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Head coach to step down after cancer diagnosis

Collierville Head Football Coach Paul O'neill during warmups

Collierville’s football game with Arlington this Friday has taken on a new significance for Collierville Head Coach Mike O’Neill.

With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Collierville will have a “Pink Out” with coaches wearing pink polo shirts, players wearing pink as part of their uniforms and fans encouraged to wear pink.

Cancer has become a personal battle for O’Neill, who was diagnosed on Oct. 18 with squamous cell carcinoma, an aggressive throat cancer. O’Neill told his team after the Dragons’ 35-33 victory over Houston on Friday.

O’Neill, 52, will not coach the Dragons in the playoffs, which start Nov. 3. Assistant coach Tommy Miller, a former head coach at Bolton, will be interim head coach. While he is confident in any member of his staff, O’Neill said he asked Miller to “direct the ship.”

“Tommy is qualified to certainly do that,” he added.

O’Neill and his wife, Beth, will leave on Oct. 30 for MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He has an appointment on Oct. 31. He may be there six weeks or two months he said. He will meet with four different physicians who will work as a team to evaluate him. He will undergo tests for a week and “then come up with a game plan to attack my cancer, whether it is radiation, chemotherapy or surgery, one or all three.”

About the start of the season, O’Neill started to have sore throat issues and pain in his tonsils. He thought the pain was caused by allergies.

He went to a physician who tested him for strep throat that was negative but put on antibiotics.

“It didn’t work,” he said.

He went to an ear, nose and throat physician who did a computerized tomography (CT) scan on Oct. 13. On Oct. 16 he had a biopsy on a tonsil.

“My ENT doctor said it is a pretty common cancer. I will be on a floor where all they handle is throat cancer,” said O’Neill, adding that it is curable.

He will learn what stage it is after tests.

“It puts life into perspective. Football has been so important. However I need to deal with it,” he said. “I am going to slow it down a little bit and focus on this challenge. I am going to focus on moving forward. It is going to be a continuous battle.”

After the Dragons defeated Houston in the game’s last minute, students stormed the field.

“It was a big win for us,” said O’Neill, who did not want to tell his team before the game. “What a great win it was. They were in the locker room. They wanted to get a chant going but I switched directions. I told them my condition and when I was going to leave the team and my last game of the season. It was shocking. Some guys showed their emotions. You could hear a pin drop. It is the quietest I have heard that weight room.”

Players prayed for O’Neill.

“I could tell the power of prayer. There is no doubt. Players come up and hugged me. My main goal is to let them know this is something that I have to take care of,” said O’Neill, who is in his seventh year as head coach. He is also a business education teacher.

O’Neill has received well wishes from former players and coaches from “all over the county.”

A member of Incarnation Catholic Church in Collierville, O’Neill said that his faith “does so much on all levels of his life. Faith is very important in what we do. The power of prayer, there is no substitute.”

O’Neill called it ironic that this week is dedicated to cancer awareness.

“Unfortunately it is a disease a lot of people get. I am saying that first hand. I am battling. It’s important to pick back up with the team in some capacity at some point. How long is depending on how long the battle is,” he noted.