When Mark Nofri recruits athletes for the Sacred Heart University football team he looks for players he calls “grinders” — tough kids, a step slow perhaps, but someone who comes to practice every day “with a chip on his shoulder.”
“Someone I can count on in the fourth quarter,” he said, “someone mentally prepared to get the job done.”
Nofri is a grinder, too.
The 46-year-old Naugatuck resident underwent cancer surgery recently. A golf ball-size tumor was found in his intestine, and 14 inches of his colon were removed. He is now in the midst of chemotherapy treatments that will not end until four games in to the SHU season.
The surgery was on March 25, the chemo began in early April. Nofri missed all but three days of spring practice. But he is back now, and he isn’t going anywhere.
“I wear the pump, and I have a port,” Nofri said of the treatment that takes 48 hours to get the drugs into his body. “The weeks of the chemo, I get pretty sick.”
This is one of those weeks. The chemo kicks Nofri’s butt. Nofri kicks back. Cancer has picked the wrong man. Nofri, in his fourth season as head football coach at SHU, has a practice schedule to maintain, two-a-day workouts to deal with, and a rugged regular season to prepare for with the opening game less than two weeks away.
“The school has been great,” Nofri said, “the coaching staff is outstanding, and we have a great bunch of guys. They know what to do.”
Nofri has decided not to go away to fight this fight.
“The more I do, the better I feel,” he said. “There are some days that I feel so sick that I ask why am I doing this to myself. But if I preach it, then I have to do it too.
“It feels great to be around these kids. They support you, they are behind you and they check on you.”
The cancer diagnosis tossed Nofri and his family for a loss. There is a family history of colon cancer, so he tests routinely. In March 2014, a colonoscopy found him healthy and cancer-free.
One year later, he was not.
Nofri wasn’t ill, but he said he was “not great around Christmas and New Year” of 2015. His Pioneers had just completed their best season ever. SHU had won 19 games over two seasons, was back-to-back NEC champion and had earned a Division II national ranking in 2014 for the first time in school history.
It was a long, rugged campaign. Nofri wasn’t well, but he told his wife, “I just need time to settle down.”
Time was not on his side on this occasion, he later learned. It was decided in March of this year that another colonoscopy was needed. Nofri and the doctors were stunned by what they found.
“Right after the procedure, I was told, ‘The doctor wants to see you and your wife,’” Nofri said.
Nine days after the colonoscopy, he was in surgery. It has been a battle.
During the summer, Nofri helped coach his son’s two youth baseball teams, one in Union City Little League and one a travel Sandy Koufax team. He never missed a game.
“You may feel awful, but you have to keep going,” he said.
His football players mirror the coach’s grit, on the field and off.
“I have never seen a bunch of kids so supportive,” Nofri said. “I told them (of the cancer) in the spring, and all summer the kids have sent me text messages and shot me emails.”
All good teams operate as a massive family unit. The illness to the coach may have brought the Pioneers even closer. This season the team will wear blue helmet decals that say: Nof Tackles Cancer. The team has also partnered with the Colon Cancer Alliance. On Nov. 7 when Duquesne comes to town, SHU will host a “Blue Out Game.”
Nofri asked his doctors if they could stop the chemo after treatment No. 8 of 12. They told him no. It was not negotiable. The chemo must continue through Sept. 28.
Nofri runs a practice or two from the press box, but he insists: “I will not miss a game.”