<
>

John Bonamego's day: Fights cancer, lives dream, eyes Oklahoma State

play
New CMU head coach's daily battle with cancer (2:05)

In February, Central Michigan alumnus John Bonamego was named head coach of his alma mater. In July, he announced he had cancer. Dan Murphy explains what the first-year head coach has gone through this offseason and his prognosis for the future. (2:05)

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. -- It's 6:33 on a Wednesday morning when the Cherokee Pathfinder single-engine plane touches down at Ann Arbor Municipal Airport. The three men inside are running a few minutes late thanks to a strong headwind and one aircraft ahead of them in the landing que. Football coaches as a species don't have much patience for tardiness, but John Bonamego has had to concede to some complications in his new reality.

The sun isn't yet high enough to sweep last night's fog off the runway. Bonamego hops from the backseat of the plane's four-seat fuselage into the knee-high clouds wearing khaki shorts and a maroon Central Michigan T-shirt. He makes his way to the rental car waiting for him in the parking lot -- an upgrade in legroom compared to the plane -- where he's greeted for the first of many times today with his least favorite question: How are you, Coach?

"I don't like to lie, and I really don't like to complain," Bonamego explains later in the day after fending off the question a dozen more times with half-hearted smiles and tautologies.

How you doing? I'm doing. How's it going? It's going.

"Well, that doesn't leave me with a lot of options."

It's 7:02 a.m. when a therapist pushes closed the 22,000-pound door, a foot thick and made of steel, inside the radiation room at University of Michigan Hospital. On the other side, Bonamego lies face up on a small table staring up at the business end of a multi-million dollar photon gun. His upper body is pinned in place by a blue, mesh mask that starts at the crown of his head and continues down to the bottom of his shoulders. The hulking machine hanging above him begins to rotate and fire six million volts of concentrated energy at the freckle-sized clump of cancer cells in the back of Bonamego's mouth.

This is Bonamego's eighth and final week of chemotherapy and radiation sessions. Doctors diagnosed him with a treatable form of tonsil cancer in mid-June, a little more than four months after he landed his dream job as the next head coach at his alma mater, Central Michigan. His daily trips from his new home in Mt. Pleasant to Ann Arbor (where doctors have pioneered new methods to minimize side effects for this particular type of treatment) started soon after. He traveled by car for the first five weeks, which meant each day started at 4:30 in the morning with a five-hour round trip for what was often a 20-minute pit stop at the hospital. Then it was time to start tackling that day's portion of the interminable to-do list of a first-year head coach.

When training camp began for the Chippewas in early August, a booster volunteered his private plane to save Bonamego some time. He meets the pilot each morning by 5:30 and boards the puddle-jumper, which has room for them, a co-pilot and one person from a rotating cast of travel companions. On days when the radiation doesn't leave his stomach turning barrel rolls, Bonamego wedges himself in the back seat and breaks down film on his iPad during the 45-minute flight home.

The energy-sapping effects of radiation usually hit before the plane touches down in Mt. Pleasant. Avraham Eisbruch, a radiation oncologist at the hospital, compares it to a perpetual drained feeling of having just finished a long day of working under a hot, summer sun.

"Most people stop working," Eisbruch said. "It's not so much the side effects as it is the fatigue. To work a full day, this is unusual."

The football building is already teeming with activity -- weights clanging, phones ringing, sneakers squeaking down hallways -- when Bonamego arrives a few minutes before 9. There are four maroon matte helmets and a gold marker waiting for him on his desk, thank-you gifts for some of the program's top donors. He scribbles a message on the first one and inspects it at arm's length. "What do you think?" he asks.

There weren't many autograph requests the last time Bonamego held a head coaching position. That was in 1987, and he was in charge of the junior varsity at Mt. Pleasant High School. Since then, he's climbed a ladder of college assistant jobs before embarking on a long career in the NFL, most recently with the Detroit Lions. The last 17 years were split between seven stops with five different pro teams as a special teams coordinator. The back wall of his new office is covered in a mosaic of sideline credentials from most of the nearly 300 games he coached in the NFL.

He crossed paths with Bill Parcells, Tom Coughlin and Sean Payton. He collected bits and pieces of wisdom from each of them and saved them in computer files to use when he became a head coach. In his mind, he always pictured that job coming at Central Michigan. He has PowerPoints with practice plans and a daily lesson prepared for every day of training camp. He's been collecting them for years. He's got solutions for a thousand problems a football team might incur. Now, he's got a thousand more that he never saw coming.

It's 1:27 p.m., and Bonamego's patience is being tried by one of those complications. He is scheduled to lead a team meeting in three minutes, and he can't find the athletic trainer he needs to unhook his IV drip. He takes two bags of fluid through a tube in his forearm each day between the team's morning walkthrough and afternoon meetings in order to stay hydrated. It's easier than trying to pour water through the minefield of canker sores that cover his tongue and the thick wall of mucus in the back of his mouth -- both side effects of his treatment.

Arriving a couple minutes behind schedule to a doctor's appointment is frustrating. Arriving late to a team meeting is unacceptable. He makes one more futile call to the trainer's room while a minute passes and the players settle into their seats in the auditorium across from his office.

"F--- it," he says. "It's coming in with me." He wheels the 7-foot metal pole still attached to his arm down the hallway and into the meeting. This is the first time his team has seen him hooked up to any medical equipment. "Relax," he tells them. "It's not as bad as it looks."

Today's pre-planned lesson is on the power of body language and accompanied by a slideshow of positive and negative examples in sports. Jay Cutler, a former NFC North foe, makes an appearance highlighting (lowlighting?) the latter. His players keep their eyes trained on their coach laughing and clapping his way through the rest of the meeting, IV tube flapping like a puppet string each time his arm moves.

Bonamego has done his best not to let his team see him in any pain during the summer. They had been through enough of that, he thought, while burying their 20-year-old teammate, Derrick Nash, who died after two years of battling leukemia just four days after Bonamego was diagnosed.

Other than the raw, red rash on Bonamego's neck and the golf cart he had to drive around the field to save energy, Central Michigan players say they see very few signs of the toll that cancer and its treatment are taking on their coach. He loses his voice at times, but that's hardly an anomaly for a coach in preseason form. He couldn't speak at all the day after a scuffle at practice caused him to forget to pace himself. He let loose on a few players but managed to duck out of sight before expelling the resulting bile that was burning his throat and taking his breath away.

Presenting a strong front is instinctual for Bonamego, his friends and family say. He spent his life surrounded by farmers, military men and football coaches -- three professions that breed toughness.

The Bonamego family has roots in southwest Michigan, about 150 miles from Central Michigan's campus, where Bonamego's uncle still farms the land around his house. He visited every summer as a kid, picking asparagus and mowing grass before he turned 10 years old.

His father was an officer in the Army, so the rest of the year was spent in any number of places. He had lived in eight zip codes -- including military bases in Italy and Ethiopia -- before he turned 18. That was good preparation for the transient life of a coach. The five years Bonamego spent in Mt. Pleasant as a student and JV football coach is as long of a stretch as he's spent in any one place continuously.

"This place is the closest thing I've got to a home," he says.

Central Michigan sunk its hooks into Bonamego as soon as head coach Herb Deromedi, a three-time MAC champion and College Football Hall of Famer, let him walk on to the team. He wasn't 6 feet tall and weighed less than 170 pounds, but he was a good enough athlete to find a spot at wide receiver or scout-team quarterback if the Chippewas were playing a triple option team in their next game.

"In order to succeed, he has always had to do a little bit more," Deromedi said. "But he's always succeeded."

Bonamego brought a Central Michigan flag with him when he left Mt. Pleasant. It's one of the first things his wife hangs up in each new house at every new coaching stop.

He met Paulette 15 years ago in Jacksonville during a stint with the Jaguars. She was a cheerleader. He was a single coach. The team's mascot introduced them. He took her to Dairy Queen on their first date and spent the duration of a vanilla ice cream cone talking about Central Michigan and his plans to return there. She told him she wasn't interested in cold weather or dating someone with the demanding schedule of a football coach. Six months later, they were married.

If his love for coaching his alma mater is the answer to why Bonamego drags himself daily through the hellish combination of radiation and training camp, Paulette is the how. She's at practice each day to hug the players when they leave the field. She spends her evenings watching film with Bonamego in his office -- the consummate football wife, Tami Taylor come to life. She ranks the phone call from John telling her that he got the Central Michigan job as the fourth happiest moment of her life, behind the birth of their three children.

"He wanted this for so long," she says. "Whenever you get that call about a new job, it's elation. It's such an adrenaline rush. With the CMU call, it was like two or three times that."

Bonamego put his name in the mix for the head coaching job when Brian Kelly left the school for a bigger offer at Cincinnati in 2007, and again when Butch Jones made the same move after the 2009 season. When Dan Enos left to run Arkansas' offense this January, Bonamego, 52, thought this was probably his last chance before the window to run the program closed.

He had to pause to keep from tearing up at his introductory news conference when he said this was a "destination job." The Mid-America Conference is often a stepping stone for ambitious new coaches. Now that Bonamego is here, he plans on staying for a very long time. And he certainly wasn't going to let cancer delay him from getting started.

"John was very set that he was going to maintain control of the program," says Bonamego's boss, Central Michigan athletic director Dave Heeke. "It was very important to him that we were going to go about this just like every other day."

It's 4:26 p.m., and there's an ice cream truck rolling down the asphalt hill that leads to the field in Kelly/Shorts Stadium. By the time it comes to a stop on top of the 25-yard line, the truck is surrounded by a swarm of Chippewa players transformed into giddy 8-year-olds. They jockey for position to grab one of the red, white and blue rocket pops that two fantastically overwhelmed women are shoveling out the window.

Bonamego stands behind the fray with arms crossed and a lip-cracking smile on his face. He remembered a coach during his time at Lehigh University in the early '90s who pulled a similar stunt to break up the monotony of two-a-days. He tucked it away then in his digital binder of things to do when he got a program of his own to run.

"I've been here for five years, and I've never seen anything like that," says All-MAC center Nick Beamish. "That's him. The first time I met him was in a team meeting, and I immediately loved him. The vibe he puts out is amazing, just the positivity. He hasn't lost that. You can tell there's a little pain, but he's still out here all the time. If our team is half as tough as him, we're going to be all right."

The coach wants in on the fun and decides to try one of the popsicles. The cold treats scalds his throat like a branding iron and he gives up after one lick. His taste buds stopped working weeks ago, anyway. All of Bonamego's meals during August have come through a feeding tube. A couple times a day, he loads a 60 milliliter syringe -- the size of an air pump -- with a protein drink and injects it into the plastic tube attached to his stomach. "Eating" this way has improved his odds of actually keeping the food down to about 50/50. He tosses the popsicle aside and gets the team refocused for the last 30 minutes of practice.

Later that night, he and Paulette sit in his office listing the first things he'll eat when the canker sores fade and his ability to taste returns in late September. Maybe a steak or barbecue, but probably vanilla ice cream. They settle on ice cream and he turns on the film from today's practice.

A few plays in his eyes start to close and his head drifts backward before snapping to attention. He jokes that he needs a neck roll.

"What I could really use right now is a nap," he says, before picking up the clicker and fast-forwarding to the next play. Paulette reminds him that this is almost over. It's 7:26 p.m.

Two days later, Bonamego will fly to Ann Arbor for his final radiation treatment. He'll ring the small bell hanging in the hallway of the oncology building -- a tradition for cancer patients on their last day of therapy. The athletic department will be waiting to surprise him on the field that afternoon with another bell. Some 200 folks will greet him on the field and cheer as he rings that one too. The second bell will become a permanent fixture in Central Michigan's locker room, hanging by the door to the field to be rung on future special occasions of achievement.

Thursday night, Bonamego will lead his team past the bell and out of the locker room to face Oklahoma State in his first game as a college head coach. He'll pause at the door: To his left, on the wall in the back of the end zone, is a giant picture of Deromedi being carried off the field in the '80s. A small, shaggy-haired walk-on receiver is in the corner of the frame looking up and smiling at his coach.

Paulette will be in one of the stadium's suites with her binoculars locked on her husband's face. She doesn't want to miss a detail. That's when she thinks he'll finally break down and cry.

"There is so much pressure to be strong and be tough," Paulette says. "It makes me a little sad. The truth is this is not easy. I hate that people feel like they have to put on this façade. People can be too afraid sometimes to show that, 'Hey, this sucks.' It's OK to have a bad day. Of course, it's good to be tough on the field and in life. And John was tough, but he had to learn to say, 'This is awful.' He had to learn it's OK to be human about it."

It's 9:44 on a Wednesday night, and before the bell-ringing and teary-eyed entrances and philosophizing, there is still work to be done. Bonamego is putting the finishing touches on his hands-team depth chart. He and special teams coordinator Mike Dietzel are debating which players they can trust to field an onside kick with a game on the line -- another in an endless list of details the staff must hash out in the long days of training camp. They make their decisions, and Dietzel leaves. Bonamego reviews a practice plan one more time before he declares that's he punching out.

The headlights of Bonamego's Chevy Silverado splash across a sparsely populated parking lot, and he pulls the car on to the street. Sixteen hours after he started, the coach is ready to put another day behind him. A few minutes later he'll collapse into bed and fall asleep sitting up, holding his wife's hand. Tomorrow will be here soon.