Local high school football coach returns to field after fight with cancer

COLLIERVILLE, Tenn. — It doesn't matter the sport. Every coach preaches it. Intensity.

It means different things to different people.

In most cases in sport, it's coach speak for the focus and determination it takes to fight through and get the job done. But what happens when the coach is the one who has to learn to fight?

Last year, Collierville High School head football coach Mike O'Neill found himself on the other side of the whistle, fighting for his life.

O’Neill said it just started as a sore throat, but after delaying the news for nearly an entire season, he was diagnosed with cancer – squamous cell carcinoma in his tonsil.

He received 33 radiation treatments over 3 months. Chemo for another two. It was brutal. But five months later, O'Neill was back in Collierville.

O'Neill found was declared 'cancer free' just before the start of fall camp. But the fight isn't over.

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At first, it was just a sore throat.  "They told me to gargle.  In my mind, I started feeling better a little bit," the coach says almost laughing it off for a second time.  But he wasn't better.  He ignored the scratchy throat for most of the football season.   Until his head coach made him go back to the doctor.   "My wife was doing her research on the side.  She knew in her mind we were dealing with something much bigger," O'Neill says, becoming more somber in his recollection. And like most wives, she was right.  "I got the news the week we played our biggest rival, Houston High School.  Squamous cell carcinoma.  In my tonsil."

O'Neill says even harder than hearing the news, was telling his team.  Just moments after what might have been the biggest win of the year, the coach broke the news:  He has cancer. "I told them directly after the game.   They were all happy to... wow. It took the air out of them," O'Neill reluctantly says reliving the pain.

One of the coach's favorite words during practice is attack.  That's exactly what O'Neill did.  "I thought 'man, throw everything you got at me.  I can do this, " he said.         Days later, he was in Houston at M-D Anderson Medical center.  He received 33 radiation treatments over 3 months.  Chemo for another two.  It was brutal.  But 5 months later, O'Neill was back in Collierville.

This fall he hit the field with the same intensity he's had the last 7 years as head coach of the Dragons, with one little twist.  "I have found that if my voice gets too loud, there's a place in my head that hurts a little bit.  So I've had to lower the tone a little bit."  Darrell Greene asks, "Was that place there before?"

O'Neill responds, "It wasn't there before.  But it's there now. You know, I always liked to think of myself as a glass half full type person.  Now?  Its glass full."  Greene asks, "What is that first night on the sidelines back going to be like for you?  How nervous will you be?" O'Neill says, "Well you know what?

Part of my job will be to control those nerves." Greene asks, Will  you be able to?"  O'Neill says, "I say yes.  I'm sure my coaches will disagree with that maybe."

O'Neill found was declared 'cancer free' just before the start of fall camp.  But the fight isn't over.  There will be many more doctors’ visits ahead.  But he says with the support of his team and the entire city of Collierville, he can beat back any challenge that comes along.  Even cancer.