St. Agnes-St. Dominic Coaching Legend Faces Toughest Fight Yet | Community Spirit
If you've entered the gymnasium on the East Memphis campus of St. Agnes Academy and St. Dominic School, you have walked into the world where James W. Mathis has devoted nearly all of his working life.
Mathis, 77, has served as a coach on the staff of the private Catholic schools located on Walnut Grove Road at Mendenhall since 1962.
"Some of his original players came to drink coffee with him at Panera Bread at Laurelwood this week and I felt like I was in the presence of a rock star," said Jay Mathis, the coach's son who followed in his father's footsteps.
"Six week ago, Coach Mathis was bench pressing 260 pounds, " said Jim Lassandrello, Athletic Director of St. Agnes-St. Dominic, "but now he's in a wheelchair. It's shaken all of us."
It's such a stunning turn of events because the legendary coach stayed in remarkable physical shape throughout his adult life, working out regularly at the Racquet Club. But about one month ago, Mathis started suffering dizzy spells, using the walls to help him remain upright while walking. The coach joked he was doing his best Spider-man impression, trying to make ground while holding the walls.
A series of tests led doctors to discover a cancerous brain tumor that forced Mathis into a wheelchair. It's quite an adjustment for the senior athlete and still active coach.
In 1962, Mathis fielded his first St. Dominic boys' basketball and baseball teams. A 1958 graduate of the University of Memphis, Mathis set University track and field running records in the 220 yards and 440 yards events that stood for a generation and earned him a place in the U of M athletic Hall of Fame.
At age 53, Mathis won a gold medal at the Masters Track and Field World Games in Melbourne, Australia in 1987, partnering with three other elder speedsters to win the 4 X 400 relay. Mathis held Masters indoor world records in the 200, 300, and 400 meter events throughout his long running career that led to induction into the National Masters Track and Field Hall of Fame.
Mathis shared all the life lessons that he learned as an athlete with young people, serving as St. Dominic's boys basketball coach for more than 40 years and assisted on the bench of the St. Agnes girls team for more than a decade.
Mathis' accomplishments as an athlete and coach earned him a place in the Memphis Park Commission's Hall of Fame. But now the coach faces the greatest challenge of his long career: cancer.
The St. Agnes-St. Dominic community has rallied to his side. The schools will host a fundraiser and open house in Mathis' honor from 5pm to 7pm on Tuesday, December 13th in the same gym where he has coached for so long. Supporters are invited to come by the open house celebration of Mathis' storied career and make a gift of any size to help the coach with mounting medical bills.
The younger Mathis says his father has retired two or three times only to rejoin the staff time after time. Jay Mathis says even in his father's diminished physical capacity, the elder Mathis still serves as head track coach at St. Agnes and serves as an assistant varsity girls basketball coach under Lassandrello.
The younger Mathis now coaches St. Agnes girls Cross Country runners as well as the 8th grade St. Dominic's boys basketball team. "But my Dad has been the phys ed program at those schools for 49 years and he's my hero."