As Pete Billick approaches his 80th birthday, the former Andrean football coach didn't think he would make it to half that age.
At age 39, Billick was diagnosed with cancer to his vocal chords. On May 20, 1973 he underwent surgery to remove the cancerous chords and part of his trachea. Even 40 years later, the Gary native can remember the diagnosis, the stress on wife Mary Ann and their four young children.
"I didn't know what was going to happen," Billick said. "I shed a tear the night before the surgery because I did not know if I would be alive tomorrow."
Dr. George Sisson at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago performed the surgery. Billick recalled looking down from a window onto the downtown Chicago streets.
"For a moment, I almost felt like just jumping out the window," Billick said.
Billick said he was originally diagnosed with a deep sinus infection, but a neighbor suggested he get an appointment at Northwestern Memorial, and that was when it was discovered he had throat cancer.
"The doctors said that it was part environment and part profession as to why," Billick said. "As a coach, I used my vocal chords quite a bit."
After the surgery, he had to go to speech therapy and with no voice box, he knew it would be hard, but not impossible to talk again. He said he eventually fashioned a device from a Binky pacifier.
"That was my vibration that people have when they talk," he said. "I worked with it, trimmed the part babies suck on until it fit into the hole in my neck."
Billick did not miss any football and was back coaching in August of 1973. In the classroom, where he taught industrial arts and mechanical drawing, he had a microphone to amplify his voice.
Billick said he spent 21 years working with patients at Northwestern Memorial who had the same procedure.
Though he grew up in Gary, near Emerson High School, he went to Mount Carmel and is a 1951 grad. He ran track for four years and played football for two.
"I got accepted to Notre Dame and my parents said it would be better if I worked," Billick said. "Make some money and also keep up my grades.
"So what happens? Mount Carmel wins the (1950) Prep Bowl."
The 1950 Caravan squad, coached by Terry Brennan, is considered the best team in Illinois football history.
Billick went to Notre Dame and graduated in 1956 with a degree in art and an emphasis on architecture. He actually worked for the firm that designed Andrean High School, which opened in 1959. It eventually opened the door for Billick to come there in 1962.
Billick, who coached track for several years, was an assistant football coach and became the 59ers head coach in 1972. His first team tied Emerson and West Side for the Northwestern Conference title. There were no playoffs then, but the 59ers beat West Side 26-0 in the final game of the season.
He was 58-42 in 10 years as head coach. His final season was 1981, and there's some question whether he resigned or was fired.
"No, I didn't," Billick said. "(The administration) told me that after 10 years it was time for a change. What was I going to do? I stayed because I was almost 50, and where was I going to get a job?"
He stayed on and continued to coach track before retiring in 1993. He was also an assistant football coach at Whiting from 1983-1990.
He coached his son Larry at Andrean and was an assistant coach for the North squad in the 1977 North-South football game.
"I have no complaints or regrets," Billick said. "I had a great time, coached some great kids and coached against some great coaches."
He and Mary Ann have been married for 56 years and have four children -- Larry (Denise), Debbi (Greg) Ashcraft, Carol (David) Hamm, and Sandra (Jamie) Caylor-*. The Billicks have six grandchildren.
* -- This story was modified on Aug. 19, 2013.