He defeated death once. Can there be a brighter feather in the navy-and-maize Round Lake cap he proudly sported for more than 30 years?
Howard Conkling was confident his Panthers could win too, naturally. Never mind that Round Lake didn't always boast the best talent, the best facilities, or as many assistant coaches and student-athletes as other schools. After all, if you can beat cancer, what do Libertyville, Stevenson, Warren or Grant have on you?
"You know our athletic 'prowess' at Round Lake," Gary Edge said. "We vacillate sometimes between being decent and being not-so decent. It didn't matter to Howard. He always thought that we were going to be good. The glass was always half full. Kid strikes out, 'Hey, you'll get 'em next time.' "
To the end, the eternal optimist held positive thoughts. If not, he did his best to keep the attention off himself. Edge and Doug Barnshaw constantly saw that side of their friend and fellow Round Lake coach.
"Ninety percent of the time, he was like, 'Hey, (the cancer) is shrinking,' " Edge said of fellow social studies teacher Conkling, who coached football, baseball and girls basketball in his 33 years at RLHS. " 'Barnie' and I were talking. Maybe that's what kept him going."
Last Thursday, Edge lost his best friend. Round Lake lost one of the most influential coaches and teachers in its history. Howard Conkling lost his battle with lung cancer. A robust man with a passion for sports, teaching, coaching, family, the Packers and Cubs, he would have turned 59 on July 5. He's survived by his wife, Mary, and grown children Emily and Michael.
In a year, Conkling would have retired from teaching. In another 100 years, he would have retired from coaching. Actually, he would have coached "forever," Edge said.
"There were no discussions with Howard about him ever not coaching," Round Lake athletic director Mike Mizwicki said. "I don't know if he would have stayed as the head coach (of the girls basketball team), but Howard loved Round Lake. He was Mr. Round Lake."
About 30 years ago, Conkling was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It spread to his lungs and suddenly a bright man whose career just started stared death in the face.
"They thought he was a goner," said Edge, who started at Round Lake in 1981, two years before Conkling arrived. "He beat it."
Last summer, Conkling's cancer returned. It nearly killed him early last fall, but he emerged from a multiple-week coma and resumed fighting his fight. He missed the 2016-17 school year, so Barnshaw served as head coach of the girls basketball team.
"He came all the way back, but in time (the cancer) just kept spreading," Mizwicki said.
Conkling made it to one girls basketball game last winter. Edge picked up Conkling at his McHenry home and drove him to McHenry High School, where the Panthers were playing North Chicago in a Christmas tournament game. Round Lake won in a blowout.
"We played better than we played all year," Mizwicki said.
Afterward, Conkling walked into the locker room, flanked by "Barnie" and Edge. Conkling went into coach mode, bursting with Panther Pride.
"When he came out, he was crying," Mizwicki said. "He looked at me and said, 'I didn't cry when I was in there, but Barnshaw and Edge did.' ... Those three guys were very close."
"Typical stuff," Edge said of Conkling's postgame speech. "(He said), 'That was a great win. Keep getting better. Keep your eyes on the prize. I'm very, very proud of you.'
"All the right things to say."
That was Howard Conkling. Don't pity him. Pity your next opponent, Panthers.
Conkling created Round Lake's athletic hall of fame several years ago. He felt strongly that past Panthers should be recognized, even if their teams didn't fill a trophy case. As for Panther Pride, no one was prouder than Conkling.
"He would come in on Sundays -- when the Packers weren't on -- and just walk around the building," Mizwicki said. "That was where he would get his exercise."
Mizwicki first crossed paths -- or baselines -- with Conkling when both were varsity baseball head coaches. Mizwicki remembers when his Grant Bulldogs were swept in a doubleheader by Conkling's Panthers, denying Mizwicki's more-talented team the North Suburban Prairie Division title. In the opener, Conkling used his junkballer, who baffled the Bulldogs, then came back with his ace in Game 2.
"Those were the kind of things that Howard was really good at," Mizwicki said. "He maximized his talent."
A few years later, Mizwicki was named Round Lake's AD, a job Conkling also sought.
Conkling never showed any animosity.
"One of the first conversations I had with Howard, he said, 'Hey, I wanted the job, but it's more important that we get this thing done right and get it going in the right direction,' " Mizwicki said. "That's just the guy he was."
What else would you expect from Mr. Round Lake?
"It wasn't about him," Mizwicki said. "It was about the kids and the school. He was always that way. ... I think he probably could have gone to more (girls basketball) games (last season), but I don't think he wanted the girls worried about him. He wanted them to play basketball."
Be proud, Panthers. You had a sure hall of famer, Howard Conkling, on your team.
• Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeAguilar64