Battle against cancer real for one USU football coach
Published: Thursday, October 3, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 3, 2013 17:10
Utah State special teams coach Dave Ungerer was diagnosed with cancer two years ago — and he beat it.
Junior long snapper Nate Needham’s grandfather was his closest friend growing up. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer six years ago and didn’t make it.
Junior kicker Nick Diaz’s grandfather was diagnosed with colon cancer. He has recovered.
When USU takes the field against rival BYU on Friday, the “Tackle Breast Cancer” fundraising promotion will not be forgotten by players and coaches.
"I think it's a great way to recognize and bring an awareness to breast cancer,” said head coach Matt Wells.
Players will incorporate pink into their uniforms to support Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with fan donations benefitting research organizations.
“All of us have been affected by this in some way, shape or form,” Wells said. “Anything that we can do as a small gesture of support, and to help bring awareness to this, is a good thing.”
Ungerer can testify to that statement.
Ungerer was diagnosed with lymphoma — which is a cancer in swollen lymph nodes — near the end of the 2011 season while at Washington State. He initially didn’t know if chemotherapy treatment would be effective or not.
“They put me into chemo right around Christmas, and I was battling it with chemo for about eight months,” Ungerer said. “It was a pretty trying time. One, I wasn’t sure if the chemo was going to be effective or not. Two, I didn’t know if I was ever going to coach again. Three, I have teenage boys, so you have a lot of thoughts go through your mind when you’re going through that.”
After three-and-a-half months of treatment, the chemo proved to be productive. The symptoms were still brutal for six months, but the lymph nodes began to shrink and he slowly improved.
“I was just fortunate that the type that I got was treatable,” he said. “We didn’t know that in the beginning, but once they found out that my body was going to react to what they had given me, I had a different look on what was in front of me. But initially when I didn’t know, I was like a lot of people that I’ve met, they weren’t going to make it.”
When Wells found out Ungerer recovered from cancer, he decided to bring him on to the staff.
“The fact that he has beat cancer speaks volumes to him as a person and his toughness and resolve,” Wells said. “It's a great story."
Diaz said ever since Ungerer has been on staff, he’s seen the power a survivor brings to the table.
“I definitely think it made him a lot stronger,” he said. “When he came in, he was full go. You could see it in his eyes; there was a fire and he had a true passion for what he was doing.”
Needham said the passion Ungerer has shown has been a force for the entire team.
“I know that he’s been really emotional about it,” he said. “I know it was hard for him, but he was able to overcome that, and it’s a huge stepping stone in his life... He’s taken that bull by the horns and has made an impression on every one of us with the recovery that he’s made.”
Ungerer said he has learned to slow down and savor life, especially his family and coaching.
“To say the least, I’m not the same person I was prior to the cancer,” he said. “Everybody’s 100 miles per hour doing their own thing, but when all of a sudden you’re told it doesn’t look good, it’s kind of like being hit by a freight train.”
He said the situation to return as a coach has been perfect.
“It’s kind of been a double bonus, one to be back, and two to be at Utah State,” he said.
Needham has his own special feelings for this game apart from his specialty coach.
“My grandpa was the one that got me involved in sports,” he said. “He was diagnosed right after I graduated high school with pancreatic cancer. That’s kind of a death sentence, and you’re just waiting for the time to come to pass.”
Needham said he was in Brazil serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when his grandfather passed away.
“He was everything to me,” he said. “I wasn’t able to necessarily say goodbye or go to his funeral, but I received a recording from him while I was down in Brazil and it was a goodbye recording from him for me, and I’ve kept that to this day and I always listen to it. He made a big impact on my life.”
Ungerer said as a survivor, he now feels more for people in those situations.
“I think my appreciation and my heart really goes out to so many people that are affected by this disease because I was fortunate to make it through, and so many people are not able to do that,” he said.
Diaz said he will be motivated to play in this game for his own grandfather.
“He’s still with us, going strong,” Diaz said. “He made a full recovery, and I’m just thankful he’s still around because I know a lot of people weren’t so lucky and my blessings are with them and their families. He’s a huge part of my life, and this game’s definitely for him.”
Ungerer is cancer-free and has routine checkups to make sure his progress continues. As he has thought about Friday’s game from a cancer standpoint, he said the magnitude of what he went through has come more fully into focus.
“It started to really hit me that I’m survivor,” he said. “I don’t really think of myself that way until something like this comes along. The game has huge meaning for me.”
Ungerer had one final pep-talk for the fans going into the game.
“You never know, you never think it’s going to be you,” he said. “With the statistics the way they are today with the number of people affected, somebody that you do know, a family member or yourself, is going to be affected by cancer, so why would you not donate and get behind such a powerful, widespread disease?”