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Originally published March 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 7, 2007 at 9:01 PM

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DuRocher powered by positive thinking

Johnny DuRocher is lying in a hospital less than two hours after brain surgery. His grandmother enters the room, walks gingerly toward the...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Johnny DuRocher is lying in a hospital less than two hours after brain surgery. His grandmother enters the room, walks gingerly toward the bed.

"Hi, Grandson."

He forces his eyes open, squints and stares.

"Who are you?"

Her face turns white. Her jaw drops. She stammers, unsure what to say next.

"Just kidding, Grandma!"

Only Johnny DuRocher can turn brain surgery into stand-up comedy. He calls his surgery a "vacation." He calls the part of his head doctors shaved for surgery a "landing strip." He calls the binder given by the hospital his "tumor notebook." Heeeere's Johnny!

There are hopefuls. There are optimists. Then there is Johnny DuRocher ... the Next Big Thing turned third-string quarterback turned brain-tumor survivor turned Washington baseball pitcher — all without a hint of anger or regret.

"Hey," DuRocher says, pausing for the punch line, "it's not brain surgery."

Sometimes the DuRochers sit around a bonfire on the 10 acres they own in Roy and talk timing. Even Johnny DuRocher shakes his head when the talk turns serious. He hasn't caught a break since high school.

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Well, except for the one that saved his life.

DuRocher played against Stanford last season, threw an interception and got knocked silly attempting a tackle, which led to a concussion and an MRI and the diagnosis of a brain tumor.

He only played because Isaiah Stanback and Carl Bonnell went down with injuries, and the Huskies decided not to waste a year of freshman Jake Locker's eligibility.

DuRocher only found himself that far down the depth chart because of a debilitating stretch in 2005 — three games ineligible, broken wrist against Oregon State, poor performance in the next spring practice.

He only ended up at Washington after transferring. DuRocher left for Oregon in 2003, still the star quarterback from Bethel High School in Graham with a memorable college career just waiting to be written.

All that to save a life.

Then what happened? A couple weeks after surgery, somebody stole his Jeep, never to be found. The man upstairs has quite the sense of humor.

DuRocher can't help but marvel at the timing of it all. The tumor grew between when doctors found it and surgeons removed it. Had there been no concussion, symptoms would have surfaced within months — migraine headaches, loss of balance, changes in personality, possibly even brain damage. Had there been no MRI, DuRocher would not be playing baseball now. He would be having surgery, emergency variety.

"I'm extremely lucky," he says.

Two weeks before the Stanford game, DuRocher came off the bench against Arizona State and tossed a touchdown pass. The Stanford game, Nov. 11, felt like the perfect opportunity. Instead, it marked the end of DuRocher's football career.

In the months that passed, DuRocher watched the tape just once. He didn't want to know who hit him or even if the hit was dirty. He wanted to know if he really got "lit up" in a manner befitting a "SportsCenter" highlight that never came.

His recollection of the viewing: "When I got up, I wasn't quite stable. Wobbling. In pain. It's weird. When you're watching it on tape, it almost feels like it isn't you. Even though it happened the day before."

The first tests were on Monday. Doctors noticed a dark spot. He took more tests on Wednesday. Doctors called his parents in on Friday. Told the whole family of the tumor — 5 centimeters deep, 4 centimeters wide, 3 centimeters high — like a golf ball fell onto the back of his brain and stuck there.

"Am I going to die?" DuRocher asked the doctors. He turned to his father. Even this deserved a joke.

Something about the next, um, bump in the road.

On one night — and only one night — Johnny DuRocher did not smile or laugh or charm. In the handful of hours before surgery Nov. 30, he worried.

Only then did he allow himself the questions. What if it's cancer? What if I don't wake up?

His parents, John and Corrina, woke before dawn. Their son had barely slept. They arrived at the hospital at 6 a.m.

Surgery lasted about three hours. Doctors scooped out the tumor — which turned out to be benign — inserted a plate, sewed up the hole and performed another round of tests. The DuRochers passed the time in the cafeteria at Harborview, trying to concentrate on a Clint Eastwood movie.

Johnny DuRocher's eyes opened as the clock blinked 1:27 p.m. He never told his parents or any other visitors about the doubt that consumed him before surgery or the pain that lingered after.

The pain came in waves that first night. Every 20 minutes, nurses administered morphine, but always, it wore off. His mouth tasted like he had been sucking on a penny. His head hurt. His neck hurt worse. He kept yelling for more drugs, then one side of his body would go numb, and he would yell again for the nurses. The big, strong athlete needed someone to turn him over.

"That was the worst night of my life," DuRocher says. "Horrible."

The day after surgery, DuRocher tried to stand up. He threw up instead. The next night, he asked the doctors, "What do I have to do to leave?" They told him to start walking.

So DuRocher rose at 8 a.m. Dec. 2, less than two days after brain surgery, and hit the button for the nurse with the restless impatience of an athlete. They walked around the hospital. He called his parents.

"Get me out of here," he said.

That was Saturday. By Monday, DuRocher wanted to walk to the end of the driveway at his parents' house. He waited until Sunday — and walked around the block. By Monday, he was walking half a mile down a hill to the front gate of their development.

"He set goals every day," Corrina DuRocher says. "He's always been that kind of kid."

There were setbacks. DuRocher had the shakes the first few days. He went Christmas shopping with his dad and faded fast, returning home for a five-hour nap.

He ended up buzzing his head — bye-bye landing strip — and shaving, because when he looked in the mirror he saw "a recovering drug addict." He wanted a new start.

DuRocher gained back the 20 pounds he lost after surgery. He started lifting weights after two weeks. He threw a baseball, marveling at how fresh his right arm felt following his first extended "rest" since childhood.

Response at school was typical. Everybody wanted to see the scar.

Six inches long and 2 inches wide, it runs straight down, dividing the back of his head in half. Red staples hold the skin together, like the seam on a baseball. The scar still itches, especially when the skin around it dries, and sometimes it even leaks. Yet doctors expect DuRocher to live a "normal" life with minimal chance of a reoccurrence.

"I can't complain," DuRocher says. "I just had brain surgery."

How's this for timing? Last spring, a strength coach at UW talked Johnny DuRocher into pitching. Never mind that DuRocher hadn't pitched since third grade. If you can throw, you can throw. And if you're 6 feet 4, 215 pounds with a right arm that once dropped jaws ...

"His body," UW coach Ken Knutson says, "tells you he's got a chance."

When DuRocher met with Knutson, he told a fib. Something about actually having pitched in high school, but it was immediately obvious the cannon needed tuning. So DuRocher worked out with the baseball team from May to July, threw once a week from September until surgery, and resumed workouts again in January.

After he lost football, at least DuRocher had pitching to look forward to.

This wasn't like Bethel High School, where DuRocher turned out his sophomore year with two goals: to hang out with his buddies and hit at least one home run. He eventually sent one sailing out against Emerald Ridge, but didn't get to enjoy the trot.

"I wasn't used to hitting the ball," says DuRocher, who says he batted .111. "It took off, and so did I."

His parents remember young Johnny on vacation in Florida, 3 years old and out in the backyard, shaking off catchers, staring down batters, spitting imaginary tobacco. His dad thought: He should be a pitcher.

All these years later, he is. And dad insists all along he thought baseball was his son's best sport.

The son throws four pitches now — two-seam and four-seam fastballs, up to 94 mph, a slider and a changeup — and it is the breaking ball, the hardest pitch to learn, that he throws best. In three appearances this season, he has allowed four runs (three earned) in five innings. Every pitch can turn into an adventure as DuRocher learns command, but the potential leaves him wondering the question a scout asked the other day.

What if he'd been pitching all along?

"I feel something good has to come of all this," DuRocher says. "So maybe this was just the roundabout way I had to go to start playing baseball. I don't know. We'll see."

His teammates make sure DuRocher's head stays the same size. They call him the most-interviewed player who never played, tease him about tallying more interviews than pitches thrown in games. The backup quarterback is in the bullpen now, still waiting.

"You can't tell he went through brain surgery," Knutson says. "He's such a great guy. You might think some of my pitchers don't have a brain, though."

The letters flooded into the Washington football office. Hundreds of them. They came from rival football coaches and local chaplains and so many people Johnny DuRocher never even met before. He responded to each one.

The lessons of his story are in those letters.

They wrote this: "My son was a combat controller in the USAF and was KIA on Memorial Day 2005. The point is ... that you thank God that you can beat this."

This: "You are about to learn more than you ever learned at Oregon or UW combined. You are going to learn about life, and how fragile it is."

And this: "I was so pleased to see how optimistic you were about your recent news. We're always trying to teach our students about resilience, and I'm glad to see a role model like you out there to show kids what hope looks like."

DuRocher envisioned awards and Rose Bowls coming out of high school, maybe a career in the NFL. The reality was the Next Big Thing became a third-string quarterback, survived brain surgery and started pitching.

"I still have four months to see if something good can come out of this," DuRocher says.

Something good has. The little things that used to bother DuRocher don't seem important anymore. His relationship with his younger sister, Amanda, a sophomore guard at Washington State, improved dramatically. His parents say surgery made him philosophical.

A couple weeks ago, a young boy with a brain tumor visited DuRocher at UW. They toured the athletic facilities, walked around campus, talked about their fears. And after it ended, and the boy left, DuRocher called his parents.

"That felt so good," he said.

DuRocher fantasizes about a return to football. His parents think he's crazy. His doctor recommends against it. DuRocher has a hole in his brain where the tumor was, and if he gets hit again, the hole could fill with blood.

Remember who we're talking about. Not a hopeful. Not an optimist. Johnny DuRocher.

"He didn't even want to feel sorry for himself," John DuRocher says. "He's gone through all of it. I'm not ever going to doubt him."

His son confirmed all that the first time he pitched for the UW this season. After the game, DuRocher jogged by his parents en route to the bullpen. They were leaning on a fence, the sun shining, their son's head turned away so they could see his hair flowing out behind his hat.

"And he's got this grin on his face, and he's jogging back to the team," Corrina DuRocher says. "It was funny. One of those moments that sticks with you. It was just like he was 10 years old again, a fresh start, excited about something."

Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or gbishop@seattletimes.com

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