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Coaching Through Cancer

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Rochester: Coaching Through Cancer
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Listen to your body. It’s important advice as we get older, especially for men. Recent studies show most men ignore the signs of treatable health conditions and put off seeing their doctors for as long as six months to a year after experiencing disease symptoms. It’s something that almost cost a local football coach his career, and a whole lot more.

"We are creatures of habit," said Brockport football coach, Rocco Salomone. "Every Monday this is what we do. Every Tuesday this is what we do," he said.

Football is a game of repetition. Every workout, every practice, is a part of a carefully planned routine. It’s a formula that’s made Salomone a successful football coach, but one that can also be physically draining.

"During the season we don’t get a day off. We work seven days a week and that’s part of it. And everyone who does it knows it" said Salomone.

Salomone began his 17th year at the College at Brockport the same way he always does- with an intense two week camp.

"It really is football 101 all day long. And that's all you’re doing," said Salomone.

With a large class of freshman this season, Salomone’s patience is being tested. Jason Mangone is Coach Salomone’s offensive coordinator. He also played for him in the late 90’s.

"First few days of camp, some guys step out of line. Someone needs to get them back in line and obviously we know who's going to do that," said Mangone.

It’s a passion that’s not limited to football.

"He’s a family man obviously. He cares about his players so much and he’s the same way at home," Mangone said.

Salomone has been married to his wife, Kelly, for 21 years. Kelly and his three kids are used to sharing him.

"He loves his job. And it’s not really a job to him it’s life,” said Kelly.

Two years go, Salomone noticed the grind of the season was wearing him down a little more than normal.

"In the back of my mind I was like something’s not right. I should feel better, but I don’t,” he said.

Rather than go to the doctor, Salomone stuck to his routine, and for two years, kept working.

"Even though I knew I was kind of deteriorating, I couldn’t stop because I had to get this work done," Salomone said.

In 2009, as the season came to a close, Salomone realized he needed help.

"It got to the point where I could barely breathe," he said.

Shortly after his wife checked him into the hospital, doctors discovered his blood count was dangerously low. 65% of his blood had pooled hear his intestines. After several tests, he found out why.

"You’re thinking he’s a football coach. Its football season and he’s stressed. It’s a bleeding ulcer. Then they say its two masses," said Kelly.

Salomone had a large tumor growing on his small intestine. By the time doctors found it, it had already spread to his liver.

"You know the hardest part was watching him cry because he didn’t know what was happening."

Dr. Nikhil Khushalani, at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, has been studying Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors, or GIST, since the late 90’s. He says ten years ago there were few options.

"At that time surgery would have been his only choice and the surgery would have been fairly morbid," Dr. Khushalani said.

GIST tumors do not respond to radiation or traditional chemotherapy. But a newly developed form of medication, one that targets a specific protein, can shut these tumors down.

"It actually tries to induce a response or shrinkage of the tumor," said Dr. Khushalani.

Khushalani put Salomone on a drug called Gleevec. For three months they waited and Salomone went back to football.

"I missed five days of work,” Salomone said.

After a rocky start to the 2011 season, the Golden Eagles are taking on the personality of their head coach.

"I’ve got to give it to them. They come out everyday. They work hard in the weight room. They do everything we’re asking them. Good things are coming up for them. I really believe that," said Salomone.

Still, Salomone could use a pick-me-up; something one of his former players was happy to provide.

"When things seem to be going tough, all of a sudden, one of the guys seems to show up out of the blue. It always seems to be right when I need it,” Salomone said.

Erik Ardenski was a star defensive lineman and a part of one of Salomone’s most successful recruiting classes.

"He kind of became more a father figure to me, a role model. And I wanted to make him proud, Ardenski said."

Ardenski lost his own father to cancer and feared his old coach might be next.

"I was devastated," said Ardenski.

Salomone made it clear to Ardenski and all his former players, he wasn’t going anywhere.

"In standard Coach Salomone fashion he had a positive attitude and he said hey you know Erik I’m going to be ok, taking it one day at a time. And it’s kind of the building blocks of how he managed us on the field," Adrenski said.

It wasn’t long until Salomone could report good news.

The drug worked, shrinking each of Salomone’s tumors to about half of their original size. His doctor says there’s reason for optimism.

"The aim of his current treatment was always to shrink it down to a point where we could do surgery. And we still hold that hope. Now we seem to be converting it into now more of a chronic disease. Something that people have, that they are living with and I think he’s a perfect example of someone who’s continuing to work full time with this," Dr. Khushalani said.

Two years later, Salomone is still on the sidelines, with a new sense of patience.

"I’m just grateful that I get to keep doing this. At some point I’ll apologize to all the players I was probably too hard on at times" said Salomone.

A new perspective, but with the same passion that’s made him a winner.

"I am much more aware of myself physically than I was. And if something comes up I will attend to it. I won’t just brush it off like I used to," Salomone said.

"I’ve always wanted to do something that had some kind of impact on people. Where when I’m gone, at least I contributed something to somebody. And hopefully I have. And as long as I can keep doing this, this is what I’m doing," said Salomone.

Salomone will be re-examined in Buffalo later this month to see if the tumors have changed in size. The College at Brockport will wrap up its season tomorrow at 1:00pm. The Golden Eagles host Morrisville State College.

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