Cancer-free Christmas is greatest gift for CMU coach John Bonamego

For better or worse, John Bonamego can just about taste the eggnog again. So there’s that. A few hot spots linger on the tongue still, and recurring dry mouth — chemotherapy does a number on your salivary glands — means a bottle of water is rarely out of  arm’s reach.

But it’s Christmas. He wakes up cancer  free. A  simple gift.

“I feel great,” Central Michigan’s football coach said this week. “I really do. It’s taken a while. When you finish treatment, you’re at the very end of it, you’ve pretty much taken about all that you can possibly take — and when you’re done, all that means is that you’re just not going in for (treatment) anymore, but the chemo and radiation stays in your system for quite some time afterwards.”

Scars linger. The context does, too. In February, the 52-year-old Bonamego got handed the keys to his alma mater, one of his personal destination gigs, a chance to return home. In June, the Chippewas coach was diagnosed with cancer in his left tonsil, a routine that shook him like an old snow globe.

“When you battle through something that is life-threatening, that really puts a lot of different things in perspective for you,” said Bonamego, who completed treatment in August and was given the all-clear from his doctors last month. “You really appreciate your family, and the support that they lend you, and your extended family, which in my case is the CMU football family and CMU and Mount Pleasant community … it was really overwhelming, to say the least, the number of people who reached out — even total strangers — to lend support. And it was, and still is, very much appreciated.”

They might not have the best team, these Chips (7-5, 6-2 MAC). They might not have the most NFL prospects on the two-deep, nor a particularly sexy national brand. And yet they also might have the single best narrative of any of the 80 schools bowling over this month and next, and it starts with the man on the headset. Bonamego is back in Detroit — where CMU takes on Minnesota (5-7) in Monday’s Quick Lane Bowl, where he spent 2013 and ’14 as a special teams coach with the NFL’s Lions — and he came the long way ‘round.

As in a 250-mile round-trip commute.

Up and back.

Five days a week.

For two months, Bonamego’s Mondays began with a 4:30 a.m. drive south from Mount Pleasant to the University of Michigan Cancer Center in Ann Arbor for treatments. Those Mondays were the longest, the nastiest: Chemo for breakfast. Radiation treatments and oncology appointments for brunch. Things generally went past lunch hour, then it was back on the road north, back in time for the afternoon’s practice. The other four days were quicker, a 25-minute pit stop sandwiched between two hours and change down and two hours and change back.

It took a hell of a lot out of him. It took a village. Wife Paulette helped steady the wheel and, where needed, the reins.

“A lot of times, it’s just as hard, and maybe in some respects, harder on (family), because they’re watching a loved one go through this and they’re just kind of along for the ride,” Bonamego recalled. “They don’t have as many people reaching out to them to give them support because they’re so involved in supporting you. You know, without a doubt, my wife, Paulette — she was fantastic throughout the whole thing. But it was hard. It was definitely hard. I think our children — my oldest (son), it was hardest on him, just because he’s more aware … our younger two, they didn’t see it as much because we tried to shield them from it as much as we possibly could. We tried to keep as much of a normal routine as we possibly could and stuck to that.”

But Ann Arbor and back at the crack of dawn isn’t normal. Daddy dropping 75 pounds in the span of a few months isn’t, either.

Bonamego was more direct with his new players. I’ve got to cope with this, guys. And ya know what? I’m going to beat it. Like a rented mule.

“I think people can handle a lot — a lot more than most people give them credit for, as long as you’re honest with them,” the coach said. “That’s what I tried to do.

“There are two principles sort of live my life by: One is, I’ve never backed down from a challenge. And two, I’ve never run away from the truth. I was brutally honest with them … I (told) them this didn’t change anything we wanted to do. It’s not an excuse. No one’s going to rest their starters against our team because our coach had cancer — they’re going to everything they can in order to beat us. That was my message to them: ‘I’m going to fight this thing. I’m going to beat this.’”

Athletic director Dave Heeke told him to take as much space, a much time as he wanted, to put himself right first. Bonamego joked that since he made the schedules, he could try to find a way — hell or high water — to make this work, too.

“I just wasn’t going to go down that road,” said Bonamego, who spent 15 years as an NFL assistant before landing the CMU job. “I’ve come too far to get to this position to even let this derail me. I was determined that I was going to coach the team and I was going to be on the sidelines in that first game. We did it. You just don’t have many other options … I never flipped a coin to see what the other side looked like.

“My wife will tell you that I’m pretty stubborn and once I set my mind to something, I don’t really consider anything else. Just inside, deep down, I just felt like I had a responsibility to the kids in our program, especially our seniors, to make sure that we did everything we could to send them out with, and give them the best chance to have, a successful season. You have staff and coaches and their families whose livelihoods and futures that are largely dependent on the decisions that I make. So there are a lot of people that are dependent on me.

“I never looked at it like I was fighting for my life. I looked at it like, ‘I just don’t want to let anybody down.’”

Fight hard. Work hard. Play hard. Love hard. Kids and spouses welcome. One family. One heartbeat.

It starts at the top, an example that trickled down moment by moment, week after week. The Chips won at least six league contests for the first time since 2009 and dropped their only two MAC tests by a combined seven points (41-39 at Western Michigan; 28-23 versus Toledo).

“It says we’re Chippewas,” the coach said. “That’s just what we are. That’s just how we do this stuff. That’s our culture. That’s always been our way here.

“We didn’t accomplish all of our goals … we don’t measure ourselves by just going to a bowl game. We measure ourselves by winning championships. I’m proud of how we prepared and fought and scratched, and we were in every single game. But I’ll say this: I don’t think our results were mediocre, but we’re not ever going to settle for mediocrity. We’re going to chase excellence and compete as hard as we can in every single thing that we do, on the field, off the field, in the classroom. We have a saying around here: That if there’s a way to keep score, we’re doing it. We’re competing in every single thing that we do.”

Including life. In a year of blessings, it's the sweetest of the lot.

Above: Central Michigan coach John Bonamego will have a special Christmas this year now that he is cancer free. (Courtesy CMU Athletics Communications)

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