Peter Gonnella’s days started at 4:30 a.m. last winter. He’d make the 90-minute trek from his Cape Cod home to Everett High School, and in the afternoon, race back to Harwich, where he was molding a high school girls basketball team into a state championship contender.
In the spring, he’d stay at Everett coaching tennis, then battle the traffic back to the Cape. Then, he’d wake up and do it again the next day.
So as he became more tired, the 48-year-old father of four chalked it up to the commute. When his stomach began to bother him in the spring, he figured he may caught a case of lingering food poisoning. Soon, his back began to explode with bursts of pain, and the medication doctors gave him weren’t helping.
But ultrasounds showed he had an enlarged spleen, which can be a symptom of a number of things, and blood tests showed nothing. Even when a subsequent endoscopy found a large mass on his pancreas, he hoped for the best — a cyst, perhaps — and waited.
Within a week, doctors told Gonnella he was lucky to live a year.
He told them he didn’t believe it.
“My thing is I’ll fight through life,” Gonnella said. “I’m going to fight this.”
It helps when you have a full corner behind you.
More than two months since being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Gonnella has remained the positive, strong-willed person known to friends in high school as “Smiley” and “Coach” by scores of others now.
His treatments are daunting, spanning more than seven hours this past Thursday alone and requiring two full days of therapy at home following each visit. Doctors tell him the cancer has metastasized in his liver and possibly his lungs, making surgery all but impossible. But chemotherapy has appeared to slow its movement, Gonnella said, and he’ll undergo a scan in the coming weeks to determine his progress.
“The attitude I’m taking is I want to live and I never want to give up,” he said. “I’m in survival mode.”
It hasn’t stopped him from living, either. His treatments have forced him to resign from his coaching positions at Harwich and Everett, and plans to take an assistant coaching job in football this fall have also been put on hold. But Gonnella said he still plans to work at Everett High as a physical education teacher between treatments, and if his health allows, possibly volunteer on a basketball coaching staff this winter.
He remains active in his children’s athletic lives, too, still running his oldest son, 13-year-old Cameron, through basketball workouts and watching Francesca, 10, ice skate and Joseph, 8, play little league. His oldest daughter, Angela, is starting her junior year at Ole Miss, where Gonnella, a former all-scholastic pick at Wakefield High, was slated to play basketball before a knee injury derailed his playing career.
“We have to stay positive for him,” his brother, Paul, said, “to give him the strength and energy it’s going to take to fight it.”
That support — and the prevalence of the phrase “fight” — hasn’t been difficult to find. People from his native Wakefield, Cape Cod and beyond have rallied around Gonnella, starting less than two weeks after his June diagnosis with a fundraiser that drew approximately 500 to the Wakefield Elks Lodge.
Ex-players, including from his time at Northeast Regional, have continually called, as have others — so much, his brother Paul said, sometimes it’s hard for even him to get through.
“Coach, you taught us to fight,” Peter Gonnella said of the most common message he’s received. “Now you fight.”
Last week, the Dennis-Yarmouth football team, for which Gonnella served as an assistant in 2008 and 2009, included him on the ticket for its annual barbecue and beer-tasting benefit, raising $7,000 for the family, said head coach Paul Funk. The Harwich girls basketball team that Gonnella coached to the Division 4 sectionals each of the last two winters is also planning a fundraising effort, and the team is brainstorming ways to honor their former coach this season.
But athletic director Paul “Spanky” Demanche recognized it’s a sensitive decision, as most times when teams wear a patch or sticker on a uniform, it’s in remembrance of those who have died.
And no one doubts that Gonnella will “keep fighting,” he said.
“These girls are emotional,” Demanche said of the team, which Gonnella told of his diagnosis during a teary meeting earlier this summer. “He’s built up a relationship with those kids. He would commute daily from Everett back to Harwich — he was really doing a yeoman’s effort. That’s an indication of how much care and respect he had for this group. That made (the news) more difficult.”
Of course, Gonnella’s family has been by his side throughout. His daughter and niece created a wrist band embezzled with the phrase “No one fights alone” which the family is selling to raise money for Gonnella’s treatment. His four brothers, who have fanned out to places such as Arizona and Indiana in recent years, have been regularly visiting, as have his mother and father.
Meanwhile, his wife, Kerry, and four children have helped guide him through round after round of aggressive chemotherapy, including when it hospitalized him for four days near the start of his treatment.
Gonnella’s voice remains clear and confident when he discusses his battle with cancer, a tone molded by countless locker-room speeches and late-game huddles. But it’s the thought of the support he’s received that forces him to take a moment, his sentences choked with emotion.
“I can’t tell you how overwhelmed I am,” Gonnella said through tears. “My wife and I feel so lucky that we have this.”
Those who know Gonnella say the same of him.
Paul Gonnella isn’t shy about saying it. At 6-foot-3, his brother, Peter, is a “good-looking man...the tall, dark and handsome one of the family.”
“He kind of looked like John Travolta,” former Wakefield High basketball coach Ellis “Sonny” Lane said of Peter. “All the cheerleaders from the other teams were googly eyed over him.”
So when Paul walked into an Atlanta job fair with his brother fair nearly a decade ago, it didn’t surprise him that within five minutes of them arriving, a woman had strolled up to Peter to start a conversation. What he didn’t understand was why Peter was pointing at him with a huge smile on his face.
So Paul, then in Georgia to start his fledgling coaching career, walked over to find the two laughing and talking.
“And she says, ‘You coach football? I can help you,’” Paul said.
The woman, Paul found out, was an assistant principal at Lovejoy High School. Within a week, she set up an interview for him with the head football coach, and despite already having someone in line for the job, he tabbed Paul for the position. Over the next two years, Paul helped send more than 20 kids to Division I and I-A schools, success that carried him to a graduate assistant position at Mississippi State.
That helped land him the head coaching job at Cambridge Rindge & Latin, which then carried him to a position at North Carolina, then Tennessee and Miami, Memphis and now Purdue, where he is director of player personnel.
And it all started with Peter doing nothing more than standing in a room and looking lost.
“That’s a story on the kind of charm he has,” Paul said. “I’ll be in debt to him the rest of my life for that.”
But that’s Peter, a person his brother said doesn’t have a single enemy and someone who would “run through a wall for you,” Lane said. That personality made him a player’s coach who approached his job more as a teacher than a play-caller.
As an assistant at D-Y, he coached the split ends and defensive backs, and would spend countless hours coaching kids up in the weight room, long past when he was required to be there, Funk said. As a permanent substitute at the high school, he also was the students’ favorite teacher, said Funk, a Wakefield native who grew up watching Gonnella star on the high school team.
“The one thing I admired about watching him was he really maintains (the mindset) of an educator,” said Demanche, the Harwich athletic director. “When there was something with a kid and he pulled them (from the game), it would a be quiet conversation on the bench, and he would have in his mind what he wanted to say. Timeouts were educational.
“He really is a teacher of the game.”
Gonnella first learned that approach from Lane. After high school, he played at North Country Community College under current USC coach Kevin O’Neill and for a short stint at Salem State University under Tom Thibodeau, the former Celtics assistant who now coaches the Chicago Bulls.
When Gonnella played there, he’d often take his brother, Paul — eight years his junior — to Sunday practices where the future Wakefield Athletic Hall of Fame inductee would jump into drills.
“We would run sprints,” Paul said, “and Thibodeau, I remember one time said, ‘We’re going do half court and back and full court and back. Every time Paul beats one person, who’ll do another one.’”
And Paul kept beating them.
“He stopped taking me,” Paul said with a laugh of his brother.
COMING UP BIG
Asked of what he remembers most of Peter Gonnella as an athlete, Lane said it was his ability to come up big every time his team needed him. If he scored 24 points, Wakefield probably won by two, Lane said. If Gonnella scored just eight or nine, it probably meant he mostly deferred to teammates in a lop-sided win.
“But all I can tell you, the bigger the game, the bigger he was,” Lane said.
It’s what makes Lane so confident Gonnella can beat his biggest opponent. Gonnella said he draws confidence from friends who have had cancer and survived. He picks up articles on those who won their fight, including Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich, who returned to play after being diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer usually found in bone or soft tissue.
During his treatment, Herzlich often kept to his workout routine, Gonnella said. Now 25 pounds lighter, Gonnella plans to do the same at Everett High’s facility, where after work he’ll lift weights just as he did before his diagnosis.
To go through the coming months without coaching, however, will be difficult, Gonnella said. Since he started his career, never has he gone through a winter without participating in some form of organized basketball. But he understand his health is the most important thing, and will do as his doctors instruct him.
“There are days you just feel like hell,” Gonnella said of his treatment. “(Thursday) was a tough day, I was going through so much pain, and you think, ‘Am I going to be able to get through this?’ You just have to think positive. I have kids and I want to show them one thing, that you never quit. Adversity comes at you all the time, but I don’t want my kids to ever see weakness.”
With that, Gonnella said he still wants his kids “to be kids. I don’t want them to worry about what’s going on here.”
What Gonnella has here is a fight. And he has no intention of stopping.
“I’m going to fight this every day,” Gonnella said. “And win.”
People can send checks to Gonnella Fund Sunflower Trust, Wakefield Cooperative Bank, 342 Main Street, Wakefield, 01880