CMU's Bonamego is cancer-free: 'I knew I'd beat it'

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
John Bonamego

After a grueling treatment schedule -- spanning eight weeks, five days a week, most of those spent making the drive from Mount Pleasant to University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor -- the call finally came Friday night.

John Bonamego, the first-year football coach at Central Michigan, is cancer free.

The first thing he did was call his wife, Paulette, and then tell his three children.

And early Saturday morning, on campus, he told his football team -- which responded with a standing ovation.

"I think in my mind, I knew I'd beat it. I didn't have any doubt about that," Bonamego told The Detroit News in a phone conversation Saturday afternoon. "I never let myself think of anything other than winning this fight."

Bonamego was diagnosed with tonsil cancer in June, just four months after he had been hired for his dream job -- head football coach at his alma mater.

Doctors caught it early, so that was the good news. But the treatment was to be significantly tough.

He had four- or five-hour treatments on Mondays -- that's when he got chemotherapy and radiation -- and 20-minute radiation treatments the rest of the the weekdays, not to mention all that driving the first five weeks, before Central Michigan got access to a plane the last three weeks.

"The treatment protocol was grueling," Bonamego said. "Anybody that's gone through it, it is very taxing on your body, in a lot of different ways. Combine that with the chemo side effects that keep popping up.

"It starts off pretty subtle, and it just keeps intensifying. The effects of radiation, it's cumulative, it doesn't go away. It's not like taking a pill for something each day. It's literally like stacking more weight on whatever you have every single day. That's like going in the weight room every day and putting (another) 20 pounds on there every single day.

"It's like spending a whole day working in the hot sun."

Yet, still, Bonamego, 52, who came to CMU from his job as special teams coordinator with the Lions, fought through it -- hey, you don't spend decades in football without showing some toughness and determination -- and continued working as regular a schedule as possible. That was important, given the treatments occurred during his first training camp, as he was preparing his first Central Michigan team for the season.

He was tired, he admitted. He used a golf cart to get around training camp.

But Bonamego kept working, and that was key -- not just for the success of the program, but for his state of mind.

A cancer diagnosis is jarring; finding normalcy anywhere possible is a big deal.

"You can lay down and let it consume you or you can fight it and beat it," Bonamego said. "They want you to stay active as much as you can.

"Honestly, that time, it's kind of a blur, when I think back on it. There's not a lot I remember. I think I was probably on autopilot for a number of weeks."

On that front, Bonamego is grateful to his coaches, many of whom, surely, took on a bigger workload.

The story of CMU this year has revolved mostly around Bonamego and his health, but there's been more to it. The Chippewas are bowl-eligible at 6-5 heading into the season finale against Eastern Michigan -- and played tough in all their losses, including against College Football Playofff hopefuls Oklahoma State and Michigan State.

So, in a sense, he's glad the focus can now shift back to football. But Bonamago also hopes his situation can help inspire others to at least get checked out -- like a 70-year-old woman who read about Bonamego's diagnosis in the newspaper, realized she was having similar symptoms, went to the doctor, got diagnosed early, and is beating it, too.

"More than anything, I think I'm happy for the kids in our program, and the kids we're trying to bring in the program, hey, I'm gonna be here. My own kids. My daughter (Bellina) knows I'm gonna be able to walk her down the aisle when that time comes. Those are the things," Bonamego said. "I just pushed through it.

"You don't have any other options."