Special teams coordinator John Bonamego has a personal milestone date coming up that has a rare and welcome quality of combining the passage of time with the extension of life as a precious gift that renews itself year after year.
Bonamego is a cancer survivor, and a man delivering a message. He is an advocate for action and a witness to the ravages of cancer and the processes that treat it.
He can also speak to recovery. Nov. 21 will mark the fourth year that he is in remission from the tonsil cancer he was diagnosed with and treated for in 2015.
Bonamego, 56, is a career college and pro football coach who’s in the first season of his second term as coordinator of the Detroit Lions’ special teams.
He is sharing his story, and the chain of diagnosis, treatment, recovery and moving on with life, as part of his participation in the Crucial Catch program.
Crucial Catch is cosponsored by the NFL and its teams and players, the NFL Players Association and the American Cancer Society.
Bonamego echoes Crucial Catch’s message to not ignore the warning signs, and to take action.
“It’s to encourage people to get screening,” Bonamego said one day this week in a break from preparing for Sunday’s home game against the New York Giants at Ford Field.
“Early detection is absolutely the key – knowing the warning signs, understanding what they are, and having the routine yearly things that you should get.”
It is fitting for Bonamego that his personal milestone date of Nov. 21 falls close to Thanksgiving Day, with the warmth and good cheer of the approaching holiday season – and a home game for the Lions in the traditional holiday game they founded in 1934.
“It really and truly is,” Bonamego said. “It’s just how grateful I am, for my family and friends, the people in my life. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and currently have. And I’m grateful that I was in a position that I was able to be detected early and treated.”
He paused, then continued:
“I’m grateful just to be here. Often times, we get so busy and wrapped up in things we have going on every day, especially in this business. The days are so full. You’re on to the next one, when things aren’t going well, or you’re struggling.
“Every case is different. Cancer absolutely does not discriminate. You see people of all ages, from every type of socio-economic background. Every race, religion. It doesn’t matter.”
In Bonamego’s case, there was a progression of warning signs.
As he was in the beginning stages of a major career shift, the earliest symptoms did not give him any indication that he might have cancer.
Bonamego was hired as Central Michigan University’s head coach on Feb. 9, 2015, after two seasons as coordinator of the Lions’ special teams.
He began to have occasional night sweats and moments of fatigue. A more worrisome sign came when John and his wife, Paulette, went hiking during a trip to Phoenix for the Mid-American Conference meetings. He had to stop every minute or so to catch his breath.
The episode that spurred him to take action came when he discovered a lump on the side of his neck while on vacation in Jacksonville near the end of May of 2015.
“It just kind of popped up,” he said. “It may have been there, and I didn’t notice.”
He thought about going to an emergency care center. Instead, he called back to Michigan to talk to Dr. Thomas Keating, a former CMU team doctor.
Keating told Bonamego to stay put, while he called in the Jacksonville area. Dr. Keating called back 15 minutes later. The appointment was set, and the preliminary tests revealed the possibility of cancer.
“That was a pivotal thing, too,” Bonamego said. “From there, it went really rapidly – all the questions and the answers.”
Eventually, the diagnosis confirmed that he had cancer of the tonsil on his left side.
That began the treatment cycle at the University of Michigan Cancer Center. He underwent radiation treatments five days a week for seven weeks. It was combined with chemotherapy on Monday for seven weeks, with chemo only on Monday, Aug. 21, the last day of his treatment.
View photos from the Detroit Lions costume party with Henry Ford Health System for families impacted by cancer at Ford Field Monday Oct. 21, 2019.
The side effects were brutal. Among them was a 70-pound weight loss and an altered sense of taste that reduced his appetite.
He came through it with the help of his family – Paulette, sons Javier and Gio, and daughter Bellina – friends and the medical staff that treated him.
Bonamego continued to coach at Central Michigan. Early in the diagnosis and treatment process, he broke the news of his condition and what lie ahead to his players at a team meeting.
His message had elements of a locker room pep talk: “It’s not going to be a distraction. We’ve got to prepare for the season. It’s just another opponent on our schedule – one that I’m going to fight.”
Bonamego’s four-year tenure at CMU was reasonably successful. The 2015 Chippewas went 6-2 in the MAC, 7-5 overall and made it to the Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field where they lost to Minnesota of the Big Ten. It was the first of three straight bowl appearances.
Bonamego was fired after the Chips went 1-11 in 2018. He was not out of work long. Bonamego had built a good reputation in the NFL, including with the Lions, and head coach Matt Patricia hired him in the 2019 offseason to coach special teams.
The American Cancer Society considers a patient cancer-free after five years.
“Technically, I’ve got another year to go,” Bonamego said. “I’ve got my normal checkups down to once every six months.
“I’m very, very fortunate.”