Small College Sports

Cornell's Don Dicus experiences new normal in return from cancer

Rams assistant football coach is back after missing last season

Don Dicus, assistant football coach at Cornell College, is photographed on at Ash Park Field in Mount Vernon on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. Dicus has returned to his job as a coach after surviving cancer. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Don Dicus, assistant football coach at Cornell College, is photographed on at Ash Park Field in Mount Vernon on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. Dicus has returned to his job as a coach after surviving cancer. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

MOUNT VERNON — Don Dicus sat calm and relaxed in the Cornell College Athletics offices.

Occasionally, there was a hint of a cracked voice or visible evidence of emotion, but it occurred in small specks throughout almost a 30-minute conversation. The discussion has become easier, although there are minor details that are still tough to convey.

Who can blame him? As the 10-year Rams football assistant coach says by quoting one of his doctors, he’s been through the ringer and came out the other side during a battle brain cancer.

“I used to cry at the drop of a hat,” Dicus said when discussing his journey. “I used to blame it on them giving me steroids, but they stopped doing that a long time ago. The more conversation about it, the easier it becomes.”

Dicus returned to the Cornell staff this season after missing all last year while being treated for CNS Lymphoma. The 54-yard-old assistant head coach and wide receivers coach received a positive update at his latest 12-week checkup, leading up to the Rams’ Homecoming game against Illinois College on Saturday at Ash Park.

“The most recent one, nothing new showed,” Dicus said. “They are very hesitant to use terms like remission, cured and things like that. The longer I am able to go without something new showing, and as long as I feel OK, then that’s a good sign.”

Dicus began dealing with minor symptoms last summer. He suffered pressure in his head and had issues with his balance. Dicus was quick to attribute things to other causes, like stress, blood pressure, weight gain and even vertigo. Cancer wasn’t something that seemed logical.

Dicus visited the doctor and was scheduled for a magnetic resonance imaging test when a reflex test didn’t seem right. About a week later, he had to be physically assisted to the MRI appointment by his wife, Tonya, and daughter, Taylor. He was taken to UIHC the same day.

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“There were some little things that happened leading up,” Dicus said. “When it did happened, it happened very quickly.”

Medical personnel discovered two to three lesions on his brain that were preventing fluid to pass through ventricles in his brain. He had to have tubes inserted into his skull to drain the fluid, which immediately relieved the pressure.

His hair doesn’t hide the small indentations toward the front of his head tucked right behind his hairline. An unnecessary reminder of what he experienced.

“These are my horns,” Dicus said with a laugh. “These are my burr holes.”

Dicus didn’t even have a chance to inform the team or Cornell Coach and friend Vince Brautigam. Tonya had to break the news to his colleagues. Dicus said Brautigam is one of a half-dozen people who saw him at his worst.

“There was a point there I knew he was a fighter but I didn’t know if he was going to walk back in the door,” Brautigam said. “All of our coaches and families are close and tight.

“There’s more to life than just football. Football is a great thing. Football is a great teaching tool, but to have to go through some trials and tribulations that you do as a bigger group, hopefully, will teach these kids later on in life that you can beat this. Don’t give up. Work hard and finish and good things will happen for you.”

He spent 16 weeks from the summer to fall of last year, receiving chemotherapy for treatment. It culminated with a bone-marrow transplant in November. Dicus didn’t have to rely on finding a donor, using his own since cancer hadn’t spread to his bones or lymph nodes.

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“Preparing for a game or an opponent is one thing, but at the end of the day, it’s the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” Dicus said. “It’s the toughest thing I ever did as an athlete or a coach, being around the game for 40 years.”

Football wasn’t a priority during his recovery. He would look up some information on the season or touch base with people, but his attention was on his treatment.

“I wanted to live,” Dicus said. “I wasn’t worried about coaching. I just wanted to live. There’s too many things to live for and that was my primary focus.

“I missed the people and relationships. You can watch football on TV, but it’s the people in this (athletics) building, the people I work with and working with the kids.”

Dicus resembled a stroke patient because the tumor pressed against the part of the brain that controlled the left side of his body. He used a cane but didn’t need it by the time he return in a part-time role in February.

“Taylor used to physically lift my hand up and make sure I wasn’t dragging my leg when I was walking and stuff like that,” Dicus said about his daughter, who now works in physical therapy. “Slowly, after going through and doing those things, it starts to come back.”

The Cornell community showed strong support through fundraisers and cancer awareness events. Even Midwest Conference foe Monmouth (Ill.) joined the effort, presenting a check to the Dicus family after their game at Ash Park a year ago.

At the forefront of his network is his family of Tonya, Taylor and younger daughter, Delaney. Their support was vital in his recovery.

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“They are at the top,” he said. “That was one of the things that got me through this.”

Dicus drew more motivation to beat the disease when he was approached by former player and Taylor’s boyfriend, Brit Connor. He asked for Dicus’ permission to propose to his older daughter. Dicus was determined to be at the ceremony on New Year’s Eve of this year.

“Her fiancé asked me if he could marry her when I was lying in a hospital bed,” Dicus said. “He was a kid I recruited and they went to school here together.

“It’s pretty special that I walk down the aisle with her. That is a big deal.”

What classifies as a big deal has changed for the former Cornell football player from 1981-85. The impact of seeing so many patients at UIHC made it clear how many people are waging personal wars every day.

“Your perspective changes,” Dicus said. “It’s different when death becomes a reality. It’s a kick in the stomach.

“Football still is important. It’s what I do. There are a heck of a lot of other things going on out there, too. Everybody has something going on.”

Fatigue hasn’t been a major factor. He eased back into the fold when he returned to a full-time schedule in the spring. Dicus was able to handle the 12-to-15 hour days of preseason camp. Players have handled his return as well as possible.

“I think sometimes they might be a little guarded because they don’t know how to respond,” said Dicus, who will make an occasional joke about his condition. “I think they’re fine now, because we’re doing normal stuff.”

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Dicus refers it to his “new normal.” He has brought a new approach to campus, sharing it with anyone interested through a list of 15 “Things to Remember.” They include lessons like, “Attitude does matter,” “Every sunrise is special,” “Grinders battle every day,” “You must take the good with the bad” and “Wake up and win the damn day.”

They are stark reminders of what really matters.

“Don has shown perseverance,” Brautigam said. “The older kids know what he went through last year. I actually knew and got to see it, but if there is anyone who could find a way and finish all you have to do is look at him.

“We’ve talked many, many times that every day you get up it’s a great day because of the opportunity to live,” Brautigam said. “He was faced with that door closing or opening and every day when he’s coming into the office, for me, it makes me think ‘Today is going to be a good day.’”

l Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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