For players, an MLS offseason often brings with it a welcome period of downtime spent on reflection, family, and engaging in interests outside the game. For staff, it’s a time to take stock of lessons learned from the prior season’s successes and failures, as well as a chance enjoy a holiday lull.
For longtime Chicago Fire broadcaster and Fire Weekly host Fred Huebner, this was not the case.
“I had surgery in November to have my spleen removed,” he said. “My spleen was five times the size of an average spleen. They had to take part of my stomach out with it – just a small part – because the spleen was stuck to my stomach. There was also Lymphoma in that part of the stomach. They had to take that part out, too.”
Huebner was diagnosed with Large B Cell Lymphoma late in 2016, and has spent the last few months undergoing chemotherapy to combat the effects of the disease.
“It’s weird, because it’s eight hours of sitting there having poison put into you. That’s basically what chemo is. It’s trying to kill the cancer.”
8 hours of chemo done! Never once got up to use the bathroom. Told Pat,"It's mind over bladder!" You have to laugh! #PMA— Fred Huebner (@fred_huebner) January 24, 2017
“I’ve been pretty upfront with putting everything on Twitter and Facebook. I want to make sure everybody that knows me knows what’s going on. I’m still getting people that don’t see it and they text me and they say, ‘What, are you on vacation? We haven’t heard you for a while.’”
While a return to health has become Huebner’s priority in the ensuing months, a passion for the Chicago sports scene and a steady return to work at ESPN 1000 have kept the 59-year-old active in-between treatment sessions. He’d made it a priority to get to one of the Fire’s preseason sessions at The PrivateBank Fire Pitch, and Friday morning offered him that opportunity. Alongside Fire Weekly co-hosts Paul Tenorio and Frank Klopas, he’d get his first look at the 2017 edition of the squad. Huebner received a surprise offer prior to the team's workout.
“I contacted Paul and Frank and I said, ‘I’m going to try to get out there on Friday if you guys want to come out,’” he said. “So I was there early today, and then when the players started to gather, (head coach Veljko) Pauno (Paunovic) comes up to me and says, 'I wanted to have you talk to the players.' That was a surprise to me.”
“Pauno then brought me in and introduced me to those who didn’t know me and mentioned how I was going through the battle with cancer. It was nice because I was able to talk to the guys, telling them I’ve been keeping an eye on them and looking forward to the season and all that stuff. Everybody was very receptive and very courteous. It was very nice, very surprising that the team and Pauno did that.”
“It was just going through his treatment, what he’s going through, and mainly how excited he is and important Chicago Fire Soccer is to him,’ Fire goalkeeper Matt Lampson said. “Very similar to me when I was going through it, soccer was very important to me as well. In times of turmoil like that, you want to hold on to something that is important to you. It really transcends health and gets your mind off of what you’re going through. I think that’s incredibly important.”
Lampson himself – the 2016 MLS WORKS Humanitarian of the Year - has been a very vocal advocate for cancer awareness in the time since enduring his own battle with Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma nine years ago.
“He and I talked about it and just – patient-to-patient – just talked about his treatment,” Lampson said. “Stuff like that helps when you get to relate and talk about each other and what we both are going through and what he went through and what I went through. I’m going to be there for him. I talk to him regularly and he’ll always have my support. He’ll always be a part of the Chicago Fire Soccer Club.”
While gradual, Huebner’s return to work has been marked by both an upbeat approach to his condition and an enthusiasm for the Fire’s 2017 additions and impending 20th season campaign.
“The weeks I don’t have chemo – I have chemo once every three weeks – I try to work three-to-four days a week or more. I feel fine right now. Until that changes, I’d like to keep working as much as possible. I’m not ready to hang it up yet.”
“You can see (forward Nemanja) Nikolic out there giving instruction on some of the drills, and things like that,” he said, following Friday morning’s training session. “Then you have a veteran like Juninho in the middle who really is going to help things out and solidify what has been a little bit of a tough area – the midfield – for the team, along with (midfielder Dax) McCarty. I think that’s a great thing. Getting the ball from the back to the front is very important in the game and I think the team has gone about the right way in the offseason.”
As the Fire first team and staff head to Florida for six preseason friendlies in preparation for their March 4 season-opener in Columbus, Huebner himself is preparing for another year of covering the Fire - cancer be damned. Now – after an offseason marked by personal trials – it’s his next challenge that has Huebner most excited. Fire faithful will have plenty of reasons to be excited about his coverage of the 2017 season.