Friday’s football games

Bend at South Salem 7:15 p.m.

Summit at Mountain View 7 p.m.

Thurston at Redmond 7 p.m.

Willamette at Ridgeview 7 p.m.

Newport at Sisters 7 p.m.

North Marion at Crook County 7 p.m.

Yamhill-Carlton at Madras 7 p.m.

La Pine at Sutherlin 7 p.m.

Santiam at Culver 7 p.m.

Gilchrist at Eddyville Charter 4:30 p.m.

Perhaps stepping back onto the football field is the best medicine for Shea Little.

The longtime Culver High School coach returned to the team as an assistant in mid-August after recovering from a double lung transplant performed in May.

The Bulldogs are 2-2 and have won their last two games under head coach Jesus Retano, who took over for Little last season.

“It’s good to jump back on the horse,” the 46-year-old Little says. “I love being around kids, watching them develop, and watching them play the game that they love. That’s just motivating, mentally. It motivates me to get up, go out there … I would not want to come back, just focus on myself, and not work or anything like that. That would drive me crazy. I teach and coach because I love it, so I want to get back in it.”

In late 2011, Little was diagnosed with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (A1AD), a genetic disorder in which the body does not produce enough of a protein that protects the lungs and liver from damage.

For many years the 6-foot-6, 255-pound Little — a Hillsboro native who was an offensive lineman at Eastern Oregon University in the mid-1990s — had experienced shortness of breath while playing football or exercising, and he frequently suffered from walking pneumonia and bronchitis.

After waiting more than a year on the transplant list, in late May, Little finally got the call he and his family had awaited for so long. On May 29, he underwent the lung transplant at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. The transplant was successful, and Little and his wife, Naomi, remained in Seattle until mid-August while he recovered.

Since his return to Culver, Little has traveled back to Seattle every two weeks for checkups and to adjust his medications as necessary. He says those trips will soon transition to every four weeks.

Little says his health is much improved since the transplant. He can take full breaths and the incessant coughing with which he long suffered has subsided. He has also started jogging occasionally and has been cleared for other exercise such as pushups. A lung infection he has battled since the transplant lingers, and Little says his doctors have advised him to take some time off from teaching — he is also a PE and health teacher at Culver High School — but he plans to continue his coaching and athletic director duties.

Little has been wearing a face mask to help prevent further infections and illness, and he says he often works on his breathing with an incentive spirometer, a device through which he inhales to measure his lung capacity.

“It’s a process coming back,” Little says. “Obviously I’m a lot better than I was pre-transplant. It’s great to have a lot more breath than you did. (Doctors) aren’t real excited I was teaching, so I think I’m gonna have to take a couple months off work. But they say, hey, coaching, you can still get out there and coach because you aren’t locked in a room with a bunch of sick kids and you’re outside and it’s exercise. I’m still going to be able to coach and be the AD, but they want me to clear the infection that’s in my lungs right now.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, the first year after the transplant — when rejection and infection pose the greatest threats — is the most critical period. Some lung transplant recipients have lived 10 years or longer after their transplant, but only about half of those who undergo the procedure are still alive after five years, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Little is well aware of the sobering statistics, but he is not letting that change his unwavering energy and optimism, or his motivation for coaching.

“I could wake up tomorrow, have horrible numbers and end up dying in a week,” Little acknowledges. “That’s just something you’ve always got to live with post-transplant. It’s just something you don’t really think about, and you can’t really focus on. As far as I’m concerned, I’m feeling great. You appreciate every day you have, which is awesome. Everybody’s got something they’re dealing with. This is just the card I was dealt.”

Retano took over as head football coach for Little last season as Little was struggling with his illness and still awaiting the call with word of a viable donor. Little served as an assistant coach last season as well, as the Class 2A Bulldogs struggled and finished the season winless at 0-9.

But Retano got his first two wins as a head coach this season as Culver beat Gervais 46-7 on Sept. 14 and Weston-McEwen 27-16 last week after dropping its first two games. The Bulldogs host Santiam Friday night.

“They love Little,” Retano says of the Culver players. “Everybody loves Little. He brings the intensity that only he can bring. I think the kids are happy that he’s there. They all know what kind of coach he is.”

Little was the offensive coordinator for Culver in 2012 when Retano was a senior on the team. Retano went on to play defensive back for Eastern Oregon before returning to his hometown to coach.

“He hasn’t missed a beat,” Retano says of Little. “He has the energy. He’s running around, yelling at kids. He’s a huge help with the O-line, D-line, offense, defense. He has so much experience coaching. Having him on the sideline definitely helps out for sure. He’s been a mentor for me, since high school. I’ve learned a lot just by watching him.”

Retano adds that he was not surprised to see Little back coaching so soon after his transplant.

“The way he is, he was never feeling sorry for himself,” Retano says. “He’s just mentally tough and strong, and he knew in his mind that he would make it, and he did.”

Little says he was excited to help his protégé get his first couple of wins as a head football coach.

“It was fun to see him get excited and jump around,” Little says of Retano. “We’re having a good time and a good season. The kids are responding well and we’ve just got to move forward as if nothing happened.”

Shea and Naomi — who teaches language arts at Culver Middle School — have four athletic kids: daughter Shealene, 22, and sons Mack, 20, Cole, 18, and Brody, 15.

Brody is a sophomore lineman for the Bulldogs, while the other three play sports in college. Little recently got to see Shealene, a volleyball player for Tennessee Tech, play at a tournament in Seattle. He also watched Mack play football for Western Oregon and Cole play in a scrimmage for the Oregon Tech baseball team.

“I got back and I’ve been able to see all three of them play in college,” Little says. “I can die now and it’ll be all good, man. I’m all right. I’m upright. That’s what matters. Every day you get up is a good day.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0318,

mmorical@bendbulletin.com

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