have lost a state title on that field at War Memorial Stadium, but to their head coach, they will be nothing less than champions.