Former Hudson football coach's son inspires community in 'clash' with cancer

By Chris Torello, Spectrum Sports Reporter
Last Updated: Saturday, August 12, 2017, 7:40 PM EDT

Rob Mahler was the head coach at Hudson High School for two seasons (2015-16). He loved every bit of what he did. He loved teaching the game to the kids and talking to them about life. But with one child at home, and another on the way, Mahler decided to step away from the game.

"I would preach to the kids ‘get your priorities in order, be a good man, a good husband and father’ and I just needed to live by my words and not let coaching be everything that I was as a man. " said Rob.

So, he stepped away following last season.

Mahler, who works for Pasco County's Parks and Recreation department, was happier being with his wife, Jordan, and two sons, Clayton, and their new born son, Cam.

As a coach would say, the game plan was working to perfection.  Until Mahler and his wife found something wasn’t quite right with Clayton.

“We could see something was up in his nose,” recalled Rob. “And we couldn’t get it with a ball syringe, and we weren’t sure what it was.”

“We knew that something just wasn’t right in our gut,” said Jordan, who is an emergency room nurse.

A CT scan was performed the week of July 4th. With Rob next to Clayton, and Jordan on the phone at work, the Mahler’s doctor delivered any parent’s worst nightmare: Clayton had Cancer.

Stage Three Rhabdomyosarcoma. A type of cancer that takes the lives of nearly 75% of children who receive this diagnosis.

“It’s like a tornado hitting you, but you have to get up and deal with it,” said Rob. “But I wanted to know about the other 25 percent. That was my focus.”

The first course of action was for Clayton to immediately undergo surgery that Friday, July 7th. The tumor was sitting at the base of his skull. It was affecting his breathing.

“I remember that night, being on the other side of the bed this time,” said Jordan, who realized she was not a nurse this time: Jordan was simply Mom.

Doctors removed 95% of the tumor and handed the Mahlers a positive prognosis on Clayton’s health moving forward.  Now, there will be radiation treatments through the fall and winter.  Trips to Jacksonville will be planned for the therapy.

Medical bills are starting to pile up, and the Mahlers know they will have an uphill battle. But they won’t be fighting alone.

Rob, now an assistant coach at Wiregrass Ranch, is part of that fraternity of football coaches. They never let one of their brothers go at it alone.

A fundraiser was organized at Springstead High School and dubbed “Clash 4 Clayton.” It involved 12 schools from Pasco and Hernando County playing a quarter each to help FHSAA referees prepare for the upcoming football season. So Springstead Athletics Director Dustin Kupcik decided to make it a full-blown event to help the Mahlers.

“My sister, Kasey, had Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma the summer before she began as a student at Florida State,” said Kupcik. “I can relate a little bit to what cancer can do to a family. I just thought someone had to do something. And I knew Rob through a few meetings. It was always about family and life, never talked football. I would want coaches to do the same for me, so that’s why we did this for him.”

“The support has been incredible,” said Rob at the August 12th event. “I am blown away with all these coaches and players giving their time for this cause.”

The event was sponsored by Chick-Fil-A in Brooksville, Marco's Pizza, I-9 Sports, Gators Dockside, and Sir Speedy Advertising. These companies helped offset the cost of the day and allowed for every single cent raised to go to the Mahlers.

The total donations and ticket sales at the gate totaled over $3,000. And that does not include what Mahler’s family raised at their table selling “Clayton’s Crew” t-shirts and yellow “Clayton Strong” wristbands.

“Our families have been amazing, so supportive and just willing to fight with us,” said Jordan. “And my other family, at work, they have gone above and beyond for me.”

Jordan had just returned to work without having any Paid Time Off (PTO) since she had Clayton and then Cam 17 months later.

“They donated 150 hours of PTO to me,” said Jordan. “I can be there for my son in the coming months without fear of what happens at work or how to take the time. I have it now.”

It has been an inspiring last few months for the Mahlers. As they have seen the full scope of family, work, and community come together.

Everyone inspired to stand up to cancer through the strength of one little guy: Clayton.

“He is built for this. He will beat this,” said Rob.

He is built Clayton Strong.