Paul Gorham has faced uphill battles throughout his life, but all pale in comparison to his current life-altering challenge.
The gravel-voiced, likeable man who has coached football since 2004, Gorham arrived home in the wee hours of Tuesday morning after spending more than five months in the Cleveland Clinic.
As winter turned into spring, his life was turned topsy-turvy by a double lung transplant, three weeks in a coma and -- after experiencing severe circulatory problems -- the amputation of both legs below the knees.
He knows it could have been worse. He could have died.
“I know I’ve been dealt a bad hand, but I’m not going to dwell on that,” he said in a telephone interview late last week. “Today was a great day. Tomorrow will be a great day…”
In taking the long view, Gorham has seen a lot of good during his lengthy ordeal, which began with a lung infection just after the Christmas holidays. Some examples:
- The love and devotion of his wife, Noreen, and their two children, Matt, 20, and Emma, 17. (Matt is a junior-to-be at Brown University and a receiver on the Bruins football team. Emma will be a senior tri-captain of Cheshire High’s girls’ basketball team this winter.)
- The kindness of three friends and coaching colleagues at Brown, Phil Estes, Neil McGrath and Mike Kelleher, who transported Gorham home from Cleveland in a rented Lincoln Town Car. “Our golf foursome,” Gorham says.
- The support from his long-time assistant and linebackers coach Mark Nofri, who will wear the mantle “Interim Head Coach” this fall. “He’s been a little ornery lately. He wants to get back to football,” says Nofri, who has almost daily phone conversations with his boss
- The generosity of Lanese Construction, which has made the entrances and master bathroom in the Gorham home in Cheshire handicap-accessible.
- The University’s “Welcome Home Paul” fundraiser on Thursday, Aug. 2, which will include Mass on campus in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit and a reception in the new Student Commons that bears the name of a certain U.S. senatorial candidate. “It’s a real tribute to Paul,” Noreen says of the fundraiser. “It’s touched his heart.”
In many respects, Paul Gorham is typical of the breed, the men who make football their life’s work. He’s dedicated to the sport, to the university that employs him, and to the young men who come under his tutelage.
While the losses have outnumbered the wins (34-51) across eight seasons, his Pioneers have been competitive. The 8-3 record in 2008 is among the program’s highlights, and just last fall Sacred Heart defeated two Ivy League opponents, Dartmouth and Columbia.
Gorham is especially proud of Jon Corto, an All-American linebacker during his first three seasons who went on to play safety for the NFL Buffalo Bills (2008-10) -- the first Sacred Heart athlete in any sport to participate at the major professional level. “A great overachiever,” he says of Corto.
Corto, for his part, was sorry to learn about his former coach’s severe health problems. “A great guy, a tough guy,” he said via telephone from his Orchard Park, N.Y., healthy vending machine business. “I’d heard this was happening to him. I feel for him and his family.”
Noreen Gorham, who works in the medical field as a nurse manager who seeks organ transplants at Yale-New Haven Hospital, says “it’s very ironic” that her husband was treated at the hospital this winter after experiencing breathing problems. It was at Yale where it was determined he would require the double lung transplant.
“He’s doing really well. He looks like hell; he’s been through a battle and has lost a lot of weight,” she says.
Paul has been fitted with prosthetics and uses a walker to navigate his home. A physical therapist is there almost daily, and an occupational therapist may be next. “If things go well,” Noreen says, “he may go to Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford for further rehabilitation.”
His coaching role this season is undetermined at this juncture.
Nofri, who was hired by the program’s initial head coach, Gary Reho, in 1996 and served under all five of Gorham’s predecessors, is “happy and excited” about his head coaching opportunity, even if there is an “interim” attached.
“By the same token,” he says, “I’m not happy the way the situation came about. Paul Gorham is my boss and he is also a close friend.”
SHU Athletic Director Don Cook and a small committee are working diligently to make the Aug. 2 fundraiser a success. “It’s going to be a welcome home tribute to Paul,” he says. “We’re unsure of how much we can raise, but $50,000 would be a good start.”
For more information, visit www.PaulGorham.org.