GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Craig Denney came up with the idea, and he ran with it.
He ran to the people who chose him to be the keynote speaker at Glenwood Springs High School’s graduation Saturday afternoon, capping a school year in which he battled cancer and showed the school and community how to stay positive, including on days when he couldn’t run a step.
The members of the school’s graduating class of 2014 unanimously chose him to speak on what was, for most of them, the biggest day of their lives so far.
So Denney ran to them, and past them, going row by row to high-five each and every one of the 171 soon-to-be graduates. While the capacity crowd at Stubler Memorial Field gave Denney a standing ovation as he made his way to each student, Travis Tritt’s “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive” played from the stadium’s speakers.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“You do what you can do and accept every day,” the 52-year-old Denney said. “I don’t know what tomorrow brings, and I’m not worried about it, because I’m here today.”
Everyone who knows Craig Denney shared in uncertainty about his tomorrows after he was admitted November 2013 to Valley View Hospital and diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma. That started a five-month treatment that provided a roller coaster of both encouraging and scary moments.
In the process, Denney brought people together through his illness, and not just at Glenwood Springs High. People from across Garfield County and beyond contributed monetary donations, time and symbolic gestures — along with plenty of prayers — to help aid in Denney’s recovery.
There was the Glenwood Springs Basketball Officials Association, whose members donated close to $5,200 of their own per-game pay to help pay Denney’s medical bills. There was a local bank that matched that amount. There were the “Denney’s Demons” T-shirts, the messages left for Denney on his www.caringbridge.org account, and all of the good-natured support that came from students from schools around the area.
One of the biggest came in February, when Glenwood’s boys and girls basketball teams, on their way to games at Eagle Valley in Gypsum, stopped by Valley View to cheer on Glenwood’s AD as he was in the final stretch of his treatment. Denney was rolled in a wheelchair to a balcony at the hospital and treated to the players’ surprise visit.
“Just having positive people around is huge,” Denney said. “My wife [Ann] has been free of cancer for 14 years. When we got to two or three years after she was clear, we thought it was a miracle.
“You just have to keep positive thoughts,” he continued.
That was no more evident than mid-February.
After Denney’s treatment had finished, he developed complications following his chemotherapy from a bacterial infection. He spent nine days in intensive care at Valley View, battling liver and kidney issues along with fevers that reached 105 degrees.
Gayla Rowe, Glenwood’s assistant principal who took over Denney’s AD duties in his absence, didn’t hesitate when she told me in February: “It was really scary.”
Saturday’s graduation ceremony was a much better moment.
“That was pretty amazing,” Rowe said. “The power of prayer really works.”
That was just one of the things that Denney touched on during his keynote address. He stressed three points he went through during his treatment: accepting that he had cancer and staying positive through it; maintaining that he was blessed for what he went through; and, he told the graduates, to never be afraid to ask for help.
All three of those things made a difference in letting Denney be there Saturday.
“At one point the doctors told my wife that they didn’t think I’d make it,” he said. “So far, so good. It’s a miracle, and we realize that.”
Denney isn’t completely done yet. Though chemotherapy has finished, he’s still required to do monthly checkups, and admits it will be an “ongoing battle” to maintain his health. He is back to working full days, but he’s no longer putting in the 60 to 70 hours per week he was prior to his diagnosis. Refined sugar is no longer a part of his diet.
And for that matter, negativity isn’t part of his life, either. That’s part of the reason why he went with the idea of giving a high five to every graduating student Saturday. It was his way of saying thank you to the students for inspiring him.
After all, it’s a great day to be alive.
“I’m glad you’re still here,” I told Denney after we talked Saturday.
“I am, too,” Denney responded.
It’s safe to say we’re not the only ones who feel that way.
Jon Mitchell is the sports editor of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Citizen Telegram. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 970-384-9123.