He doesn’t raise his voice often. But when he does, people listen.
Steve Faulkner, the athletic director and boys’ basketball coach at Columbia High School in Lake City, knows the importance of saving his voice. He’s felt more pain in his throat than anyone should ever feel. In April 2021, he was diagnosed with squamous cell throat cancer.
“Y’all let me know when I can talk,” Faulkner, 47, who’s been coaching basketball in north central Florida for 21 years, told his team as they argued with one another during a recent practice. “I’m not going to talk over you.”
In an instant, they were silent. They know what he’s endured to get to where he is today: Still energized; Still passionate. Still coaching his heart out.
Faulkner knew the battle would be tough, but he never once questioned the outcome.
“I was confident I was going to beat this,” said the former math teacher, who was told on Aug. 17 that he was cancer free. “I’ve always been a positive person.”
Last week, Faulkner reached another milestone when his team beat Forest High School of Ocala in dominant fashion. In his eighth year of coaching at Columbia, it was his 138th win, and the most of any coach in school history. He passed Bill Barnett, who coached boys’ basketball at Columbia from 1995-2003.
Afterward, the record-breaking coach was humble about the achievement.
“I’ve never been somebody who’s about individual awards,” he said. “In those 138 games, I scored zero points.”
Still, he’s happy to see where this journey has taken him.
“Just the fact that I’m still able to coach, to me, is a success,” he said while reflecting about the achievement and battle with cancer. “Then to actually break the school record in the same year I went through all that, it does make it a little special to me.”
Faulkner said his biggest inspiration is his players. Wanting to watch them grow helped to motivate him to beat the disease and return to the court. That and seeing his own sons – sophomore Jordan and freshman Tyler – find success of their own. They are now a part of Columbia junior varsity and freshman boys basketball teams, respectively.
“He wants to see his kids grow up,” Columbia Principal Thomas “Trey” Hosford said. “No doubt in my mind that his sons had a big impact on him knowing this was something he had to overcome.”
When the diagnosis first came in, the boys were shocked and scared.
“I was like, ‘Not to my dad. This is impossible,’” said Tyler, 14.
But they were confident their father could beat the disease.
“He is the toughest person I know,” Tyler said. “He never gives up without a fight.”
Jordan, 15, said: “He was willing to fight through some of the worst pain imaginable to stay with us today. That is just a testament to how great of a father he is.”
Others back at Columbia also witnessed Faulkner’s determination to return to coaching.
“He knew he was going to prevail,” said Michael Paphides, Columbia’s assistant principal of student affairs. “I’ve never seen somebody more positive about a negative thing that happened in their life.”
Paphides said Faulkner seems to have enjoyed coaching even more this season.
“He’s seen something that could have been taken away from him,” Paphides said. “He has a new perspective on what actually makes him happy.”
Faulkner underwent seven weeks of radiation over the summer. He had to sit motionless in a treatment room for 10 minutes at a time. The process made him sluggish and tired.
“Radiation on your throat was not fun at all,” he said. “I would take my mind to a positive place: ‘I’m on a beach. Got a cold beverage in my hand.’”
It meant so much, on his final day of radiation and chemo, to ring the symbolic bell.
“It felt like that big 300-pound gorilla jumped off my shoulders,” he said.
Now his mind is firmly on winning basketball games.
Following back-to-back victories over Forest and then Madison County High School, Columbia (13-12) will be the fourth seed in the 6A District 3 tournament. The Tigers face fifth-seeded Buchholz High School of Gainesville at home Tuesday. The winner will take on top-seeded Fleming Island High School of Orange Park.
Win or lose, Faulkner preaches having no regrets.
“At the end of the game – no matter what the scoreboard says – if we can look at each other and say we gave everything we had, that’s it,” he said.
Faulkner says the older players on the team – including top scorers junior guard Isaac Broxey and senior forward Marcus Peterson – have extra motivation to play for their coach. They have seen the effort he’s given to get back for them. Now they want to return the favor and play for their coach, whose victories mean so much more than just winning a game of basketball.
“I’ve had my opportunity to play,” Faulkner said. “Now it’s their opportunity.”