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UNLV football could do worse than mirroring Central Michigan

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. — He took things day by day, hour by hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute. It’s a blur now. The 70 pounds he lost. The feeding tube. The 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls and two-hour-plus drives — five days a week for months— to Ann Arbor for radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

The journey back to school each time to begin his day, to watch film and prepare for practice and shepherd his Central Michigan football team.

He never took a break.

Never gave cancer the satisfaction.

Those who know John Bonamego best insist he’s the toughest sort you will ever encounter, and that it’s this level of inner strength that defines his program, a Mid-American Conference side that has been to bowl games seven of the past 10 years. Its list of notable former players includes NFL star Antonio Brown and former No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher.

“When you’re going through a tough time, the kind of support I received last season from family and this football program and university and its fans and alumni makes all the difference,” said Bonamego, 53. “My biggest fear wasn’t beating cancer. It was letting someone down. That fear motivated me and helped me grind through some really challenging times.

“When you have responsibilities you know no one else can do, that’s a big motivator. I never really looked at the other side of the coin and what it might mean. I just kept grinding away.”

It’s a trait that already has been firmly attached to his current team, which hosts UNLV at noon PDT on Saturday at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. The Chippewas, a nickname used with consent of the nearby Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, are 2-0 and have created the season’s most dramatic and exciting play.

That it had an opportunity to win at Oklahoma State last weekend is impressive enough, but to beat the Cowboys on the game’s final play (even though it shouldn’t have been allowed by rule) when combining a Hail Mary and lateral says everything about Central Michigan’s propensity not to give up.

You have to believe such a characteristic rubbed off on them while watching Bonamego battle his disease.

He was hired as coach of his alma mater in February 2015, and in June learned he had a cancerous spot on his left tonsil. It had spread to a lymph node.

Through it all, Central Michigan managed a 7-6 season, finished tied for first in the MAC’s West Division, was within a touchdown of eventual playoff qualifier Michigan State in the fourth quarter and lost to Minnesota in the Quick Lane Bowl.

The Rebels played at another MAC school in Northern Illinois last season, the college head coaching debut of Tony Sanchez and a game UNLV had every chance to win before falling 38-30. As he continues to build the brand and the program, Sanchez would be smart to design parts of his blueprint after the better MAC teams.

The Rebels could do a lot worse in the next few years than becoming another Central Michigan.

“It is a team that knows how to win and goes to bowl games,” Sanchez said. “We’re a team that’s learning how to win and fighting to get into its first bowl game (under the current staff). It will be a good matchup. Call it unrealistic or not, some people look at mountains and say, ‘That looks too hard. I’m not going to climb it.’ I’ve always said, ‘I wonder what the view looks like up there. Let’s go.’

“Obviously, we want to eventually be on the same level as the team we played last week (UCLA). But it’s one step at a time, and with Central Michigan and the level it is at and the respectability it has, we need to get there. And then we want to go past that.”

It begins with leadership, begins at the top, begins with a sense of pride and belief that all programs insist they have and yet many don’t. It’s one of the reasons Bonamego wanted to return to college coaching after 16 years as an NFL assistant for five teams, the opportunity to make the sort of impact on young minds not often afforded in the pros.

He wept upon being introduced at Central Michigan, upon being handed the keys to the program for which he once played quarterback and wide receiver.

Little did he know the off-field challenge that awaited.

“You not only learn what the most important things are in life (fighting cancer), but also those things that make you most successful,” Bonamego said. “You can’t live in the past, whether it’s life or our game at Oklahoma State. Success can be intoxicating, and you have to remember to stay grounded and commit yourself to the process.

“As for adversity, (Hall of Fame) Coach (Bill) Parcells always talked about coming out swinging when backed into a corner.”

In November, Bonamego tweeted this: Just informed the TEAM that I am #CANCER FREE.

He came out swinging, all right, and never stopped.

Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be a heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 1340 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. On Twitter: @edgraney

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