Things were going great for Sacred Heart head coach Mark Nofri during the offseason. His team was coming off of back-to-back Northeast Conference championships, as well as consecutive bids to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Then came March, when Nofri was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. By the end of the month, Nofri had surgery to remove 14 inches of his colon, including a tumor that was roughly the size of a golf ball.
Since his surgery, Nofri has been able to return to the football field, although he is sometimes limited by how he feels.
When asked how he is doing, Nofri said, “It depends what week you ask me. The weeks I have chemo, I’m pretty sick. The weeks I don’t, I fight through it and I’m just kind of tired.”
After the surgery, the doctors called for Nofri to undergo 12 rounds of chemotherapy, one every other week. And chemo has been rough on the head coach.
“The weeks I have chemo, I struggle,” he says. “You have to take it easy the days you get it. On those days, I’m pretty sick. But I try to stay busy and feel like I’m doing something. If I sit around and feel sorry for myself, I feel like it (cancer) is getting the best of me.”
On the field, Nofri has taken Sacred Heart, which is located in Fairfield, Conn., to new heights, although it didn’t start that way. After serving as an assistant coach at the school for 18 seasons, Nofri was 2-9 in his first season as head coach in 2012. “There was a lot going on that first year, it was a tough year, a learning curve,” he says. “Being an assistant for so many years, then becoming head coach was different, even though I had been here 19 years.”
But Nofri saw potential in some of his younger players. “Going into 2013, I had a great staff and we got together with the players and they wanted to change the attitude and the culture of the program,” he says. “They were a great bunch of kids and we came together and we built the program from the bottom up the right way. And if I needed to get rid of some kids, we did. We listened to what the kids had to say and they listened to us.”
From there, the success started to build upon itself.
“Once we got rolling in 2013, we started 5-0, the kids started to believe in themselves and started to see the positive outcomes that could happen when you put forth the effort,” Nofri says. “They started believing, and we had some good players, but they were battle-tested because they took their lumps as freshmen and sophomores.”
Sacred Heart was 10-3 in 2013 and 9-3 last season. Their back-to-back playoff appearances marked the first time in school history that had been accomplished.
Nofri hopes that he can set a good example for his time by fighting through his cancer.
“I told the players that they are tough kids, grinders. They are going to find a way to get through it and that’s what I have to do,” he says. “Chemo sucks, there’s no doubt about it, it’s not a fun thing to go through. You want to quit, but if I do, what does that say to my kids?”
Nofri will complete his chemo treatments at the end of September. At that point, doctors will do a body scan to make sure the cancer has not spread. In the meantime, Nofri plans to keep coaching his team.
“The last thing I want to do is be a distraction for this team,” he says. “I’m going to slide in and slide out and it’s going to be business as usual.”
And that means fans can expect to see Sacred Heart make another run at an NEC title this fall.