MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Collierville Coach Mike O'Neill returns to coaching after beating cancer that came as surprise last October.
“Yeah it is a tough thing to hear, you don’t want to hear. In fact when he called I was still thinking, I have tonsillitis, it can’t be cancer, that can’t happen. Sure enough it was. It kind of takes the air out of you,” said coach Mike O’Neill.
O’Neill was diagnosed with stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil, or throat cancer.
“I found out on a Wednesday, I got the phone call from the doctor, we are playing our archrival Houston. It’s a big thing around here, for both schools. I told my wife win, lose or draw, I got to tell them,” said coach O’Neill.
Collierville beat Houston 35-33 last October 20th. It was after that game, Coach O’Neill would have to give one of the hardest post game speeches of his life.
“He took us in the weight room up there and it was really difficult, a lot of guys were crying. It really just hit us like a bus,” said running back Peyton Murphy.
“It was heartbreaking, right when he said it, I started crying immediately,” said defensive end Chris Barnes.
“I said players, just keep playing I’m going to be back. That was my plan, I said you have my word, I’m going to be back. I was blessed enough to fill that promise,” said coach O’Neill.
Coach O’Niell received chemotherapy and 33 rounds of radiation at famed MD Anderson in Houston, Texas.
“My skin is just beat red and it’s peeling off the inside of my throat. I lose all my taste buds, so eating is a big chore. Never take your taste buds for granted. A lot of pain, it was painful to swallow anything. To swallow water was painful,” said coach O’Neill.
In the end all of the darkest days lead to the ultimate light. Treatments were successful and in early June, Coach O’Neill got the news he was cancer free.
“Here are the results and my doctor is smiling, and I am pretty good at reading people and he said we have some pretty good news for you,” said coach O’Neill.
People commonly say sports are a metaphor for life, and this story is no different.
“He’s like our dad, he means everything to us. I’m so glad he is cleared and cancer is not an easy thing to beat. And he beat it just like he told us he would,” said quarterback Mitch Austin.
“You are yanked out of that situation like I was at the end of the season, the kids have worked so hard and I want to be a part of it and be there for them,” said coach O’Neill.
On and off the gridiron, you are going to face challenges you have to fight, Coach O’Neill stands on the sidelines as a symbol of just that.
“He’s taught me how to fight life or how to do life off the field,” said Austin.
“It’s great, having him back brings a lot of energy to us,” said Barnes.
So as the Dragons take the field this season, they represent a football family made stronger through the love of their coach.
“These guys say you inspire us and this and that, they inspired me to be here, it’s totally a two way street. That goes along with my colleagues and my family, they really gave me the strength to accomplish that,” said coach O’Neill.