2019 was unlike any other year in Duane Witter’s 28-year coaching career. Two months after leading Farmington to its first boys basketball state championship in school history, Witter was diagnosed with cancer.
“I was at graduation and the next day I was in the hospital,” said Witter.
“After coming off that season and to hear that coach has leukemia, it was shocking,” added Farmington junior forward Jacob Smith.
A conversation with his son helped Witter cope with the news.
“I was in the hospital and feeling sorry for myself. My son said ‘Dad imagine you didn’t win the state championship, if you didn’t have that great memory. It should help you through this.’ He was right and I changed my mindset,” said Witter.
Witter started his fight the only way he knows how.
“My doctor told me that I needed to approach this like a coach,” said Witter. “You’ve had to face adversity before, lean on that experience, use that experience and that challenged me because then I started saying to myself how good of a coach am I?”
The good coaches know you can’t do it alone and Witter had not only his team, but the whole community behind him.
“I got so many cards, I saved all of them. I could probably spread them from Farmington High School to Unionville,” said Witter.
“We needed the community to win the championship and Coach Witter needed the community to help him fight. I remember going to the hospital to see Coach and trying to be as positive as you can,” added Smith.
“We walked in and he was actually watching a game from last year,” said Farmington senior guard Grayson Herr. “He was watching the Newington game, no surprise there.”
The outpouring of support motivated Witter to get well as soon as possible.
“What it made me think about is who I play for and I play for Farmington, the whole community,” Witter said proudly. “They repainted the wall and put up the word believe. Believe was our mantra in the state tournament last year and then it became the mantra for me during my recovery. That inspired me to work hard to get well.”
He believed that he would be ready to coach in the season opener. After six months of treating the illness, Witter went into remission.
“He was ready the week the season started and since then he hasn’t missed a beat,” said Farmington assistant Coach Tim O’Connor.
While NBC Connecticut was interviewing Coach Witter for this story, sports reporter Matt Finkel and Witter were both unaware that the microphone was on the same frequency as the school’s public address system. The emotional conversation could be heard over the loudspeakers in the gym where the team was finishing up practice.
“We weren’t sure what was going on or why, but he was down the hall in the classroom and we could hear his voice,” said O’Connor. “All of the sudden, all the kids just stopped shooting and went over and sat down on the bench, which is our bench and they listened to their coach.”
“It really shows us we should have no excuses,” said Herr. “He fought leukemia.”
“I think coach going through what he had to go through this offseason, it motivates us,” added Smith.
“I was in the corner of the gym and I was getting emotional,” said O’Connor. “Coach Witter was my coach 20 years ago. It was quite a moment.”
A moment that Witter wasn’t sure he would get just a few months ago.
“I’m appreciating the richness of losing and I’m appreciating the wins and being around my team. I’m trying to appreciate all of it,” said Witter.