TOLLAND, Conn. – When Scott Cady was diagnosed with cancer in May, his thoughts, naturally, went to the football field.
“There is no question, I’m coaching the [expletive] team,” the Tolland High School football coach said. “That was the first thought out of my mind.”
“And then I felt guilty,” he said with a laugh. “I need to think of my own family. I’ve got to be a great dad, I’ve got to be a great husband.”
Those who have played for or have known Cady for his 36-year tenure at all levels of football in Tolland, Conn., will tell you that his players, and his staff, are his family just as much as his three children, Taylor, Ian and A.J., are. He refers to his players as his sons, and called assistant head coach Alex Backus his little brother. His diagnosis leaves it unlikely that Cady will be able to coach another season beyond this one.
Just as much as he has rallied to fight, so has everyone around him. His players raised thousands of dollars to help with medical bills and other expenses, and a local organization held a benefit fundraiser over the summer. Rival coaches have gone out of their way to express support and residents of Tolland have pitched in when they can to assist the family.
It was in March when Cady, 55, checked himself into the hospital with a staph infection. A biopsy later revealed he had stage four peritoneal mesothelioma, a rare cancer which forms on the lining of the abdomen. The diagnosis comes with a slim survival rate, often no longer than a year. But Cady refused to let the diagnosis slow him down.
“Almost all of my thoughts are so positive anyway,” he said. “I’m wired that way. I’m a fighter, an old Irishman. There’s no quit in me, and I don’t want to see any quit in them.”
He and his wife, Michelle, met with a surgeon over the summer to discuss his treatment. The hope is that heated chemotherapy — a treatment called HIPEC (hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy) — combined with surgery will stop the growth of the mesothelioma, and extend Cady’s life. When the surgeon asked Cady if he had any questions, he had just one: how will this affect the football season?
Tolland athletic director Todd Zenczak knew, healthy or not, Cady would be on the sideline this fall.
“I’m never going to tell [Cady] that he can’t coach this team,” Zenczak said. “He has to pull himself away from this place, just because it means so much to him. This is what’s keeping him going. His morale, his confidence, his energy. He’s exhausted, he’s sick, he’s fighting for his life. These kids, and this team, just keep him going.”
Cady doesn’t feel the side effects until three to five days after treatment, which means he elects to have treatment the day before games. In the midst of chemotherapy treatment, Cady was texting Zenczak, his staff and his players about an upcoming game.
“I’ll give them everything,” Cady said. “I will. That’s the job, that’s the job we accept. If you’re not willing to do that, maybe that’s not the gig.”
Cady, who worked in the IT department at Travelers before his diagnosis, called coaching the “finest experience” of his life. While he found professional success, nothing equaled the joy and fulfillment he got while coaching football, from the youth level on up to high school. He began coaching in 1983 after high school. He coached Tolland’s A-team (ages 13-14) as a defensive coordinator. Only 18, all he wanted to do was help out.
He speaks fondly of his Tolland coaches from the 1970s. They were Vietnam veterans who were tough, though there was never a doubt in his mind that the players were loved by their coaches. Cady has used the same approach.
“You let them know you care about them,” Cady said. “I don’t think there’s a single guy on this team who doesn’t know I care about them.”
The players know. It’s why senior captain Ryan Carlson started a GoFundMe campaign in July to help raise money for treatment. It’s raised over $13,000.
“Being a team, being a family, we’re all just going to rally together and everything is going to be OK,” Carlson said.
The support extends beyond the team and into the community with over 300 people attending a recent benefit to support Cady. Among those at the benefit were current and former players, as well as coaching staffs from other schools.“It’s just compassion,” said Brian Mazzone, coach of the competitor Stafford. “Competition sometimes makes a lot of us act like complete jerks. Sometimes we need to realize it’s a high school football game. Football isn’t about winning and losing. There’s so much more. I just wanted Scott to know how much we think of him and that there’s support.”
It’s been a townwide effort, Michelle Cady said. His best friend of 52 years drives him to doctors’ appointments and chemo treatments. David Vasquenza, who runs an AAU program in town, has become his coaching confidante. When he’s not on the field, he’s often at home with a whiteboard up, drawing up plays and conversing with his staff.
Players will drive Cady to get haircuts, or to the store. Mothers of team members have dropped off meals at the Cady household, and organized pasta parties and cookouts for the team. Tolland Cares, a volunteer group in town, has found volunteers to mow Cady’s lawn. Current and former players will sit with Cady on his back deck from time to time and talk about football.
“Because it’s on his mind so much, because the kids and the team is on his mind so much, he doesn’t really have a chance to worry about everything else,” Michelle Cady said. “It’s allowed him to focus on his greatest passion, and he doesn’t give any time to cancer. He really doesn’t worry. There’s not a thought in his mind.”
Added Cady, “I’m fine, I’m great. Apparently I’ve got cancer, or so they tell me.”
Michelle Cady has seen her husband at his worst — sick, exhausted, weak and throwing up, down nearly 70 pounds from his pre-cancer weight.
Still, she smiles.
“I don’t know how, in all honesty, how it’s humanly possible, that he is as strong as he is, based on the amount of chemo going into his body, and how sick he is,” Michelle Cady said.
He knows, though.
“I always knew I worked hard and that nobody would outwork me,” Cady said. “That’s how I figured I’d overcome my lack of intelligence.”
The sense of humor hasn’t faded. Neither has his intensity for the game. He patrols the sidelines at practice, barking at players who miss assignments during drills, cheering for those who make big plays, and grumbling about the inconveniences that come with the tasks of overseeing 40-plus high school students.
On his best days, Cady will be out on the field, doling out directions and advice. He rides around in a golf cart from the school to the field so that he can save his energy. On days when he isn’t feeling so hot, and has to make several trips to the bathroom, or can’t make it at all, Backus runs the show. Cady hired him in the offseason as an assistant head coach to handle his duties when he can’t.
“At first, we kind of thought, well shouldn’t he take care of himself?” senior Brady Gordon said. “But then we thought about how much we really mean to him. We are his family. For him to put us ahead of himself, it’s almost expected. It’s inspiring.”
Inspiration came at the right time for the Eagles, who have high expectations with a senior-laden team that has hovered around the .500 mark for the past three seasons. The team leaders were self-motivated with eyes on a championship.
Cady’s diagnosis fueled a fire that was already burning.
“He’s helped us with so much, so why not rally with him?” senior captain Aidan Clark said. “Showing up every day, working hard and fighting for him.”
That’s how Cady wants it. He doesn’t want this season to be about him, but rather the players who he feels deserve to shine for the work they’ve put in. In Cady’s eyes, he’s fine — it’s the people around him who need help. When he’s on the field coaching, Cady can block out everything else going on in his life.
“Once you step over this line, it’s your safe spot,” he said. “We’re all family here. Whatever we have going on in our lives, we leave it outside.”