RIDGEFIELD — Dusty Anchors was not looking forward to delivering the news.
Yet before he adjourned a team meeting on an early January evening in the Ridgefield High School student commons, he knew he had to break the hearts of another group of people he loved, just like he had to do to his closest family and friends over the previous month.
For his softball players and their families, the coach had waited until then to avoid spoiling the holidays.
With most of the team gathered, he broke the news. He had stage-four heart failure. His most optimistic doctors were going to try to get him to July.
“It was super heavy,” Ridgefield first base coach Steve Walker said. “A lot of tears, a lot of hugging him.”
But Anchors, 67, followed with news that lifted everyone’s spirits, yet did not surprise those who know him. Despite the dire diagnosis, he planned to remain the Spudders’ head coach through the 2018 season.
“It just shows how much love and passion he has for the game,” junior pitcher Kaia Oliver said. “We really appreciate everything he’s done. If he’s here and he’s along for the ride, so are we.”
His love for Ridgefield can be gleaned from the way he talks about his players. His eyes grow bemused as he recalls leaving on a bus to the 2A state tournament last year to a police escort and parade, which invoked a comparison to the movie “Hoosiers.” It’s why he ends his voicemail with an emphatic “Go, Spudders!”
He won’t let a failing heart stop him from doing what he loves most: coaching softball.
Ridgefield returns 11 starters from a team that reached the state tournament for the first time since 2011. Anchors facilitated a program turnaround in a year and captured the hearts of a group of high school girls and their families.
You wouldn’t be able to tell by talking to him, or seeing him walking down the street, that he’s terminally ill.
“When you’re (a kid), you learn that your body doesn’t last forever and that you’re going to die,” Anchors said. “But to have somebody sit across from you and say this is your time frame, that puts a whole different perspective on everything.”
Yet he refuses to quit on a team he believes has unfinished business. And the team refuses to quit on him.
“I feel a little tired at times,” Anchors said. “Muscles ache a little bit. I’m not going to let the girls see that, not going to let (Athletic Director Deb Bentler) see it, not going to let the parents see it, and I’m going to coach. As long as I can do the job, I’m going to do that.”
Current and former players have spearheaded fundraising campaigns for him.
“A coach can make or break a sport for you at the high school level, whether you want to go on, or even play high school,” junior Haidyn Woodside said. “I think he totally changed all of our lives.”
What Anchors has found in the last 12 months in Ridgefield, a city of just over 7,000 where the largest employer is a lumber company and the second is the school district, is a home in a tight-knit community that brought him in and quickly wrapped him in a bear hug. Since his diagnosis, a web of former players and friends stretching from Bremerton to Clark County have stepped up to support the coach they consider much more than a leader on the diamond.
A life of heart
In 1985, Anchors was diagnosed with cancer when doctors found a tumor right above his heart. In a tragic bout of irony, it was about the size of a softball.
He was 35 years old and underwent radiation treatment. His oncologist told him the tumor was caused by his exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical used in the U.S. government’s herbicidal warfare program in the Vietnam War. Some reports say as many as 4 million people were exposed to it during the war — up to 3 million have endured health problems as a result.
Anchors remembers the exact date he got out of the service. After 10 months and 23 days, he was discharged on Oct. 29, 1973. Unlike many Vietnam veterans, he had a relatively smooth transition back into American society. He started a 30-year career with telecommunications company Pacific Northwest Bell the day after he returned from Vietnam.
“I was fortunate enough to where I got out and got back into the mainstream,” Anchors said. “I didn’t have to suffer the hardships of the Army or Navy fellows have had to go through.”
Once his kids, Shayla Lindquist, now 30 years old, and Kelsey Anchors, 27, were old enough to play softball, he started coaching. When Kelsey Anchors committed to Oklahoma State University to play softball, he even got a job in customer service with Alaska Airlines so he could fly free on standby to see her games.
(Kelsey Anchors, who is now the head baseball coach at North Valley High School in Grants Pass, Ore., is believed to have become the first woman baseball coach in Oregon prep history this season.)
Dusty Anchors had been out of the war for 12 years before the tumor was discovered. His oncologist told him the exposure to Agent Orange would ultimately cause him health problems down the road.
Twenty years later, he was right.
In 2006, Anchors was in Las Vegas watching his daughter Kelsey participate at an elite softball camp when he collapsed. He had a heart attack. He now quips that he really only wanted to stay in the most expensive room Sin City can offer — the emergency room at Desert Palms Hospital.
“The bells going off were almost like being out on the casino floor,” he said.
He collapsed again in 2008 while running on a treadmill. Anchors had been trimming weight, but his heart couldn’t hold up. He underwent open heart surgery a month later and received an aortic valve replacement. Doctors were unable to do the quadruple bypass due to the fragility of his heart.
Decades of heart issues culminated with a string of hospital stays last year due to increasing chest pains, shortness of breath and trouble walking.
He checked into Oregon Health and Science University Hospital on Nov. 16, and he ended up being admitted when, after several days of tests — “they must have taken 25 pints of blood out of me,” he said — doctors discovered complete pericardial calcification of the heart. It just couldn’t beat the way it was supposed to. When he received his outgoing consultation on Dec. 4, 18 days after his check-in to OHSU, which is in the west hills of Portland, doctors threw him the ultimate curveball.
“We hate to tell you this,” Anchors recalls them saying, “but you’re in stage-four heart failure.”
He recoiled, stunned.
“What?” Anchors exclaimed.
“We understand your daughter is getting married in July,” he recalls doctors telling him, “We are going to try and get you to July.”
Those words have played back through his head ever since.
For a man who has spent as much of his life with heart issues as he has been playing and coaching softball, it wasn’t the first time he’d heard bad news. Plus, for the most part, he felt physically fine.
This time, there was no fix. Doctors deemed his bones too brittle from radiation for a heart transplant. And his heart had undergone too much damage to have a left ventricular assist device inserted, which essentially picks up the slack of a failing heart. All options were exhausted.
“Here you think it’s all done and gone and behind you, and it’s raising its ugly face,” Anchors said. “It’s just one of those things you have to deal with. And you’ve got to maintain a positive attitude. You can’t let it stop you from doing what you want to do.”
Home on the diamond
Even the most stressful game situation doesn’t stress out Dusty Anchors. The softball diamond is where he is most relaxed. He met his wife, Lori, playing slow-pitch softball.
That’s why when doctors followed their terminal diagnosis with telling him they want him to “live his life,” the first thing that came to mind was softball. His body would tell him what he can and can’t do.
“For me — and it took my wife a few years coaching to realize this — my home is on that softball field,” Anchors said.
Plus, he has big plans for the Ridgefield softball field. He wants to paint the foul poles Ridgefield orange and put in a warning track. When opposing coaches leave, he wants them to remember the field. On a clear day, the backdrop is Mount St. Helens, which he believes makes it the second-best view of any field in the state, behind only Sumner High School and its view of Mount Rainier.
Anchors told the team once he got the go-ahead from doctors. That was before he told Bentler, the athletic director. When he did tell her, he wanted to make sure she knew he still intended to coach.
Bentler said she is confident in his ability to lead.
“You care about a person, about your program, and you do want to see him make it to July,” she said. “I know from personal experience what a regular season can do to you not having a heart impacted by all of that. I’m confident in him and all the girls.”
With the amount of love Anchors has for the game of softball, it’s fitting that much of his financial support has come from those who have been influenced by him through the game.
Stephanie Fox, head coach at Eastlake High in Sammamish, grew up with Kelsey Anchors. She was in Las Vegas when he first had a heart attack, and she considers Dusty Anchors like a “second dad.” After Anchors explained to her that the No. 1 heart failure clinic in the U.S. is in Cleveland, she wanted to help him get a second opinion.
So, she started a GoFundMe called the “Medical Fund for Dusty Anchors” with the goal of raising $5,000 to cover travel, hotel and medical expenses that his insurance wouldn’t. The fund quickly passed its goal and now has $5,685. Additionally, members of the Ridgefield softball team took to fundraising, too. Madison Syring, Kaia Oliver, Karli Oliver, Haley Olchowy and Haidyn Woodside raised more than $500 at Ridgefield Floral & Gifts.
That amount was given to Anchors at a softball jamboree on March 10 at Ridgefield.
“Just seeing the smile on his face, this is … he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else; this is what he lives for,” Fox said.
Winning over players
The morale among the players was middling heading into the 2017 season.
Ridgefield was coming off a 14-9 record, a second-place finish in league and a season that ended in districts.
But the team didn’t set lofty goals, nor did they possess a competitive edge, said Oliver, then a freshman. Haidyn Woodside was contemplating whether or not to even play. Steve Walker, the first base coach whose daughter was an incoming freshman, heard parents bemoan the dysfunction.
“Everyone was nervous with a new coach, but he really helped give me a lot of confidence I needed to play right away,” sophomore McKenna Walker said. “He had a lot of good feedback. He’s always such a positive person.”
The team first met Anchors in an informational meeting in the back corner of an auxiliary gym only a few weeks before the season started. He’d been a head coach for six years at Olympic High School in Bremerton, then an assistant at Eastlake before moving down to Battle Ground to be closer to his daughter and newborn grandchildren. Anchors had to speak up because of students playing basketball in the gym. Huddled around him, the girls felt like he was “laying down the law” with intimidation.
He demanded consistency and set expectations high. He told them he cared more if they earned academic accolades than all-league selections. He asked about them as individuals and cared for their personal growth.
They decided “he’s just a big teddy bear,” Syring, a junior, said.
In that season, and in the months that followed, the Ridgefield softball team developed an inseparable bond with their coach, who many of them say is much more than that. They had Ridgefield’s best season in seven years.
Junior McKenna Walker has been playing softball since she was in elementary school and said she has never felt the impact of a coach as much as with Anchors. It’s why she wants to make him proud while he is still coaching the Spudders.
“It’s kind of crazy because we’ve known him for a year, and all the girls on the team have become really close with him,” Walker said. “He’s such an amazing person, let alone coach, that it was really hard to hear that, but he’s made a huge impact on our program.”
“I want to make him proud and do the best I can while he is here coaching us,” Walker said.
The team has lofty goals for this season. It hopes to make it back to state and, this time, win a few games. The Spudders are off to a 3-0 start.
Kelsey Anchors knows how much it means for her dad to be coaching softball. He wouldn’t want the next few months to be any other way.
“My family has this way of saying, ‘When dad dies, he’s going to die on a softball field,’ ” she said. “We don’t want that, obviously, but if he does, he’d be in a pretty happy spot.”
Deep down, Dusty Anchors knows the team will be rallying around him and he’s a part of their motivation to return to state. But after he broke the news, his message was the opposite.
“I’m still here, we’re still playing softball, and you girls are going to go out and do what you need to do,” he told his team. “And do it for yourself. Don’t all of a sudden become this wonder player because coach might not be around. I want you to do it because you want to play softball.”