Entering the gym as he had done hundreds of times before, West York boys' basketball coach Bill Ackerman looked at the student body lined up on the court Friday and thought they were there to honor the Bulldog seniors before their last home game.
Suddenly the beloved coach of 15 seasons saw the group was wearing T-shirts that read "It's time to walk the walk" on the front, and "You will never walk alone. Ack's Army," on the back. Ackerman realized the group was there for him. Even if he didn't want Friday night to be about him, the community wanted to show its support as he starts his battle against prostate cancer.
With chants of "We love Ack," echoing throughout the West York gym, Ackerman made it through the line of students and fellow faculty members mostly dry-eyed. Then came the emotional hug with his players at the end of the line ... Of course, few eyes around the facility were dry by then anyway.
"I didn't want to break down. I had to try and focus to myself, on how long is this line, because I didn't want to break down in front of all these people," Ackerman said after the Bulldogs' 63-59 win against Kennard-Dale.
"I have been so focused on making this about the seniors. When we went down pregame I saw the students rushing down from the stands. I thought, 'They have a special at the consessions stand? What's going on?'
"Then I thought they are doing something for the seniors. That is pretty cool. And the seniors deserve it.
"That is the beauty of West York, they never fail to amaze you with the amount of compassion they show."
Ackerman told his players that the night wasn't about him. It was about them, and they had a game to play. The Bulldog fans who remained on their feet during a prolonged standing ovation for the coach might disagree.
It was a display of love for the coach and for the school. Just ask one of Ackerman's biggest supporters, West York principal Janet May.
"Our students are a very caring and compassionate group of kids," she said. "I love these kids. They continue to make me proud."
The Bulldogs season ended on Saturday, with a 58-47 win at New Oxford. Ackerman said that 2012-13 marks the first time in his career at West York that his team did not make the playoffs. But he loved this year's team every bit as much as the others before it.
Plus with the season behind him, he is free to concentrate on his health. He has met with one surgeon already and will consult another Feb. 13 to determine the best surgical method to remove the prostate gland.
"Maybe this is the plan God has," Ackerman said. "We are moving forward with surgery. It looks like mid-March is when I would like to have it. It sounds funny, but I want to be ready for offseason workouts in April."
He is confident he will beat the disease, and with good reason. His father has cleared two separate bouts of prostate cancer, which is why the 42-year-old Ackerman made sure to get tested as recommended, and signs point to early detection in his case.
With his young family of wife, Jen, 8-year-old son Dylan and daughter Parker, who turned 2 on Friday, Ackerman knows he has plenty to live for.
Even his candid handling of the disease has become a teaching point. His blog on the West York Boys Basketball website is an education about the prostate cancer, including his "Gleason Score" indicating severity and his upcoming choices of surgery.
The fact that he plans to beat cancer and would like to return quickly shouldn't surprise anyone that knows Ackerman.
"That is Bill. His saying is 'Walk the walk,'" May said. "He teaches kids to handle adversity. He does it coaching, he does it in the classroom."