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DHS football family rallies around coach

by Chuck Smock

It started with a lingering cough.

More than a week later, Ernie Monfiletto felt a lump in his right armpit.

The offensive coordinator for the Douglas High football team was concerned, but not enough to go to the doctor. And then his wife Jill stepped in.

“My wife forced me, well, encouraged me, to go to the doctor to get it looked at,” said the 31-year-old coach, who played on the offensive line in college and coaches the position at DHS in addition to calling the offensive plays for the Tigers.

An X-ray revealed a tumor in Monfiletto’s upper chest. A biopsy confirmed the bad news – which was followed quickly by a small dose of good news when his doctors used two “C” words the young man never expected to hear in the same sentence: cancer and congratulations.

The diagnosis was stunning. Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Monfiletto learned he had an extremely rare, but highly treatable, cancer of his lymph system.

“To be honest, I didn’t quite understand what a lymphoma was,” he said. “But I knew it was cancer.

“My first thought was ‘How am I going to tell my wife and parents?’ The hardest part of hearing the diagnosis was wondering how my friends and family and the kids at school were going to deal with it. Sometimes I think they still have a harder time with it than I do.”

Six days passed in early December between the X-ray and the day the doctors told Monfiletto he was sick.

“They knew it was a lymphoma,” he said. “They were relieved to find out it was Hodgkin’s. They basically congratulated me.”

n Student of the disease. Monfiletto immediately became a student of the disease. Using the Internet, he learned that slightly more than 7,000 people were diagnosed with the disease in 1997 – compared to more than 180,000 who were stricken with breast cancer. He also learned he fits the early-adult age-group profile (ages 25 to 30) for Hodgkin’s and that the disease has a cure rate well over 90 percent.

“It’s pretty rare, yet it’s the most curable,” he said.

Even so, it’s still cancer. And the news spread quickly through the halls at Douglas High, where Monfiletto also teaches U.S. history and government.

“I was shocked,” Tigers head coach Mike Rippee said of his immediate reaction to hearing the diagnosis. “You’re looking at a young guy with a lot of energy, and he comes and tells you he has cancer. That’s a heck of a blow. That’s devastating.

“All we heard was the big ‘C.'”

The young people who have learned so much from Monfiletto were stunned, too.

“It was really tough on me,” said Matt Stangle, who played on the offensive line at Douglas and graduated in 1998. “Coach Monfiletto is one of the best coaches I’ve ever had, and he’s a really good friend.

“He’s such a great guy. Finding out he had cancer was something I just couldn’t believe.”

Athletes, students, coaches and teachers at Douglas rallied around Monfiletto. Several football players promised to shave their heads to make the coach feel more comfortable if he lost his hair during the six months he would have to undergo chemotherapy treatments.

Monfiletto is halfway through his twice-monthly chemotherapy schedule, which will be followed by an undetermined number of radiation treatments. His thick, black hair is holding its ground.

“Immediately following the treatment, I’m knocked down for a couple days,” Monfiletto said. “But I’m still working out and I’m in pretty good shape. Physically, I feel pretty good.”

Mentally, the coach is even better than that, thanks to a huge support system and a mindset he developed during years of toiling in the trenches as an offensive lineman.

n Strong spirit. “I’m not sick,” Monfiletto says defiantly. “It’s an attitude. Cancer is in my body, but my spirit is not sick. My spirit is stronger than it ever has been.

“Every day I thank God for my life and my wonderful wife.”

The coach talks openly about his disease, but he was reluctant to be interviewed for this story. He’s not the kind of guy who likes to draw attention to himself. He didn’t, however, want to pass up a chance to talk about the people who are helping him, and the lessons he’s learning – as well as the ones he’s trying to teach – during his ordeal.

“I really think what gives me strength is God, my wife, my family, my friends and the students here at Douglas,” he said. “Coming to work gives me strength. That’s what makes me happy. I think I feed off the strength of the people around me, and I hope they feed off my strength. This whole situation is a tribute to the community and how much support they’ve given me.”

Especially important, Monfiletto added, has been the understanding and compassion shown by the faculty and administrators at Scarselli Elementary, where Jill teaches second grade.

“I can’t tell you how important friends are,” he said. “Our friends have been unbelievable.”

Monfiletto is in his third year at Douglas. He, Rippee and the rest of the coaches at Douglas joke around and get along like life-long buddies.

And Monfiletto has tried to make sure no one has to feel uncomfortable about his medical situation.

“Ernie has had such a great attitude,” Rippee said. “It would have been a lot harder to deal with if Ernie had been down in the dumps. He’s made everyone around him feel better.

“From the very beginning, he said ‘I’m going to beat this thing.’ To watch him and look at him, he doesn’t look like he’s sick and he doesn’t act sick. He doesn’t ask ‘Why me?’ He asks ‘Why not me?’

“He’s been an inspiration to all of us. He’s given us a better outlook on how we should approach things.”

Battling cancer also has given Monfiletto the opportunity to show his players how what they learn on the football field can be used in real-world situations.

“As coaches, we’re always preaching overcoming adversity, meeting the challenge head on, defeating the enemy,” he said. “If I can’t deal with this adversity, I’m just a hypocrite.

“It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and preach those things. Now I have to practice what I preach.”