Joe Bourg’s first meeting with Cam Cameron unfolded in the most peculiar of ways.
Bourg, a student assistant in the LSU football program’s video department, stood on the team’s practice field in August, staring into an iPad.
Cameron, the team’s fourth-year offensive coordinator, lay in his hospital bed in Baltimore, staring back at Bourg’s face.
“It was interesting,” Bourg said with a smile.
An unusual assignment awaited Bourg when he arrived at practice that day. It was the start of the second week of LSU’s preseason camp, three weeks before the 2015 season opener against McNeese State and, yes, the first month on the job for Bourg, a freshman from Houma.
“When you walk into camp practice one day, and you get there, and you still haven’t done too much yet in the way of video-ing and learning the different cameras, and you’re told, ‘You need to call coach Cam today and walk him around on this iPad.’
“I had never said a word to coach Cam,” Bourg said. “Ever.”
That day in August served as an introduction for the two, a kickoff to what would be a ritual conducted each afternoon on LSU’s practice fields — all through FaceTime on that iPad.
Bourg provided Cameron with a way to watch his offense practice while he recovered from prostate cancer surgery in a Baltimore hospital and then at home in Baton Rouge. For at least a week, Bourg toted an iPad around LSU’s camp practices, a live feed of Cameron plastered on its face.
“We went around to be with the quarterbacks and got behind drills,” Bourg said. “He’d say, ‘OK, we’re going here.’ That’s where I went.”
“It was crazy,” receiver Malachi Dupre said. “He was coaching through that. He could see each and every play.”
Said quarterback Brandon Harris: “After one practice, he made me run sprints.”
Oh, yes, LSU’s 2015 preseason football camp was unlike any other.
Stories from those days are rolling out as the Tigers — and their now-healthy offensive coordinator — prepare for Saturday’s spring football game. Cameron took a nearly two-week long leave of absence during camp to battle an aggressive form of prostate cancer that he said would have killed him if it were found six months later.
He spent four days at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for a procedure Aug. 12 — LSU’s first day of two-a-day practices and 3½ weeks before the season opener.
He watched practice and sat in staff meetings from thousands of miles away by FaceTiming through an iPad. Once he returned, a wheelchair-bound Cameron watched indoor scrimmages from a catwalk and viewed scrimmages in Tiger Stadium from the press box.
About 10 days before LSU opened the 2015 season, Cameron watched his offense practice while sitting on a lift positioned on a gravel road that runs beside LSU’s practice fields. More than 15 feet in the air and well above the wooden fence guarding the fields, Cameron sat on the lift’s platform under an umbrella, communicating through headsets with coaches on the field.
“In all my years of coaching,” Miles said, “I had never seen anything like it.”
‘I was six months from death’
Cam Cameron is pacing in front of the main stage at LSU’s coaches clinic inside the PMAC.
His voice is projecting toward more than 100 high school football coaches in front of him, many scribbling notes into pads and others typing them into phones.
None of them are about football. Cameron is preaching about something far more important: health.
“If I missed another physical, I ain’t standing here right now,” Cameron tells the coaches. “I was six months from death, and I was in great shape.”
Cameron, 55, has become an advocate for prostate cancer awareness.
“As we all know, when you have a job and you continue to take your health for granted ... my encouragement to everybody is make that your priority,” he said. “This life we live is not a dress rehearsal.”
Cameron missed his yearly physical in 2014 — not wise for a man diagnosed with melanoma at 28 years old, not smart for a guy who showed signs of future prostate problems while coaching with the Baltimore Ravens more than four years ago.
While with the Ravens, Cameron’s prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test showed a score of 5. A 5 isn’t so bad. Patients with such a score have about a 30 percent chance of getting prostate cancer, according to zerocancer.org. They should be monitored regularly, the site says.
A physical in the spring of 2015 — his first in two years — showed that Cameron’s prostate score had tripled. It was 15.
Doctors did more tests, and they performed a biopsy. They inserted a needle into Cameron’s prostate — located between the rectum and genitals — to retrieve tissue samples.
Doctors called Cameron at some point in June, he estimates. Come in, they told him, and bring your wife.
“ ‘Bring your wife,’ ” said Cameron, remembering the call, similar to the one he received nearly 30 years ago for melanoma. “They give you the good news over the phone. They never give you the bad news over the phone.”
Cameron’s prostate was not only cancerous. The cancer was aggressive. Luckily for Cameron, it hadn’t spread to other organs. He needed to heal from the biopsy before doctors could surgically remove the cancerous areas.
In the meantime, Missy Cameron, the coach’s wife, read a 400-page book on prostate cancer within a matter of 36 hours.
“She became a prostate cancer expert,” Cam said. “Basically, my wife Missy saved my life. Doctors locally and at Johns Hopkins were just phenomenal. Les and (LSU Athletic Director) Joe (Alleva) were just ... the support from LSU was just like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”
‘I thought, “Oh, crap” ’
Brandon Harris knew something was afoot when Cam Cameron called a quarterback meeting immediately after a hot, sweltering and hectic camp practice in early August.
Players didn’t normally meet after practices, especially after one of those practices.
“My initial reaction was, ‘Oh, crap, I hope he’s not leaving,’ ” Harris said earlier this month.
Cameron stepped in front of his quarterbacks and addressed them.
“He said he had to leave, and when he said he had to leave, I initially thought he was going back to the (NFL),” Harris said. “I was sad.”
Cameron stepped to the side. Les Miles entered.
“He said Cam is dealing with this issue, and he told us what it was,” Harris said. “I look at Cam like a dad. I really do. I can talk to him about anything. When he told us, I literally teared up. I was just sad. I wouldn’t want that to happen to my dad. When you think cancer, the human reaction is to think death.
“I was really sad. I didn’t know how long we were going to be without Cam. I didn’t want anybody else coaching me,” Harris continued. “I’ve heard his voice for two years. I was just sad.”
Harris and the other quarterbacks knew more than many in the LSU football operations building. Miles was determined to keep Cameron’s battle a secret.
Miles and Cameron are long-time friends. They coached together at Michigan under Bo Schembechler. They’re both old-school coaches with Midwestern roots, best buds behind the scenes and like-minded offensive coaches on the field.
Cameron broke the news to his boss and friend early in the process.
“I want you to know,” Miles said in a serious tone, “I was like any friend that would have normal concern and wanted to do the right thing for him.”
The shroud Miles cast over the program during camp was all meant to protect his friend, he said.
Miles closed camp to reporters for unknown reasons on the fifth day of drills: Monday, Aug. 10.
On Wednesday, Aug. 12, Cameron underwent surgery in Baltimore.
On Sunday, Aug. 16, Cameron appeared at the team’s annual media day, answering reporters’ questions longer than any other assistant coach. He spent much of that time standing, before dropping onto a chair positioned on a raised platform. Two LSU staff members later helped the coach off of the platform, gingerly walking him into the locker room.
Also, boosters were shut out of viewing preseason scrimmages Aug. 15, Aug. 22 and Aug. 25.
Malachi Dupre and many other players knew only that Cameron would be leaving for an extended period. They didn’t know why.
“It was more the quarterbacks,” Dupre said. “He didn’t tell them initially what happened. When they did find out, he told them to tell a few specific guys about what was going on that he thought could handle it. He didn’t want that to get out. When I found out, I was like, ‘Whoa.’ ”
How secret were things kept? Many defensive players had no idea Cameron watched those preseason scrimmages from a wheelchair in the press box.
“When he was coming to those, not many people knew,” Dupre said. “He’d be in contact with the quarterbacks and receivers and some of the offensive skill guys, and we’d know he’d be in the scrimmages up in the press box.”
Miles admits to wondering if Cameron would be capable of coaching the upcoming season. Cameron’s diagnoses came four years after former LSU offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease just before the 2011 season, his first year with the program.
He relinquished OC duties and served as quarterbacks coach in 2011 and 2012 before moving into an administrative role. He’s now the special assistant to the head coach and chief of staff.
“With each step, there was obviously personal concern for a great friend and colleague,” Miles said of Cameron. “There’s also, ‘What extent is he going to be able to participate in the year?’ ”
“With each step, there was obviously personal concern for a great friend and colleague,” he said. “There’s also, ‘What extent is he going to be able to participate in the year?’ ”
He wasn’t the only one. Cameron even had his doubts.
The coach gave thought to delaying the surgery until after the season, said Doug Aucoin, LSU football’s video coordinator.
“He said the first thought a coach has is, ‘We can’t do this until after the season. We’ve got to wait. We’re in the middle of two-a-days,’ ” Aucoin said. “He said luckily he decided to do it because in January it might have been a totally different scenario in the end.”
Aucoin was one of the first in the building to know of Cameron’s plans to potentially leave during preseason camp. The coach approached the long-time video coordinator just before camp began.
“He didn’t even tell me what was going on,” Aucoin said. “He said, ‘If there’s a way you can figure out how to keep me connected somehow from afar ...’ ”
Cameron later revealed his diagnosis to Aucoin.
“The week of when he was going, he came to me and said, ‘I’m going to be going for an extended period of time. Do we have this situation figured out?’ ” Aucoin said. “At that point, he told me what was going on. It wasn’t my place to repeat that.”
‘That’s what we do’
The iPad sat in front of Les Miles.
It was propped up on a notepad on a table in the meeting room where LSU coaches gather to watch video, discuss personnel, plan practice, etc.
All nine assistant coaches were there — eight of them were there physically, one of them was there on that iPad.
“I think it took a little adjustment for coach Miles to realize that Cam was on the iPad in front of him instead of sitting in his chair,” Doug Aucoin said with a smile.
Aucoin, a New Orleans native in his 19th year of running the program’s video department, was in charge of toting around Cameron off the field — to staff meetings, quarterback meetings, team meetings, film sessions.
“If they were watching video or something, I’d turn it around so he could see the screen,” Aucoin said. “He’d give feedback and talk because they could hear him like he was sitting in the room.”
Cameron couldn’t tune into every practice or meeting. He juggled doctor’s appointments and rest with his football duties. Aucoin said he couldn’t stay through some of LSU’s entire scrimmages at Tiger Stadium.
“He got up there in a wheelchair and we brought him a nice, comfortable desk chair where he could prop himself up,” Aucoin said. “I don’t even know if he stayed the whole scrimmage. I think he got to a point where he was uncomfortable and had to leave at some point.
“That was a tough deal.”
While at home, Cameron pored over videos of LSU’s camp practices and upcoming opponents’ defenses. Aucoin was a frequent visitor to the Cameron house, swapping laptops from time to time, each uploaded with a different opponent — Mississippi State, Auburn, Syracuse, Eastern Michigan.
Cameron was healthy enough to return to work between a week and two weeks after his surgery Aug. 12. He wasn’t healthy enough, though, to dodge a 240-pound linebacker. Camp practice can be dangerous for someone who couldn’t run — even a coach watching from the sideline.
Aucoin had an idea: Put him on the same lift the videographers use to shoot practice.
Through headsets, Cameron kept in contact with Jeff Kastl down on the field. Kastl, an administrative intern, replaced Cameron as LSU’s quarterbacks coach during his leave of absence.
“You could see he was getting better and better with each day because he wanted to take on more and more,” Miles said. “He wanted to scream down from the lift. It’s just the way it was.”
On the morning of Friday, Aug. 28, a little more than two weeks after the surgery, Cameron received news from his doctors: He was clean of all cancer.
On that same afternoon, The Advocate reported about Cameron’s cancer, citing an anonymous source, and the program held a hastily called news conference with Cameron and Miles.
Cameron told a room full of reporters about his clean bill of health, tamping down any notion that he’d not coach and sidestepping specific questions about the issue. Miles downplayed the ordeal, but in reality, it was much more serious.
In fact, in an interview last week with The Advocate, Miles was asked if he ever told Cameron not to coach last season.
“Yeah,” he said, “but he wanted to. He says, ‘That’s what we do.’ And it is.”
Forward, not backward
LSU enters the 2016 season with lofty expectations.
Cameron signed a new three-year contract with the program last month, and he lost just two starters from an offense that includes Heisman Trophy hopeful Leonard Fournette, a group of talented receivers and an upperclassman at quarterback.
After two sluggish offensive seasons, is this the year for LSU’s offense to break out? Maybe.
Cameron knows of one certainty — and it’s more important than anything that plays out on a football field.
“Now,” he said, “I’m prostate cancer free.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @RossDellenger.