There have been three things that have been important to Omaha Burke head coach Paul Limongi his whole life.
They are family, faith and football. He describes the latter as his coming of age growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, where football is everything.
“It’s always been a love of mine even since I was a little kid. I played it all my life, watched it all my life and was just fascinated with all aspects of it," Limongi said.
When his playing days were done, he became a coach.
After doing so at ohio and Millard West, he has been the head coach at Burke for 13 years. His reputation is define by effort and toughness, but he's also know for being a yeller.
“There would be times where we were in a comfortable game and I’d play with him a little bit," offensive coordinator Sam Calabretto said, "I would just start screaming holding even though I didn’t see anyone holding, and then he’d start screaming holding to the referee. But we were just kind of messing with him.”
His players hear it sometimes, too, but yelling is just tough love for a team he calls his second family.
“You have to have toughness, you have to be mentally strong. So when it does hit, you can carry on and move forward,” Limongi said.
It’s important to Limongi to practice what you preach, and it’s why strength was important for him when adversity hit this past March. His tonsils had been bothering him. He went to an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor for examination.
“He popped my mouth open, he looked in it for about three seconds and he said you’ve got a tumor on your tonsil and it just blew me out of the water,” Limongi said.
Diagnosed with tonsil cancer, Limongi was confident he’d overcome it, but thoughts of death and faith creeped into the back of his mind.
“I believe in heaven and I feel like I’ve lived a good life that when that day comes I will be going to heaven. And that makes things a little easier," Limongi said. "But it doesn’t escape the fact that I don’t want to do it now. I have a lot to live for and a lot of things to get done. So I’m going to fight like heck.”
So he fought, undergoing 7 weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. His health forced him away from his team during the offseason.
“They always say the worst things happen to the best people and that’s truly an example of it. It’s like a stab in the back," Burke offensive lineman and defensive lineman Dylan Sales said,
“Practice without him is just that feeling like something is missing all the time,” Burke tight end and putside linebacker Chris Hickman said.
But cancer wouldn’t keep a family this close separated.
“I would FaceTime him when we were conditioning and his voice had changed, he wasn’t outside much so he was pretty pale, but he just had that look in his eyes when we FaceTimed him just how happy," Calabretto said.
It was important to Limongi.
“It was everything, it kept me going. Next to my family and friends the football team is what gave me the strength to keep fighting, to keep going,” he said.
After treatment, he gained his strength back over time and returned to the team in July. Over the summer, he eased back into a normal routine.
Then two weeks ago, a phone call from his doctor. He was about to tell Limongi about one of the head coach’s biggest wins.
“The doctor actually called me Thursday afternoon as I was driving to practice and told me that I was cancer free.” Limongi
About ten minutes before that practice, the news reached the players.
They lined up at the practice field to welcome and celebrate with their coach. Surrounding him with happiness as if they just won a state championship.
They say when you go to Heaven you’ll have friends and family waiting there for you at those gates. For Limongi, it was at the gates to his heaven on Earth.
“It’s great to see it, made me feel awesome. They are a team that is truly, truly together and unified,” Limongi said.
Football to him is a paradise in its own right.
And it seems the players are his angels that gave him a lot of strength to help him fight away his demons.