CMU football coach: Cancer's just 'one more opponent'

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

John Bonamego has spent the better part of three decades as an assistant coach, in college and the NFL, before landing his first head-coaching job at Central Michigan in February.

He's not about to let anything prevent him from coaching his first game.

Not even cancer.

"It's just one more opponent on my schedule," Bonamego told The News on Thursday afternoon. "I gotta win this. I'll win it, and I'll have it beat before the regular-season opener."

Bonamego earlier this week, after weeks of tests and biopsies, was diagnosed with cancer in his left tonsil.

Doctors say it's highly treatable, giving him a 90-percent chance or better at beating the disease, which he told his team about during a meeting Thursday morning in Mount Pleasant.

Doctors still are putting together a plan of attack, but it certainly will include radiation treatments at UM Hospital in Ann Arbor. He doesn't expect to miss any team functions, but concedes he will have to skip out on other activities, like alumni events and the like.

"I talked to a very good friend who went through almost the exact cancer seven years ago, or about seven years ago. His originated in the back of his tongue," Bonamego said. "I have a pretty good idea what I'm in for. It's not gonna be a lot of fun, but we're gonna do it. I just want it out of me."

Bonamego, 51, was named Central Michigan football coach in February, replacing Dan Enos, who left to become the offensive coordinator at Arkansas.

Bonamego spent the previous two seasons as special teams coordinator for the Lions. He's also had pro coaching stints with the Jaguars (two times), Saints (two times), Dolphins and Packers, and college coaching stints at Maine, Lehigh and Army.

The Paw Paw, Michigan, native began his coaching career at Mount Pleasant High School in 1987, after the former wide receiver and quarterback graduated from Central Michigan.

Central Michigan's 2015 opener is a night game Sept. 3, at home against Oklahoma State. And Bonamego said missing that isn't an option. He told his team that and more in the meeting Thursday morning.

"It was very important from me that they heard this from me first," Bonamego said. "They're part of our family."

Bonamego first started thinking something might be wrong when he was in Florida last month attending the high school graduation of his son, Javier.

He returned to Mount Pleasant on May 26, and first visited a doctor the next day to check out a mass in his neck. underwent a needle biopsy on May 28, and then waited through the weekend for results. Those results were mostly negative. Then, Bonamego saw an ear, nose and throat doctor June 1, and underwent a neck biopsy on June 6. On June 11, his fears were finally confirmed: He had cancer.

It was quite the stressful, two-week ordeal.

"The hardest part, obviously, was not knowing," Bonamego said. "Now that we know what we're dealing with, it's actually quite the opposite. I'm very relieved.

"There wasn't any doubt in my mind, even before we knew it was cancer. I already made up my mind I was gonna beat it, no matter what."

Bonamego said he's very thankful to the doctors in Mount Pleasant and Ann Arbor for taking the situation seriously, and acting with a sense of urgency.

This much is certain: He'll have quite the support system: From his players, the athletic department, the university and the Mount Pleasant community, as well as his wife, Paulette, and his three children, Javier, Giovanni and Bellina.

For those reasons — and because it's not his style anyway — he's not sitting around cursing the world that his first crack at being a head college at the college level has been dealt a serious bump in the road.

"Frustrated is a word I don't like to use," Bonamego said. "I think this is just another challenge. You either rise to it or you succumb to it. I have never in my whole life ever run from the truth or backed down from a challenge."