Papoccia stares down challenges at home, on the field
SOMETHING ABOUT MARY
There Mike Papoccia was, on statewide television, a few minutes after Newman's 40-13 victory against Staunton in the Class 2A title game the day after Thanksgiving.
He was asked a question about winning yet another state title, his fifth at Newman.
"It feels great, because it's all about the kids," Papoccia said. "They've worked hard, and I'm just proud to be a part of it. It's been a great season. I hate to see the seniors leave. The kids have just worked hard. We really don't have any secrets. ... We play well as a team, and that's usually what puts us over the top."
While giving his answer, Papoccia got downright misty. Those watching the telecast realized the fondness, appreciation and love he has for the team, but it went much, much deeper than that.
What came to mind for Papoccia was an unforgettable act of kindness.
"He asked me about the seniors, and that got to me," Papoccia said. "Now, I can cry watching Lassie. I started thinking about the seniors – they're the ones that came up with the stuff about Mary. That just speaks volumes about them as people, not just football players."
The "stuff about Mary" is about Mary Papoccia, Mike's wife of 40 years – the woman he asked to the Newman homecoming dance when they were juniors in high school as their first date, and have been together ever since.
Mary Papoccia, 61, was diagnosed with breast cancer in early August. It is her second major health scare, having survived a heart attack in 2011.
Mike now had the not-so-small task of preparing a football team for the upcoming season, along with caring for an ailing wife. It made for an eye-opening reality check.
"I'd catch myself thinking, 'Gosh, I should be doing this or I should be doing that,'" Papoccia said. "I'd start to feel sorry for myself, and then I'd think, 'You fool. What you're doing is nothing compared to what she's going through.' I caught myself a lot of times like that. It was like I got kicked in the gut. Think of the real situation here."
Mary Papoccia's treatment consisted of six rounds of chemotherapy at Rush Hospital in Chicago – the same facility where their oldest son, Brett, was treated in a successful battle against Hodgkin's disease. She concluded the last of those chemo sessions last week, and faces surgery next week to determine how much cancer has been eradicated, what remains, and what the next course of action will be.
The week before Mary's first treatment, Newman's football team opened the 2013 season with a 21-9 loss to Rockridge. The players, while upset with the loss, had something else on their minds. They were thinking of their head coach after a practice before a Week 2 game against Princeton.
"There was a knock on the door, and there's 60 football players standing outside," Papoccia said. "I go, 'This isn't trick-or-treat. What's up?' They had gone together and bought Mary some gas cards, a nice breast cancer pearl and a massage. That was all on them."
The night before the state title game, Mary Papoccia was voted an honorary captain, though she declined to go on the field for pregame duties. At the postgame welcome home ceremony at Newman, she was presented with a state medal.
"I think it helped our team get closer," senior running back Jake Snow said. "She's a member of our family, and she motivated us to become the kind of team we could be."
The 2013 football season was a unique one in many ways for Papoccia and the Comets. First, he relied on his assistant coaches more than ever, to make sure he was there for his wife. It required him to miss some practices, a rarity in 34 seasons as head coach.
"I never had a worry," Papoccia said. "I knew what was going on. The kids probably didn't even know I was missing."
Second, the Comets got a quick wake-up call in the loss to Rockridge. Papoccia described it as a "Godsend" they discovered early they weren't "God's gift to football."
"We certainly didn't play very well, and Rockridge was a very good team," Papoccia said. "They handled us in every part of the game. I think the kids realized we couldn't just show up and play, and win everything. From that day on, I think we improved every week."
The Three Rivers North, with down seasons from usually strong teams Morrison, Amboy and Bureau Valley, wasn't what it has been in the past, but the Comets did face some major adversity against Erie-Prophetstown. The Panthers built a 30-7 lead in Erie, but were unable to deliver a knockout punch. Newman got off the canvas and posted a 54-38 victory.
"When I saw how we played in the second half, I knew we had a special group," Papoccia said. "It wasn't anything the coaches did, except maybe put them in better spots to defend, and the players took it from there. They really caught fire. That was the most different, but most fun game I've ever been a part of. It was unbelievable."
The Comets were in dire straits only once in the postseason, in the waning moments of a 34-33 quarterfinal decision against Momence. Aaron Cantwell, an All-State quarterback, picked the Newman defense apart, and the Redskins were a 2-point conversion away from sending the Comets home for good.
It was a teaching moment for Papoccia.
"We went complacent the second half of that last quarter, and it showed," Papoccia said. "We were just sitting back there, and that kid [Cantwell], it was like 7-on-7. We went really conservative, but we learned from that. It really helped us the next two games."
Papoccia owns a 287-92 record in 34 years as head coach at Newman. Looking at the immediate future, a host of talented juniors will be back, and the fresh-soph squad went 9-0 in 2013, so reaching the 300-win mark next fall seems like a possibility.
Papoccia's five state football titles (1990, 1994, 2004, 2010, 2013) tie him for sixth all-time in IHSA history, with Gordon Gillespie of Joliet Catholic, Chris Andriano of Montini, and Mike Lalor of Stillman Valley. Only Frank Lenti of Chicago Mt. Carmel (11), Matt Senffner of New Providence (9), Robert Shannon of East St. Louis (6), Dan Sharp of Joliet Catholic (6), and Jim Unruh of Carthage (6) have more.
The Comets have a playoff record of 54-19 in 24 appearances under Papoccia, dating back to a 7-6 loss to Milledgeville in the first round of the 1985 Class 1A playoffs. There have been 12 conference championships, either shared or outright.
To hear Papoccia talk, it's been simple.
"The kids understand what we're about and what we're trying to accomplish, and how we do it," he said. "It's not rocket science. We just expect them to work hard, to learn their positions and push each other – that's about it. We run a simple offense, and we run a pretty simple defense. We just want the kids to know what they're doing so they don't have to think out there. They just react. I guess it's worked up to now."
High school: Newman (1970)
College: Elmhurst (1974)
Family: Wife, Mary; children, Katie, 33; Brett, 33; Andrew, 31; Maggie, 25; Lauren, 23
FYI: Employed as teacher, coach and/or athletic director at Newman since 1978. ... Owns 287-92 record as head football coach. ... Won 5 state titles