Digger Phelps talks about his battle with cancer

He's known for his flamboyant and sometimes controversial personality.

Digger Phelps is still Notre Dame's most winning basketball coach and for years he's been a color analyst for ESPN.

There's a side of Digger you may not know about, including his recent battle with cancer. He didn't want anyone to know about his diagnosis until after his surgery.

He recently sat down and talks about it for the first time on television. In an exclusive conversation with Digger he talks about cancer, faith and the future.

Taking time to watch the birds, and tend the garden in the backyard of a home he has lived in since coming to South Bend in 1971.

“There she is on top, look there's a nest in there, I can't believe it,” Digger said

“These are my tomatoes, my Roma's are coming up, my basil is coming up, I got my one rosemary,” Digger said.

Smelling the roses is something Richard "Digger" Phelps is making more time for these days. You may not have known the former coach is an artist.

“Paintings, paintings, paintings,” Digger said.

His home is filled with impressionist paintings he's been creating for 20 years in a studio above his garage.

“So that's Duran's Sunlight on Water in London,” Digger explains.

He found out on April 28 he had prostate cancer taking this undertaker's son by surprise.

“I’ve been around death my whole life and seeing it and seeing what it does to families, then it hits you,” Digger said.

An admitted control freak, Digger started getting physicals every six months when he turned 60.

Six weeks after doctors found his cancer he underwent robotic prostate cancer surgery in Seattle, wanting to be close to his oldest daughter, Karen and her family.

Letting only doctors, his fiancée Linda, his kids and a very special priest know of his illness.

“A big part of my life has been Fr. Hesburgh,” Digger said as he held back emotions.

“I went and saw Hesburgh. He's done more for me, ah man. Hesburgh has, I’m a disciple of Hesburgh, I think he's a living saint,” Digger said.

“I went and saw him before. He said, I’ll say a mass for you on June 8,” Digger said as he choked up.

Digger's cancer was removed and when he came back to South Bend on June 17, his first stop was his special place on campus.

“There's this place on campus I call the hidden crucifix in the woods,” Digger explains.

Where two years earlier he took pictures that strengthened his faith.

“Two years ago on the 17th of June I was over there taking pictures at 6:30, 6:40, 6:50,” Digger explains

“I got them developed and there's this crown of thorns around the crucifix and I’m whoa,” Digger said.

The first place he stopped when he got back to town, two years to the date when he took what he believes were "unearthly" pictures.

“That’s the sacred turf on this campus. And I go to the grotto, I’ve been to the basilica but that hat trick to me is that hidden crucifix,” Digger said.

“Digger, you've always had a strong faith, would you say it's stronger now?” Maureen asks.

“Hey Mo, I'm not a living saint, we all know that. We all have our sins to repent for,” Digger replied

Joking about a call he had from rival and friend Bobby Knight after surgery.

“He said, when you were out of it did you get a chance to talk to Wooden? So when I finally got him back on the phone I said, Bob, it's Richard your younger brother and I said, by the way I was talking to Coach Wooden,” Digger said.

Feeling so good he's looking forward to the celebrity golf tournament in Tahoe on NBC this weekend.

“I want Barkley out here, because he'll be last, because he can't play golf, so I'll feel good on the 18th if Barkley finishes last,” Digger said.

Humbled by a disease that he knows could return.

“You may be this big tough guy who coached at Notre Dame and screamed and yelled a lot but I’m not different than anybody else,” Digger explained.

“It could happen in six months, it could happen in a year but between now and then it's like treasure the moments,” Digger added.

In South Bend, a town that's been his home since he was 30 years old, a town he loves.

“I just want to appreciate what I really have, and that's the family, my own, Notre Dame. That's my life,” Digger said.

Digger is playing in the celebrity golf tournament in Tahoe on NBC this weekend. He is also seeing his doctors in Seattle next week for his six week checkup, where he's hoping for a clean bill of health.

You might not know that in spite of his flamboyant behavior Digger has always been philanthropic.

He started the Dream Team Mentoring Program in South Bend Schools, backs our Pack a Backpack back to school drive each summer and donated money to build homes in New Orleans after Katrina.

He says he'll continue to do all those things.

You'll can also see our first story and find a link to the Moyer Foundation which his daughter Karen and husband, Jamie Moyer started. It provides help to so many in need.


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