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NMU AD Ken Godfrey returns from Mayo Clinic with new outlook after battling leukemia

Man with a vision

August 29, 2011
By MATT WELLENS - Journal Sports Editor ( , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - While Northern Michigan University Athletic Director Ken Godfrey was at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., fighting acute myeloid leukemia, he observed everyone and everything from the doctors at the hospitals to the residents of Rochester.

What Godfrey learned there, he now hopes to bring back to Marquette and the NMU athletic department.

"As far my new vision for this department, being at Mayo Clinic, I learned so much," Godfrey said.

Article Photos

Northern?Michigan University athletic director Ken Godfrey runs with Dennis Whitley, left, and Wildcat Willy, mascot for Northern Michigan University, in a past “Run for a Reason” to raise money for the NMU?athletic department. Godfrey has always tried to stay in shape and the practice helped him during his battle with acute myeloid leukemia. Godfrey was diagnosed with the disease in Oct. 18, 2010 and returned to work at Northern this month. (Journal file photo)

"I've never seen a place that is so well oiled and everybody is on the same page. Everybody we dealt with had a positive attitude, a real pride in working there. It's just amazing."

Godfrey spent four months in Rochester receiving treatment at the Mayo Clinic and continues to make the eight-and-a-half hour drive for appointments while also receiving treatment at Marquette General Hospital.

The Wildcat athletic director since 2003 who first came to NMU in 1979 as the man in charge of recreational services not only has a new outlook on life, but he's developed a new vision for his department and how it should operate.

Godfrey wants at NMU what Mayo Clinic has in Rochester.

"I can't just speak highly enough of the place," Godfrey said. "They are so detail oriented. They call all the time, they email. You know exactly what the status is.

"That's what I'd like to create in this department. The same type of pride, the same type of positive work environment. It's going to be easier said then done. It's basically changing a culture."

For Godfrey, it all starts with keeping a positive attitude.

Attitude is one of the biggest things that stood out to Godfrey at Mayo. As he shuffled through the various departments for treatment and such, he always thought he'd encounter at least one person who wasn't a ray of sunshine.

But he didn't.

The positive attitude of those who worked at Mayo Clinic rubbed off on Godfrey, who said his own positive attitude was key during his treatment.

"I'm a firm believer that attitude is very important after what I've been through," Godfrey said. "It's extremely important to keep a positive attitude. It doesn't do a bit of good to look at the negative. What good does it do?

"You can make excuses, blame things, you can blame other people, but it doesn't do any good what-so-ever. That's what I want to change. I want to make sure everyone is on the same page, everybody is working for a common goal."

Godfrey wants more input, not just complaints, from his staff on how things operate at NMU because - going back to having a positive attitude - it does no good to just complain about something unless you have a solution, the NMU AD said.

And Godfrey doesn't just want to hear from his administrative team or NMU's intercollegiate coaching staffs. He wants to hear from the person checking in students at the PEIF, the instructor at the climbing wall, the backup goaltender on the soccer team or an intramural kickball referee.

Godfrey wants everyone in the athletic department to understand that their problems are everyone's problems in the department. Now what can be done to fix it?

"It doesn't do any good to complain about them unless we have a solution to them," Godfrey said. "We can work on those solutions. Some are doable, and some aren't. I think we have to keep raising the bar. I think we have to continuously look for improvement."

Godfrey has taken the philosophy that everyone in the department is a No. 1 priority. It stems from his time at Mayo where he encountered a wide range of people, from farmers and loggers to patients who arrived in limousines from far corners of the globe with bodyguards.

No matter who a patient was, not matter where they came from, no matter how much money was in their pocket or who their insurance carrier was - if they even had insurance - the people at Mayo treated everyone like a No. 1 priority, Godfrey said.

"Every person that participates is very important to us and that's how we are going to deal with it," Godfrey said. "I don't care if it's the 104th person on the football team. If he is on the roster, he's important to us. We'll take care of him. He contributes. That's the way we're going to approach things."

Oct. 18, 2010, 3:45 p.m.

Godfrey admitted to not being one to run to the doctor much, except for a yearly check up, prior to being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, but after feeling run down for days and unable to do anything, he scheduled an appointment at the NMU Health Center on campus.

His appointment was scheduled for Monday, Oct. 18, 2010 at 3:45 p.m. It's a date and time he'll never forget.

"I'll never forget that day," He said. "I'll never forget calling my wife and saying, 'I'm in the emergency room. Everything is under control.' I didn't know what the hell I was talking about."

Godfrey thought he was just run down from the busy fall sports season and doctors initially thought he had mononucleosis, but after running tests, Godfrey was informed by doctors he had leukemia.

"I thought they were talking to someone else in the room and I knew I was the only one in there. It was probably the biggest shock of my life," Godfrey said.

"I always thought everybody else gets cancer, not myself or any friends or family. Well, it happens. No matter what you do."

Godfrey said he went from the NMU Health Center to the emergency room at Marquette General where he met his wife and daughter who was in town. More tests were run and the diagnoses of leukemia was confirmed.

From there, Godfrey underwent chemotherapy at Marquette General before heading to Mayo Clinic.

"It was 24/7 for about 7-10 days," Godfrey said about the treatment in Marquette. "I don't remember exactly how long it was. It was probably the longest period of my life because, believe me, chemo is wicked stuff."

A crazy idea

Before undergoing chemotherapy initially at MGH, doctors ran tests to make sure he was physically fit enough to withstand the chemo. Godfrey said while he wasn't in excellent shape, he was luckily in pretty good shape and able to undergo treatment immediately.

Doctors in Marquette began emphasizing physical fitness from the start and when Godfrey checked into Mayo, he joined a research study that measured the effects of exercise in patients.

The study involved Godfrey going for walks, jogs or runs at his own pace and each day he shot for 5-10 minutes of at least walking on his own pace, often supervised.

"Even through the transplant, being hooked up to the chemo to begin with to knock out the white blood cells, and then when they do the transplant, all this time, I was on the treadmill," Godfrey said.

Physical fitness isn't just stressed to patients, however, at Mayo Clinic, but to the employees and community of Rochester, Godfrey said.

Mayo Clinic has a healthy living center for its employees that not only features a well-rounded wellness program for those at Mayo, but it puts on events for the community as well.

It's something Godfrey would like to see started at NMU, not just for the athletic department, but for faculty, staff, students and the community.

"I think some of the goals may sound crazy, but I'd like to team with Marquette General, our department and the university, and just make one of the goals for the Marquette area as one of the most fit cities in the UP, the state and keep going," Godfrey said.

Besides working with their neighbors at MGH, Godfrey would like to see the athletic department work more with the academic side of the university. For example, Godfrey hopes to work more with the athletic training program in the Health, Physical Education and Recreation Department at NMU.

"I think there is a lot more we can do working with the academic area," Godfrey said.

"I want to meet with the health center. There's a lot of ways I think we can benefit not just with student athletes and the general recreation student, but again the community."

A second chance

Godfrey said his life started over again on Feb. 26 at Mayo Clinic. They even gave him a birth certificate, cupcake and a candle.

Taking that day to heart, Godfrey says he doesn't have the energy of a teenager now back at NMU, but that of a 6-month-old and he hopes to make the best at his second chance in life.

"I never knew this place was such a big part of my life," Godfrey said. "I put it very high in things and there were times I probably neglected my family, although they've been great. All four of my kids graduated from here. Sometimes you have to step back and get away from things and again, with given a second chance in life, it makes you look at things differently."

Among his list of goals at NMU is to update the department's strategic plan and hopefully expand the number of intercollegiate sports offered at NMU in the future. While the second goal may be a very tall task in the current economic climate, Godfrey believes it can be done with the support of NMU President Les Wong and the board of trustees, who all have a greater appreciation for athletics than some did in the past, he said.

Godfrey also knows, however, that he can't push himself too hard, not matter how fired up and driven he is to be back at NMU.

Godfrey is suffering from some after effects from his treatment, including graft versus host disease, which typically occurs within the first 100 days of a bone marrow transplant, but was delayed in Godfrey's case. Graft versus host disease is when the bone marrow from the donor fights things in the transplant recipient's body. In Godfrey's case, it is attack the skin and looks like a bad sunburn.

"What that is, is the donor's bone marrow, which has changed my blood - I was B-positive before, now I'm O - what it is actually doing is fighting things in my body," Godfrey said. "It's nothing major. We monitor the organs, the liver, the kidneys, all those types of things very closely. They want some of this."

Godfrey also disclosed on his CaringBridge blog that he suffered a grand mal seizure a week ago. It was believed to be caused by his medication, Godfrey said in his blog.

Set up by his daughter, Beth, the website - - has been a source of inspiration not only for Ken but for his family, he said.

"When people put their little messages down and everything like that - and some people just won't do it because they feel almost embarrassed to write anything like that - it means so much not only to me, but to my family and everyone else," Godfrey said. "I've had people that do that on a continuing basis and say, 'Hey, these other kinda fire me up too.'"

Godfrey said he's not sure how much longer he plans to continue working at NMU or when he retires. He's letting his body, health and family dictate that.

"I don't know how long I'm going to be around here. I know the job won't dictate what I do," Godfrey said.

"I have a real appreciation for every day, for every minute and everything like that. This may also sound crazy, but if I die, drop dead today, I'd go a happy person. And my wife doesn't like to hear that or my family, but it's reality. I've faced reality. When you get a second chance, you look at things a lot different and you want to take advantage of the opportunities."

Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.



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