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John Bonamego had his dream job, not even cancer could slow him down

first_imgMOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. — John Bonamego stood at the podium in the NIRSA Room in the Student Activity Center on Central Michigan’s campus, about 100 yards from Kelly-Shorts Stadium.With the Central Michigan logo plastered behind him, he fielded questions about who would start at quarterback, the running back competition and status of tight end Tyler Conklin. That Bonamego was there to answer them was more remarkable than any of his answers.He had wanted this job since playing wide receiver for the Chippewas in the 1980s. Even as he made his way around NFL sidelines, in Jacksonville, Green Bay, New Orleans, Miami and finally Detroit, he never forgot about Mount Pleasant. In 1999, at a Dairy Queen in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, Bonamego and the woman who would become his wife sat down for their first date.“The first thing we talked about … was CMU,” Paulette Bonamego said.In 2015, Bonamego was the special teams coordinator for the Lions when then-CMU head coach Dan Enos left. Central Michigan considered Bonamego a natural fit. He lived a few counties southeast, was an alumnus and had more than 15 years of NFL experience. In February of that year, CMU introduced its new head coach. That fall, he nearly beat Syracuse in the Carrier Dome before the Orange kicked an overtime field goal to win, 30-27. This fall, on Saturday, Bonamego leads the Chippewas (2-0) back into the Dome for a rematch with the Orange (1-1) at 3:30 p.m.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textBut in summer 2015, a few months before his first game, the job Bonamego had always wanted was in jeopardy. He was diagnosed with cancer. But that didn’t worry him the most.“There’s people relying on you,” Bonamego said. “My biggest motivator through all that was not beating cancer. I knew that I would beat cancer. My biggest fear was that I would somehow let somebody down. I didn’t want to let anybody down. I didn’t want to have a situation where someone else was having to do my work.”Courtesy of Paulette BonamegoA few months earlier, in Phoenix for Bonamego’s first Mid-American Conference spring meeting, he and Paulette decided to hike the local foothills.As they ascended, Bonamego kept stopping to rest, which Paulette thought was unusual. At first, she began to tease Bonamego, saying “I beat you, I beat you.” But then she stopped joking. Bonamego had never gotten tired like this before.Weeks later, in Florida for their son Javier’s high school graduation, Paulette noticed a golf ball-sized lump protruding from Bonamego’s neck. She suspected it was a swollen lymph node, so Bonamego took some cold medicine.Bonamego rarely slept through the night and, when his eyes finally did close, he woke up drenched in sweat. To the Bonamegos, this was not unusual. Nights like these started when he was the Lions, and they dismissed them as normal side effects from stress. He had a demanding job and they had a dusty house in Birmingham with poor air circulation. Paulette sweat during the night, too. But even after they moved to Mount Pleasant, the night sweats persisted.“Those were signs and we just kind of ignored them,” Paulette said. “… We just never thought about it.”The cold medicine wasn’t working. Nothing was. So, they went to the doctor, who told Bonamego he had cancer. Paulette struggled to breath. She felt an “emotional sickness.”“Hearing those words gets your attention,” Bonamego said.On June 18, Bonamego published an open letter on CMU’s web site to announce he had a tumor on his left tonsil. Published on September 14, 2017 at 9:09 pm Contact Andrew: aegraham@syr.edu | @A_E_Graham Facebook Twitter Google+center_img Days began before 5 a.m. every Monday through Friday, the couple drove together about two hours southeast to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Bonamego underwent radiation and received weekly doses of chemotherapy.Because of where the cancer manifested, the easiest way to irradiate Bonamego’s tonsil was through his neck. To ensure he didn’t absorb stray radiation at the daily appointments, Bonamego needed to lie completely still. He sometimes lay there for several hours without moving. The entire time, his head was held in place by a mesh mask.“When you get in those situations,” Bonamego said, “you really don’t have any other option. You can give up, or you can fight it.”Even though doctors detected the cancer early and it was a treatable strain, squamous cell carcinoma, the regimen ravaged Bonamego’s body. His toenails and fingernails split and cracked. He shed 70 pounds. His tongue swelled and his mouth filled with about 30 canker sores. He broke out in rashes and the radiation burned his neck until it blistered. As he returned for more treatment, flesh fell from his neck and his players grew accustomed to seeing their coach’s shirt collar permanently soaked with blood.“You have times that aren’t so bad,” Bonamego said, “and times that just, for lack of a better word, suck.”Eventually, to keep him properly nourished and hydrated, Bonamego required twice-a-day fluid IVs, along with a feeding tube.The restless nights became almost intolerable. He only slept sitting up, in short spells, and woke often to throw up. Paulette kept cool washcloths on her husband’s forehead and tried to stay awake with him. She felt guilty about falling asleep. The care seemed to make no difference. While the pain fogged Bonamego’s memory — he still doesn’t remember certain moments from that time — the objective remained clear.Steve Jessmore | Central Michigan UniversityIn his last three weeks of treatment, as it slowly cleansed Bonamego’s body, the CMU athletic boosters and alumni association pooled to pay for the Bonamegos to fly to Ann Arbor each morning.Two months after the diagnosis, at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, Bonamego rang the cancer-free bell. When he returned to campus, it was time to get ready for practice. Walking out of the tunnel in Kelly-Shorts Stadium, the band, faculty, cheerleaders, fans, CMU president George E. Ross and the whole football team ambushed Bonamego.On Aug. 21, Bonamego was cancer-free. Thirteen days later, on a Thursday night against Oklahoma State, he coached his first game as Central Michigan’s head man.While Bonamego lived a nightmare, he never strayed from his dream. Occasionally, Paulette offered Bonamego what she called a “hall pass,” to skip work that day to rest. She told him the other coaches knew what to do and the players would understand. But, to Bonamego, that wasn’t the point.Andy Mendes | Digital Design EditorIn his two months battling cancer, he never missed a practice or meeting. Part of his attendance was maintaining any sense of normalcy in his shaken-up life. Part of it was showing the players what he had always taught them about perseverance.Now, the mesh mask he wore during those blasts of radiation treatment sits in a closet at home. It is the shadow of the man cancer made him, the one that still follows him. It is a reminder of what he had to do to sustain his dream. Paulette finds it spooky.Sometimes, she finds the mask in the closet, staring back at her. She asks Bonamego if they can finally throw it away. His answer has never changed.“No,” he says. Commentslast_img read more

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