By ROBERT WILSON
Florence High School athletic director Brad Cliburn shook hands with God in January 2008, at a chapel at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.
“Cancer is a bad dude. The big C word scares everybody, but once I shook hands with God I never really worried about it because I knew it was His,” Brad said. “I accepted Christ as my Savior when I was nine years old, but at 48 years old I found out what it really meant.”
“I was told I had cancer again (the first time was in 2003) that January and that the doctors were going to have to go in and remove my vocal cords and voice box. It was going to be a 10-12 hour surgery, a very complicated surgery. But I was fine because I had given everything to God before that.”
When Brad and his wife, Carla, arrived at M.D. Anderson, one of the first areas they saw was the chapel. Brad told Carla he had to go in to talk to God.
“I got down on my knees,” Brad said. “The Bible says in Psalms 34:18 that the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. I was broken. I shook hands with Him that day and it changed my life.”
“The doctors had been very straightforward as to what we were facing and the overall decision was that Brad’s voice box and vocal cords would have to be removed, making it a challenge for him to talk again,” Carla said. “We were feeling pretty low and we came upon the chapel. Brad was in there for several minutes and when he came out the first thing he said was, ‘I got right with God.’ And he has. We would not have gotten through this if his faith had not been strengthened that day.
“God did send us an angel that day. Our last appointment was with a speech pathologist whose father just happened to also be an athletic director, like brad, at a high school in Missouri. She was very positive and insured Brad that she would have him talking.”
Brad was the starting point guard for Florence High School’s 1977 Class AA and Overall championship team under coach Doug Hutton. He teamed with star players, Greg Grim and Danny Lewis, for a 37-3 record. After playing basketball and baseball at Hinds Community College, Brad finished his education at Southern Mississippi with a degree in athletic administration and coaching. He coached at Forrest County AHS for four years and Raleigh for five years before returning home to Florence in 1991. He was head girls basketball coach from 1991-2003 and head baseball coach from 1991-95. Brad has been athletic director since 2001.
The only son of Ann and Shelton Cliburn, Brad was brought up in a Christian home in Richland and he and his family (Brad has one younger sister, Bridgett) were members of Richland Baptist Church.
“It seemed like every time the doors opened I was there,” Brad said. “I was fortunate enough to grow up in a great Christian community with great Christian friends.”
In addition to his friends and family, Brad credits Hutton and Richland Junior High basketball coach Richard Wilkerson for steering him in the right direction. Also, God put a card with an important phrase in front of Brad when he was a sophomore in high school that he still gives to students today.
“We were playing at Brandon High and I was in the locker room getting ready before the game,” Brad said. “I looked down under the bench and there was a card. On the back of it was this phrase—The more you do with what you have, the more God will give you to do with. I picked it up and put it in my wallet and I kept it there until I couldn’t read it any more. I’ve tried to live that way a good part of my life. The phrase has been in my dressing room of every school where I’ve coached.”
But Brad admits, he hasn’t always been close to God.
“I took a wrong turn when I graduated from high school,” Brad said. “I went down the wrong road and left Jesus. I starting going out, partying with the guys, and sometimes overindulged. I still read my Bible because I knew I was supposed to, but I didn’t study it. I was praying, but I don’t know if I was really praying. And I was praying for myself, not for others and not for God’s Will.”
Brad still wasn’t close enough to God in 2003 when he was first diagnosed with cancer.
“When I got cancer, to me it was God saying, ‘You better watch what you are doing,’” Brad said. “He said, ‘I know where your heart is, but you aren’t living right.’”
Brad straightened it all out with God when he shook hands with Him in January 2008. It hasn’t been easy since, but Brad knows God is by his side.
“This whole experience with cancer has really been a blessing,” Brad said. “I’ve had my ups and downs and I struggle sometimes, but I’ve been blessed. I’ve been blessed with a great wife (Carla and Brad have been married for 25 years) and son (Cody, 20) who have always been there for me. We have been members of a great church (First Baptist Church Florence) for the past 20 years. I listen to the words of the sermon and of the worship songs now instead of just hearing them.”
Because of his surgery, Brad couldn’t talk for six months. He also could not swallow and had to be fed through a feeding tube for three months while everything healed. Once everything healed, the doctors put in a voice prosthetic device, which has to be maintained daily and replaced every six or seven months. The prosthesis gives Brad the ability to talk, and even though he sounds like he has laryngitis, you can understand him.
“Brad has taken things day-by-day and has kept a positive attitude knowing that this is part of God’s plan,” Carla said. “People do not realize just what he has to go through every day to be able to communicate. He is an inspiration to me and Cody and all who know him. We are inspired every day by his determination to get out of bed, do his job, and do it as best he can. We could not have gone through this without family, friends and our church family praying for us. Prayer works and we are proof of that.”
Robert Wilson is Business Developer for BFAC. He is a freelance writer, author, and the publisher of Victories in Metro Jackson magazine. He is a member of Broadmoor Baptist Church. Contact him at Robert@bfac.com.
Photo Credit: Will Smith