Byrnes back with new perspective

Steve Byrnes said he learned a lot about how to be a better husband, father and friend after he was diagnosed with cancer. Courtesy Fox Sports

You hear it often from cancer patients about the diagnosis: The word stings. In an instant, mortality is very real and oddly tangible, and priorities shift instantly.

Steve Byrnes was no different.

It was early August 2013 when Byrnes' doctor called with the news: throat cancer, which had spread to a lymph node. Byrnes wasn't panicked, especially. But his life rushed at him like a freight train, thoughts of and fears for his family, not so much himself.

"When you hear that word -- I'm not going to lie -- I had uncomfortable moments," said Byrnes, 54, a veteran Fox Sports motorsports broadcaster. "'Will I see my son grow up?' He's 11 now. 'What's going to happen to my family?' You think all those deep thoughts that we don't really ever want to deal with."

Treatment began immediately. Doctors told Byrnes to prepare for a difficult 10-week span. He chose to take chemotherapy and radiation simultaneously; a very aggressive treatment protocol. The first day of chemo was Sept. 11, at Levine Hospital in Pineville, N.C. In that room with Byrnes was a 20-year-old who looked healthy as a horse, seated alongside an 80-year-old grandfather.

Cancer doesn't play favorites.

"That day made me realize it's an equal-opportunity disease," he said. "I'll be honest, I never went through a 'Why me?' phase. I never had one day like that. I looked at it like, 'Why not me?' And that was really driven home when I sat in chemotherapy for the first time."

His entire life's philosophy changed that day.

"I realized I had to be humble about it, that the disease was way bigger and way stronger than me," he continued. "I needed to ask for help and receive help. You can say, 'I'm tough and played football with broken ribs.' But I didn't."

He had a nutritionist and a social worker to go along with the doctors. He was a sponge, absorbing as much information and guidance as he could. The other major factor that struck Byrnes during that time was the need to be present -- truly engaged and wholly aware of the blessings of the day. That day: not the previous and not the next, but that one, right then and there.

"There have been so many good things that came from Steve's battle with cancer," said his wife, Karen. "There were certainly days and even weeks that he was so sick, we both had to acknowledge the fact that he might not survive. Being forced to admit that the end of Steve's life could be near helped put things in perspective."

Cancer didn't beat Steve Byrnes. But it changed him.

"When you start going through treatment, you have days that aren't so bad and some really, really bad days," he explained. "There was a period during the second round of chemo where I didn't eat for six or seven straight days -- didn't eat or want to eat. It made me sick just thinking about it. Even through those bad days, I wanted to be present, experience the day for what it was worth.

"And my son, when he came home from school, I tried to gear up so I would have some energy when he got home. We knew he was nervous enough already and didn't want to make him panicked or scared. I had to be humble, which I did and ... some days, honestly, I don't remember. Which was OK, because I didn't feel so good midway through this."

The worst moment for him was in the doctor's office. He and Karen were chatting with radiologists and technicians, and Byrnes quickly excused himself to the bathroom, where he proceeded to vomit all over the room.

"I just killed it," he said with a laugh.

That was the low point. The feeding tube was pretty rough, too. He fought that for a while, that little tube connected to that little backpack full of nutrients. But ultimately he accepted it, and stayed connected to it for 12 hours a day via a pair of ports in his left biceps. Every night at 6 p.m. until just before Christmas, Karen hooked Steve up to the feeding tube.

"That's how I got calories, but that was so mentally tough for me," he said. "It seemed like it was such an inconvenience to my family, though they never made me feel that way."

In retrospect it wasn't an inconvenience at all. Because for the first time -- possibly ever -- Byrnes was completely focused on his family and faith.

"Both of us always thought that with enough hard work and determination we could accomplish anything, but cancer crushed that myth and set the record straight -- we had to put our faith and trust in God," Karen said. "It made our previous worry and stress about traffic, chores and work responsibilities seem so meaningless.

"It made our time with family and friends seem so important. Although the past five months were some of the toughest of our life, we were so blessed by the journey. There is a peace and comfort in knowing that no matter what happens in the future, we are now living for today. We are forever changed and so grateful for it."

Steve added, "It was a game-changer, for sure. I liked to think I was a guy that had his priorities in line. Family first. I tried to spend as much time with them as possible. But you get to a level of honesty in this situation unlike any other."

That deep introspection proved to Byrnes that he hadn't been nearly as engaged as he told himself he was.

"If I had a bad day at work or on the road, I'd given lip-service to the concept that, when I got home, I'd left that stuff behind," he continued. "I realized I had not. When I got home I was answering emails, text messages. In my mind, prior to being sick, that was all part of work. I had to feed the beast. That was all part of the job.

"But I realized I was a phony in those regards. Really, what my son and what my wife really wanted when I walked in the door was my attention. The game-changer for me was realizing, just because you're home doesn't mean you're present.

"My son said, 'Daddy, you want to watch me play Wii?' Absolutely I do! I just sat on the couch with him and watched him. Prior to being sick I might have said, 'Bryson, I'd love to, son. But I have to answer some emails or book travel.' In my mind, I rationalized all that stuff as being a provider and a father and a husband. But the truth of the matter was, I was there, but I wasn't present and the kind of dad and husband I should have been."

Athletes are the stars and staples of sport, certainly. But certain broadcasters are every bit as indelible as those they cover -- and sometimes more so, given that we welcome them into our living rooms every weekend to sit and chat, and to share stories with us about the stars we so adore. We see them and hear them so often that we feel we truly know them.

For most of my life, Byrnes has been one of the faces of NASCAR racing. Back when The Nashville Network was "Crook and Chase" and country music videos, Byrnes hosted "Inside Winston Cup." This was the late '80s. I was 11-or-so years old. That was 25 years ago. I was reminded of Byrnes' influence a couple years back during the captivating movie "Dale," which included some amazing video of Byrnes fishing or farming with Dale Earnhardt.

I wasn't alone in that.

"He was my hero and inspiration when I did TV -- so professional, so nice to everyone on the broadcast team, so prepared," said Nationwide Series driver Elliott Sadler, who worked with Byrnes as an analyst on multiple programs. "He is an amazing role model on how things should be done in the TV business.

"He made me a better analyst on the shows I was on. I cannot express how much I learned from him, and can't put into words how happy I am for him and his family to fight through this tough time. NASCAR is a better sport with him covering it -- period."

Years ago, ESPN's Ryan McGee was a television producer. In 2001, while producing Fox's "Totally NASCAR" program, he shared a cubicle with Byrnes, the show's host. They had never met. The duo was charged with producing 216 half-hour television shows with what McGee calls "a paper-thin budget." But they managed, and did so again in 2002, earning an Emmy nomination in the process.

"For two years we shared that cubicle, and it became our foxhole," McGee said. "It was hard. But Steve ended up becoming one my best friends."

During the next decade they remained friends. But with McGee moving on to ESPN The Magazine, they parted ways professionally, and contact was less and less frequent, down to the occasional lunch, text or phone call.

"Our families were together last summer on the day Steve found he had cancer," McGee said. "We'd just ridden in a monster truck together at Charlotte Motor Speedway. That very day we'd talked about how we needed to do a better job of getting together."

What McGee didn't know is that Byrnes had just received that call from his doctor with the life-changing news.

"A few weeks later we were sitting in a South Charlotte chemotherapy center," McGee said. "It was his second round of chemo, the one that usually makes people so sick. But it was really a great day.

"For six hours or so we laughed, we told old stories, we talked about racing and football, and we talked about his cancer fight. Suddenly it dawned on me. We were back in the foxhole. I'd missed it. I'd missed my friend. And I was mad at myself for having wasted more than a decade not talking with Byrnes as I should have."

When news of Byrnes' illness filtered through the sport, the resulting support from folks he'd touched was overwhelming to him. Dale Earnhardt Jr. called to offer well-wishes, and noted that if Byrnes needed plane rides or doctor appointments, whatever, it would be arranged. Just call.

Jimmie Johnson sent Byrnes a text message from the championship banquet. Just this week, with Byrnes back on the set of Fox Sports 1's "NASCAR Race Hub" program, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. gave Byrnes a bear hug and a "glad you're back." That matters to Byrnes deeply.

NASCAR is an interesting industry. It is very small, really, much smaller than it seems on the outside. We care for one another like family. But we don't stop for one another very often. We know a lot about each other, but we don't.

The wheels keep rolling.

"I learned from Steve's fight that I need to be a better friend," McGee said. "In the end, friends and family are all we have. Tomorrow's not guaranteed.

"Tomorrow they might not be here anymore. I might not be here anymore. So if we don't do we all we can to enjoy those relationships in the time we've been given, then shame on us."

I can relate. I learned of Byrnes' cancer diagnosis on Sept. 3, the day Tony Stewart addressed the media for the first time since breaking his leg. I saw Byrnes that day. I said nothing. I didn't have the guts. And I didn't build up the guts to call him until Sept. 21.

I was sitting in a blue golf cart, stationed alongside an 18-wheeler in the television compound at New Hampshire Motor Speedway when I finally dialed his number. I was proud of him. I wanted to say it. Sometimes we just don't know what to say. Those we look up to aren't supposed to hurt.

In the past, Byrnes said he always tried to go about his business with compassion and fairness. He wasn't especially concerned about making friends with drivers or crew chiefs. He entered the sport in an era when the current media crush didn't exist.

There weren't layers of publicists and marketers. If you wanted to talk to Harry Gant or Dale Earnhardt, you walked up and said hello. For that matter, the drivers lived in the same hotels and bars as the sport's support personnel and fans. They drank beers together. There was more spare time, and there were no motorhomes.

The demands of the sport have risen dramatically during Byrnes' 30-year career.

But starting now, he will take a different approach.

"The way it will change me directly is, I'm going to stop and give handshakes and hugs now," he said. "That's important. The support for me during this has been overwhelming. I want to return that favor. I want to let people I care about know it. Not just go through the motions."

Me, too.