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Images of Terry Fox's courageous, yet ultimately heartbreaking Marathon of Hope that magical summer of 1980 have become as permanent a part of Canadian lore as Expo 67 and Paul Henderson's winning goal against the Soviet Union.

We see a sunburned, curly-haired youth loping down an early morning highway in that awkward, skipping gait he used to dare to dream of running 8,000 kilometres across the country to raise money for cancer research.

It's on stamps, on coins, on television all the time, even after 25 years.

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But that is not Bob McGill's vision. When he thinks of Terry Fox, his mind forever returns to a time when Mr. Fox had not been touched by cancer.

His life was just beginning, and he was simply a slightly nerdy, nondescript youngster sitting at a desk in Grade 8, so short his feet didn't reach the floor.

"I'm still seeing that little face looking up at me," said Mr. McGill, a few days before tomorrow's 25th anniversary of the day Mr. Fox began his epic quest by dipping his artificial leg into St. John's harbour.

"The person I see is not the Terry Fox who is nationally known. It's this tiny little guy who came into my class, so shy he had this look all the time that said, 'Please don't ask me a question.'."

Bob McGill was more than Terry Fox's Grade 8 teacher. He was also the school basketball coach, and over time, with his intense, motivational approach to life and sport, he became a mentor for Mr. Fox.

After Mr. Fox succumbed to cancer in 1981, amid nationwide mourning, the Fox family asked Mr. McGill to give the eulogy at his nationally televised funeral. When he stepped down this year after 35 years in education, Betty and Rolly Fox, Terry's parents, spoke at his retirement dinner.

The story Mr. McGill tells is not the familiar story of the Marathon of Hope. He talks about a Terry Fox who was so slow and unathletic that he was last whenever the class ran laps.

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"He wasn't athletically gifted at all," Mr. McGill recalled, smiling at the memory. "He had two left hands and two left feet."

So when Terry went out for basketball, the coach advised him to try wrestling. There, he could compete against boys his own size.

But that wasn't Terry Fox's makeup. He persisted. Since Mr. McGill never cut anyone who showed up for practices, Terry made the team as its final sub. He played exactly 12 minutes all year.

Yet from those ungainly beginnings, Mr. Fox ended up as one of the greatest Canadians of the 20th century, and certainly the most loved.

"I can't tell you how hard he worked," Mr. McGill said. "I never once got to school for our morning practice when he wasn't waiting at the door. And he'd be the last to leave."

He continued to practise all summer. By Grade 9, Terry started to play more and by Grade 10, his last year with Mr. McGill, he was co-captain of the team.

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He applied the same grit to schoolwork. In Grade 8, his report card was full of sub-par marks. By Grade 10, he was on the honour roll.

"He literally memorized things," Mr. McGill said. "He kept his mouth shut and he worked. That's why I loved him. He always gave everything he had."

It was the key to Terry Fox. It was how he transformed himself from someone so outwardly ordinary into a national hero.

"He wasn't a rock star. He wasn't a superstar," Mr. McGill said. "He was just an average kid, but he believed you never give up on your dreams. You never give up on yourself."

As Mr. Fox moved through high school and on to Simon Fraser University, where, against all expectation, he made the junior varsity team, he and Mr. McGill stayed in touch.

"One day he phoned me to say he twinged his knee. A few days later, I got a call no coach ever wants to get. It was Betty Fox. She was crying. That twinged knee was cancer, and Terry had to be operated on."

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When Mr. McGill went to the hospital, Mr. Fox said simply: "Well, Coach. You heard what I've got. I'm going to try to beat it. Are you with me?"

The first time Mr. Fox tried to walk with his new prosthesis, he fell flat. It was in a doctor's office. While some laughed, a youngster sitting there told him: "Go for it."Before the operation that took his leg, another coach had told Mr. Fox of a one-legged runner who finished the New York City Marathon. Gradually, the idea of running, despite his handicap, began to fire Mr. Fox's imagination.

When he first tried to run around a track, he fell time after time, Mr. McGill said, until finally he devised the famous hop that propelled him across Canada.

"His first thought was that if he could do some running, he could give hope to people with cancer. They didn't have to lie there and die. Then he thought that maybe he could run a lot," Mr. McGill said.

"Then it became: 'I'm going to run across Canada. Something no one's done.' If he could just give hope to one or two people and maybe raise a little bit of money. That was his thinking. It was such a beautiful dream, and that became the Marathon of Hope."

Mr. McGill, 60, loves to talk about Terry Fox. Across the kitchen table at his home in suburban Port Moody, the stories and memories spill out in rapid fire. What he doesn't like is to talk about himself.

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Only reluctantly, he revealed his own battle with cancer. In an odd twinning for man and boy who were so close, not long before Mr. Fox was stricken, Mr. McGill was diagnosed with cancer, a deadly form of melanoma. Doctors gave him six months to live.

He beat the odds. Of the 12 patients in Mr. McGill's original cancer group, only three remain. "I've been given a gift," he said.

His fight gave him insight into what Mr. Fox went through before and after his run.

"It's nice to have all that support, people coming to see you, everyone pulling for you. But when the door closes, you're still alone in that bed, looking at the wall. There's only one thing you can do. Stay positive. I understood that."

Mr. Fox did that, too, but toward the end, the fighting spirit that took him so far began to wane as reality set in.

"In private moments, he would get very quiet," Mr. McGill said. "He did his best to stay positive, but on the other hand, he was a young man in his early 20s. What one of us at that age believe they can't conquer the world?"

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Even in his dying moments, however, Mr. Fox seldom thought of himself. He thought of the bigger issue, the need to stay focused on the reason for his run: cancer research. Mr. McGill went to visit one more time.

"By then he was back in hospital under medication. And it was one of those magical moments. The sun was streaming into this room, and Terry woke up and smiled and said: 'Hi Coach. Do you think people will remember? Will they keep the dream alive?'

"Those were the last words he ever spoke to me."

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