Todd French Coach, Mentor To Youth And Danville Icon

02 July 2014 Written by  By Laura T. Navarro
Published in July 2014 Articles

Todd French was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana. 

He and his family spent much of each summer traveling around the United States and between his infancy until graduating from high school he and his parents visited all 48 contiguous states. He was a sports enthusiast and played high school football, basketball, and track.

Todd’s path through life took a major turn when he was 13 years old and met a junior high classmate named Michelle Chickillo. Todd said that his best friend had “fallen for her” at the time but the friend’s schoolboy crush was nothing compared to the blazing love-torch that instantly ignited in Todd’s heart and that has been burning brightly until today. From the beginning, Todd considered Michelle a prize worth chasing after, which turned out to be a good thing because she led him on a merry chase. They finally began dating in tenth grade but it took him another decade before his pursuit finally reached the finish line at a church altar.

Todd’s romance with Michelle had languished during his college years because he was working on a degree in Finance & Accounting at Norfolk’s Old Dominion University while Michelle was in New York learning to be a fashion designer. Following graduation, Todd became property manager for some commercial buildings in Brooklyn’s Park Slope district, which conveniently happened to be the very neighborhood where Michelle was working and studying.

Following the wedding, even though they both liked Brooklyn, they decided that The Big Apple was no place to raise a family so they moved to a town in New Jersey, called Upper Montclair where their first son, Austin, was born. It was a lovely place, similar to Danville, but cold in the winter. Even in high school Todd said that he and Michelle had shared a desire for living in warmer climes so following six years of New Jersey snowstorms, they decided to pack up and move. The radical change of venue was made easier by the fact that Todd had been working with a dot.com and was actually “commuting” to San Francisco, so in 2000, following the birth of their second child, Cole, they packed up and moved into the Danville residence where they reside to this day.

California lived up to their happy expectations. Todd said that they discovered the California lifestyle to provide a perfect balance between work and play. For one thing, he moderated his work schedule, cutting it down from the furious pace of 100 hours a week on-the-job and 24/7 on call. He said that the process of decompression took about six months, but he finally regained his humanity.

Four years later, however, Todd experienced symptoms that might have pointed to early-onset mid-life crises. Life began to feel too placid and Todd said that he felt he needed a little turbulence to stir up the sediment that had settled over his spirit. He and Michelle had a brief trial separation while he was trying to figure out how to get his life back together. Todd shared his feelings of ennui with his pastor, Rev. Mark Wollen, at a lunch. “It was a great lunch!” Todd remembers. “It changed my life.” The life-changing advice that Pastor Wollen shared was the simple command, “Start giving! Stop taking!” Todd said that the four words changed everything and forever. “It was the best advice I ever received,” he said.

“You need to find something that makes you happy before your marriage can make you happy,” Pastor Wollen said. After exploring various topics the two of them concluded that Todd especially liked sports and teaching, and when Todd thought that he would like to be a coach for youth sports, Pastor Wollen said, “Why don’t you go do that?” So youth sports became the avenue Todd uses for giving back to others, and he has dedicated himself to serving area youth by helping them get involved in a variety of sports, especially lacrosse.

Todd had always played sports when he was young. In high school he played varsity football, basketball, and track. He said that he had bought a lacrosse stick when he was in high school but he never played the sport until college when he joined Kappa Alpha, which was a fraternity devoted to lacrosse. Todd said he fell in love with the sport from the very first time he played it. One of the things that drew him to the sport was the powerful way in which the game seemed to arouse feelings of collegiality among the players. Team members became his buddies and often close friends. Even today, Todd said, he remains close to some members of every lacrosse team that he ever played on.

Todd became involved in coaching lacrosse through an amazing circumstance. He was playing lacrosse in the front yard with his son when, George Pereira, who was trying to promote the sport, “just happened” to drive by. George stopped his car, got out, and said to Todd, “We’re starting a lacrosse league and we need coaches.” George was one of the founders of the local Diablo Scorpions lacrosse league and Todd helped coach one of the teams for the first time in 2002 and remembers how much satisfaction he took from his very first encounter with the team. He had mastered the game as a player but now as a coach he needed to learn the deeper more fundamental parts of the sport. He also discovered learning about lacrosse was itself an enjoyable activity. The sport was new in the area at the time and Todd became a lacrosse evangelist, introducing it to some of the families, signing up young people as players and enlisting the support of their parents. Todd’s enthusiasm was infective; the league began to grow.

Todd enjoyed getting to know the players, family members, and other coaches, and began developing close friendships with many of them. The power of lacrosse to promote relationships brought all the partici­pants, at every level, into a vital community.

Todd theorizes that perhaps the sport is so effective at bringing people together because of its nature as an alternative sport. It is different from the major sports, and people tend to be drawn to each other by the passions they have in common that sets them apart from the rest of the world. Another factor that promotes that spirit of intense togetherness might be that, as Todd himself learned the first time he got onto a playing field with a stick in his hand, the sport is a lot of fun. It is fast moving with appealing strategic and physical elements. As Todd describes it, “like basketball with full contact.” An increasing number of people are learning how great lacrosse is with the result that the popularity of the sport has boomed, and is beginning to lure young people away from football and baseball.

As much as he enjoys lacrosse, Todd tends to be an equal opportunity sports enthusiast. He has always been interested in football, so when a friend, Dana Hemmingsen, got him connected to a local football team — the San Ramon Valley T-Birds. He started as a junior coach at the Junior Peewee Level, which are the 9-10 year olds. Two years later he was head coach. Just as with lacrosse, he loved coaching football from the very first session and remained with the league throughout the subsequent decade and stayed at the Peewee level because he grew to love working with that age group. “At that age kids still want to be taught,” Todd said. “We had a lot of fun; won a couple championships.” Part of the goal of youth sports at that level is to prepare budding athletes to eventually compete in high school, and perhaps beyond. “We fed Monte Vista, San Ramon, and Diablo Valley Football teams,” Coach Todd said. Then he added, “Hopefully, some of them have become better people because of my influence.” Knowing Todd French like I do, I can imagine that actually happened, and suspect that close to 100 percent of those children “became better people” because of their association with that great man. I know for sure that he had that effect on my own son, Mateo Navarro. The whole league is at a higher level because of his influence.

In February 2011, Todd developed a cough. He was coaching a lacrosse traveling team, at the time, and when the cough became persistent he made an appointment with his general practitioner who diagnosed the cough as asthma. The “asthma” didn’t get any better so a few months later the doctor ordered a chest x-ray that revealed the presence of a fist-size growth that was revealed to be Stage IV cancer. Todd was shocked by the revelation. “I didn’t expect it!” he said. “I didn’t deserve it!” Part of the reason was the fact that he had tried smoking once as a teenager, hated the experience, and never touched another cigarette the rest of his life. Todd’s x-ray scared his doctor, which of course scared him. When the oncologist told Michelle that Todd had only a year, she said, “You mean a year of chemo.” But the doctor was talking about year of life. They asked for a second opinion, which was a mistake, because it was even worse, and delivered by a doctor who, if he wasn’t actually a terrible human being, was at least having a bad day. In either case, the doctor had no ability to deliver his terrible opinion with any sign of compassion or sympathy.

Within five days Todd was doing chemo — every day for three weeks. The first round was awful. It left him weak and tired. Simply getting out of bed was a struggle. He didn’t have any trouble with hair loss, however, “Fortunately, I was already bald,” he said with a laugh.

Even though he was beat up by the first series, Todd was determined to fight the disease and eventually underwent rounds with six different kinds of chemo, each one using a different agent. The first round was the worst and created symptoms of neuropathy in his extremities plus hearing loss. Doctors also conducted another standard 15-round radiation treatment. Two years ago, however, the cancer metastasized to his brain. The new site went undetected because Todd had no symptoms, except for a mild headache. They only discovered it because of an x-ray of his brain that was called for by an experimental drug that he was taking, marketed by Fizer, called Crizotonyb. The dosage was one pill a day, which costs Todd $10,000 a month that he has to pay out of his own pocket. It was worth the cost, however, because the Crizotonyb significantly reduced the size of the tumors.

“The doctors didn’t expect me to live for a year,” Todd said with a satisfied smile, “And now I am well into the third year.”

In 2012 the lacrosse team members all shaved their heads and shaved Todd’s initials into the stubble. The T-Birds and the lacrosse team joined together on a fundraiser. Todd’s sister-in-law, Karen Miller, organized a golf tournament and dinner in her home in Upstate New York. There was a Team French in the local Relay for Life.

In spite of his illness, Todd is still coaching an elite Lacrosse Travel Team. Sometimes he has to use a walker; other times a wheelchair.

Todd’s spirit remains strong. “I have faith that things work out the way they are supposed to,” he told me. He is encouraged by the outpouring of love he has received. “Every day is good because I am still alive,” he said with a smile. He also told us that his view of life has changed radically through the illness. “It is now easy to let the little stuff float on by,” he said. “Into each life some rain must fall, and I am not going to complain bitterly about the downpour that is falling in mine.”

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