Muhlenberg football coach Mike Donnelly in fight for life

Mike Donnelly-11082017-0001
Mike Donnelly, the head coach at Muhlenberg for the last 20 years, was diagnosed with acute monocytic leukemia this spring and needs a bone marrow transplant. Photo courtesy of Muhlenberg University

Lucky.

That’s the first word Mike Donnelly uses to describe his situation.

Really?

Donnelly is about to enter his 21st season as the football coach at Division III Muhlenberg College in Allentown, where he’s the winningest coach in program history (140-74). The Mules were 9-2 in 2016 and have 15 starters back, although they do have to find a quarterback to succeed Nick Palladino, who threw for 10,250 yards and 89 touchdowns in his career. But this season will be different for reasons that have little to do with football and everything to do with why we wake up each morning.

In late April, the 64-year-old Donnelly was diagnosed with leukemia. In another week or so, he is expected to undergo a bone-marrow transplant at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo. The donor is the oldest of his two children, 34-year-old Lauren, even though she isn’t a perfect match. After the procedure, his progress will be monitored as long as 100 days. That includes spending the first month in a hospital.

He started his treatment by getting a continuous, week-long chemotherapy drip.

“I was like, ‘Great,’ ” Donnelly recalled. “Then they said, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re going to give you a heart-toxic drug for three days on top of that.’ You don’t ask. Because you don’t have a choice.”

Training camp opened last Friday, with Donnelly still in charge of running the practice. He hopes to rejoin the team at some point before the season ends. Until then, he’ll be following from afar.

His athletic director, Corey Goff, who used to be his offensive coordinator, will become the acting head coach. And Kory David has come over from Hobart to take over Donnelly’s other role as defensive coordinator/secondary assistant.

“We’re fortunate,” Donnelly asserted. “I’m in remission. All my blood numbers are good enough to allow me to be here and come to work every day for now, doing what I do. Corey volunteered. He’s not getting paid for this. Everyone’s done a great job of making sure 110 players are going to get great coaching. Probably better coaching than when they get it from me. I’m knocking on wood that we’ll have another good team. So many people have stepped up to make the transition a lot better …

“I’m very fortunate. They didn’t do transplants 25 years ago on anybody over a certain age. So how lucky am I to be in this era?”

Imagine that. But that’s the attitude he’s carrying around with him 24/7. It’s a mindset that he believes will help him beat the disease.

“I guess it’s the way you live your life,” Donnelly said. “I’ve always encouraged my players to find a way to win and overcome. You don’t always win the game, but the effort to win has got to be there. From a transplant point of view, they’re looking for positive people that have the mental energy. I know it’s not easy. They don’t want you moping around. They want you to attack this thing.

“I’ve had so many people tell me it’s about the emotional part as much as it is about physical. And they know more about it than you or I.

“When the doctors first told me, I was disappointed. Because things were going really well for us. It was just a ton of fun coming in every day. I was happy where I was. But I didn’t get mad. I was just like, ‘Darn it.’ The next thing was, ‘OK, what am I going to do about it? How am I going to go after this?’ ”

At first, the doctors didn’t think Donnelly would need a transplant. But that changed about a month after the problem was discovered, “almost out of left field.” That triggered the search to find a viable match in the national registry, a process that can sometimes be frustrating and doesn’t always have a happy ending.

“They’re looking for a 10 out of 10,” Donnelly said. “My heritage, they usually find somebody pretty quickly. But that didn’t work out. So they moved on to something they didn’t have until like seven years ago. HAPLO, which is my terminology [for Haploidentical Stem Cell Transplant]. So my daughter is half my genetic match.

“What they do is high science. They’re going to put her bone marrow into me, kill off the stuff that’s not good and the good stuff will be remaining. They’re doing them more and more, and finding more and more success. I read last week that if a person has a mother, father, brother, sister or children, there’s really no reason why they can’t have a transplant. So now I’m on the fast track.”

The student-athletes who look to him for guidance try to understand and adapt. Yet there is no manual for how to confront something like this.

“It was shocking to process initially,” said Mickey Kober, a sophomore linebacker from The Haverford School. “However, the 2017 Mules are going to take a page out of Coach Donnelly’s life playbook. We are going to emulate [his] unparalleled charisma and competitiveness in every obstacle and challenge that we are faced with throughout the season.”

Added fellow sophomore linebacker Kwasi Ampomah, a Germantown Academy product: “The team and I know how resilient and fearless [Donnelly] is. So we are optimistic that he will be back with us. The team is taking the exact approach [as before]. Nothing has changed. We have plans to do well.”

Just-retired Villanova coach Andy Talley has been involved with the bone-marrow program since the early 1990s. His foundation (“Get in the Game, Save a Life”) has spread to include more than 50 schools and indeed has saved hundreds upon hundreds of lives. Donnelly first met Talley back in 1980, when he was on the staff at Ithaca and Talley got the top job at St. Lawrence. They’ve stayed in contact through the years, and last January Donnelly even spoke to Talley about finally getting Muhlenberg involved with registering potential donors into the system. Little did he know.

“I’ve always followed what he was doing,” Donnelly said. “Then I had to make the call to tell him I needed to talk to him and it wasn’t to say hello. It made me ask myself why we hadn’t been part of it sooner. Don’t ask me why. I really don’t know. As soon as I found out, I knew I had to use it to try to raise the level of awareness. Now we’ve got all the other 10 schools in our [Centennial] conference on board. So that’s been great.

“We’ve already got, I think, 100 people who’ve been tested. We’re going to do a drive in the fall and another in the spring. Hopefully, we can get a lot of kids to swab their mouths and become a donor. I want Muhlenberg to be part of the story. We already are. Somebody asked a girl, and I’m not really sure she was fired up about doing it. But she did, and not long after she got a call that she was a match for a woman in Pittsburgh. To me, that’s just awesome. So the idea of making it a little bit more public knowledge that I had leukemia is a good thing. When something like that happens, it gets people fired up.”

So what will keep him going when he’s away from his guys?

“Once I hit the road, my role will be electronic,” Donnelly said. “Thank God for computers and cellphones. My coaches are going to be rocking and rolling. I’ll be doing the support work, helping in any way I can. Like breaking down film.

“Everybody, including myself, knows I’m dealing with a pretty serious situation. But we’re also dealing with some amazing medicines and some amazing technologies. They think there’s a good chance it will work and there won’t be any serious side effects, but they can’t guarantee it …

“I’ve always talked to the kids about injuries being part of the game, unfortunately. When someone gets hurt, it’s the next guy’s opportunity. Now the head coach is hurt. So I’m going to take care of my business, and someone else is taking care of theirs. The players have bought into that, if you want to say that. It’s helped get them over the hump. They’re not looking at it as, ‘Oh, my God, the head coach isn’t in.’ They’re saying ‘Let’s go.’ In the corner of their eyes, they’re watching me, expecting me to go after this like I expect them to attack things that are problematic.”

If only it were that simple. But in his world, maybe it truly is.