Coach leads Central Michigan to bowl after cancer treatment

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DETROIT (AP) — John Bonamego's first season as Central Michigan's coach was quite a success.

Especially considering what he had to deal with off the field.

Bonamego announced in June that he had cancer in his left tonsil, but he was able to keep coaching his team, and the Chippewas tied atop their division. They'll play in the Quick Lane Bowl against Minnesota on Monday in Detroit.

It will be the third bowl in four seasons for Central Michigan, and a nice reward for a team and coach that faced some adversity.

"I'm very, very fortunate, number one, that we caught this really early in the process, and two, that this was a very highly treatable form of cancer," Bonamego said. "Then thirdly, it has a very low incidence of returning."

The Chippewas needed a new coach after Dan Enos left in January to become the offensive coordinator at Arkansas. Central Michigan's search for a replacement lasted past signing day, and Bonamego, who played at the school during the mid-1980s, was introduced as coach Feb. 9. He took the job at the Mount Pleasant school after spending the previous two seasons as special teams coordinator for the Detroit Lions.

In June, Bonamego announced that he had cancer in a letter released by the school. Just over two months later, he completed his final scheduled radiation treatment at University of Michigan Cancer Center.

"The bulk of my treatment took place during the down time when we're not allowed to have contact with the players. The entire month of July, I was going back and forth to Ann Arbor five days a week, but there wasn't any practices," Bonamego said. "I purposely had the early morning slot, so I was getting zapped at 7 a.m. and I was back in the car by 7:30."

The Chippewas showed promise early in the season when they had a second-half lead against Oklahoma State and took Syracuse to overtime. They lost both games, but they opened Mid-American Conference play with a win over defending champion Northern Illinois.

Central Michigan (7-5) ended up in a four-way tie atop the MAC's West Division, and although the Chippewas didn't get to play in the league title game in Detroit, they'll be in a bowl there. They'll face a Minnesota team that also had its season impacted by health issues for its coach. Jerry Kill retired in the middle of the season because of continued difficulty managing his epilepsy and his job. Tracy Claeys took over and has signed a three-year contract through the 2018 season.

"Coach Kill, obviously, we're all there because of him. Anybody who knows him, he's a great person, a great football coach," Claeys said. "I've been with him 21 years and most of the staff's been 15 years or longer."

Claeys and Bonamego were both at Lions headquarters earlier this month for a news conference promoting the bowl. Bonamego said he lost about 70 pounds amid his health ordeal, but he's put about 15 back on.

"I've had all my clothes taken in and stuff," he said. "I'll probably try to stay right around this weight."

He said he's been dealing with a chronic dry mouth because of radiation — "You won't see me without a bottled water" — but he's making progress. Now he and his team will try to wrap up this difficult-but-rewarding season with a win.

"Our team has gone through a tremendous amount of adversity this year, as has Minnesota," Bonamego said. "We're looking forward to a great game."



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