Allen Park — There was a time when his job being close enough to Ann Arbor was a blessing for a different reason.
Now, Lions new and old special teams coordinator John Bonamego cherishes being close to the University of Michigan and their medical program with much happier feelings.
While preparing for his first season as head coach of Central Michigan, Bonamego once commuted from Mount Pleasant to Ann Arbor each weekday for two months of radiation and chemotherapy to fight tonsil cancer.
Now back in the NFL with the Super Bowl singularly in his sights, the only regular visits to Ann Arbor will be to visit his oldest son, Javier, who is a pre-med student at Michigan.
“Well I was hoping I’d be somewhere, expecting to be somewhere,” Bonamego said Tuesday. “There were a lot of factors that really made this an attractive place to be.”
Bonamego went 22-29 in four seasons with the Chippewas, losing bowl games in his first three seasons but going 1-11 in his fourth, leading to his ouster.
“Bottom line is we had a poor season,” he said. “There are a lot of things that contribute to it, but ultimately it’s a… even at the college level, it’s a bottom-line business and you’re expected to win. And when you don’t, your job is in jeopardy. So no, not really surprised.”
CMU was his alma mater and the only head coaching job of his career — a “bucket-list item,” Bonamego said, and one he enjoyed.
“I went up there with the intentions of finishing out my career there,” he said. “It didn’t work out that way; that’s life. But I’m better for having had the opportunity in a lot of ways. I think I’m a lot more focused. Sometimes when there was something in the back of your mind that needed… a goal or something you wanted for a long time, not to say that it’s a distraction, but it’s always there.”
Now back in the NFL, with coaching appearances on staffs in the AFC and NFC Championship games, there’s not much left to check off.
“Now I really only have one single focus and that’s to do my part to help the Lions win the Super Bowl,” Bonamego said. “Now it’s the only itch.”
There’s familiarity for Bonamego in Allen Park, which he left after two seasons for Central Michigan after the 2014 Lions season ended after a playoff loss at Dallas under coach Jim Caldwell.
Although the boss is a new one in Matt Patricia, the Lions specialists are the same: Kicker Matt Prater, long snapper Don Muhlbach and punter/holder Sam Martin.
Bonamego insists he’s different too.
“I believe it made me a better coach in a lot of different areas,” Bonamego said. “Being on the other side of it, it defines for you a little bit more clearly what a good assistant is and a good coordinator. Good assistants take things off the head coach’s plate, don’t put them on, because he’s got enough things to contend with just with his daily responsibility.”
As an example, Bonamego might not leave Patricia to micro-manage the depth chart and come to him with more solutions to sign off on instead of problems to fix.
“There’s a never-ending funnel of you-know-what that lands on your desk every single day and you have to deal with all of it,” Bonamego said of head-coaching duties. “Much of it, you can’t possibly prepare for because there’s no way of knowing it’s coming, whether it’s individual issues, or… it’s never ending. “So I definitely have a much greater appreciation for that now.”
As for his medical condition, Bonamego only has to check in every six months to make sure he’s still cancer-free.
“I don’t know if weird would be the right way to put it, to be back. It’s great to be back,” Bonamego said. “I guess the challenging part of the chess match was kind of, there’s that lull between the end of the college season and the end of the NFL season before things start to really move. “There’s a temptation to maybe taking a college job, do I take something or do I not? There were a couple situations I probably could’ve pursued, but I chose not to because I kind of put all of our chips into the NFL basket and pushed them into the middle of the table. “Fortunately it worked out.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.