By Steve Blackledge
The Columbus Dispatch
During a 46-year career as a high school teacher, coach, principal, superintendent, counselor, referee and administrator, Dan Ross has lived by a simple doctrine.
"When you get knocked down, you've got to get back up and fight like crazy," he said. "That holds true in academics, athletics and life in general. You never, ever give up."
Ross' theory has been put to the test repeatedly during an exhausting health ordeal that began 15 months ago and until now he has shielded from the public.
On Nov. 3, 2015, the 13-year commissioner of the Ohio High School Athletic Association entered Mount Carmel East hospital for a routine surgery to ease a colon condition called diverticulitis. The procedure went smoothly, but things went awry in the recovery room.
"A blood clot got caught in my widow maker," he said of the left coronary artery that supplies blood to a large part of the heart. "The next thing I remember seeing were my wife (Chris) and our four kids standing around my bed praying and holding my hands. Then it occurred to me that my kids from San Diego and Denver were here. This must be serious."
Ross had suffered a massive heart attack, and by his wife's account, had to be revived with shock paddles at least three times. He was unconscious and in extremely critical condition for nearly 72 hours, then spent several more hours breathing with the aid of a ventilator.
"If this had happened at home, I wouldn't be here," said Ross, 67. "Those people at Mount Carmel saved my life and gave me a second chance."
Ross' problems, however, were far from over. During his rehabilitation, doctors determined that even with medication his heart wasn't effectively pumping blood. Alarmingly low blood pressure led to digestion problems and lack of appetite. Ross subsequently lost 65 pounds in six months. When he returned to work part-time, colleagues at the OHSAA became concerned by how ashen and frail he appeared.
On June 3, Ross underwent a procedure at Cleveland Clinic to have an artificial heart pump installed. It is considered a bridge to an eventual transplant. He is on a national donor list but is unsure if or when a match with the same blood type and body mass will be found.
"I'm probably the first bionic, battery-operated commissioner," Ross said while displaying the well-concealed apparatus beneath his suit. Heart pumps generally last eight to 10 years, he said.
"Seriously, I feel great," Ross said. "There are two things I can control: my weight and my exercise in order to build stamina. I walk 5ks every day. I can function this way."
Ross said he doesn't know where he sits on the transplant list, and doesn't want to. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life wondering," he said. "They may call me tomorrow or they may never call me. I'll deal with it either way."
Chris Ross said her husband's attitude throughout his illness "has always been phenomenal. He has never felt sorry for himself."
Ross recently returned to work full-time at the OHSAA, but he is careful not to overdo things. Many of his colleagues have asked Ross in so many words why he doesn't simply retire.
"The honest-to-goodness truth is because I love working with kids and coaches and officials and school people," he said. "This is what I've done my whole life. When the day comes that I get up and feel like I have to go to work, it's time that the kids of Ohio deserve someone else. I've got too many irons in the fire right now to think about retirement."
Chris Ross said she and the couple's four children and nine grandchildren never encouraged her husband of 44 years to step down.
"At one time last spring, I told him I was very concerned about him going back to work," she said. "But at the same time, I wanted him to feel like there was a purpose and a motivation for him to get up every morning, except his family. To cut that off from him, I'm not sure that's very healthy. If he felt like he wasn't performing to his standards, I'm sure he would let someone else take over. He cares too much."
The OHSAA in June brought in longtime administrator Dave Gray as interim commissioner; he stayed on through December, when Ross returned to the position fulltime.
Assistant commissioner Bob Goldring said he and many other on the OHSAA staff weren't sure what to make of Ross insisting on returning to work.
"He kept quiet about what was going on. It was hard to gauge how he was really feeling from day to day," Goldring said. "A lot of us in the office have spoken among ourselves that if we were in his shoes, we would question coming back to work. But retirement is a sensitive issue with Dan. He still has the passion, desire and wherewithal to be involved and to make a difference. Let's face it: He doesn't play golf or have a lake home. He has always been all about work."
As the author of a much-debated competitive balance plan that will take effect next fall, Ross is working to cement his legacy. He also is eager to usher in the transition of the state football finals from Ohio Stadium to the new Benson-Fawcett Hall of Fame complex in Canton for 2017 and '18.
"The last year and a half, it has been an interesting journey," Ross said. "I'm at a place now where I can accept that I've been given a gift and given my life back and each day should be treated as a blessing."