Take a close look at Mike Thuma on the sidelines at a Montini boys lacrosse game or practice. He's the one with the calm, easygoing demeanor, always exhorting his players to find a way to win, or short of that, improve.
But this isn't the same Mike Thuma from the start of the season back in early March, his first as Montini coach. Sure, he's always been quick with a smile (or a frown when the moment warrants on the playing field), but there is something missing.
His left leg, which was amputated below the knee April 26 due to his ongoing fight against synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. It was the day before his team was to take on St. Laurence.
That following Monday, though, Thuma was back at Montini, on crutches, the lower half of his left pant leg folded and clipped to the upper half, as his charges took the field against St. Francis.
It was a tough night in a long season, as the Broncos (1-13, 1-5 Chicago Catholic League) got down early and ended up losing 22-0. But forget that final score for a moment. It was what it meant to have him back that mattered to his players, like senior long-stick midfielder Matt Pierson.
Pierson hurt his knee early in the game and spent the rest of the contest in a pseudo-coaching role, so he got a firsthand look at his coach, perhaps seeing him in a new light.
"This is so motivating, what he's going through and how this has impacted his life; it's like it's not even affecting him," Pierson said. "The lesson is just to keep looking forward to the next day and it's going to work out."
Dealing with cancer
Thuma first was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma in 2012. It was a lump in his foot that he thought was just a cyst, the result of plantar fasciitis.
A biopsy told another story.
"It's a soft-tissue cancer, and it's one of these rare ones they don't know a lot about," the 53-year-old Thuma said. "It's one of those very odd cancers that starts in the foot and picks up in other places and moves quickly."
After the cyst's removal intravenous chemotherapy followed, before returning about 18 months later. After radiation there was another remission, until last November, when the cancer returned again, and this time, it had metastasized to his right lung, which prompted more oral chemotherapy.
"We went into the orthopedic surgeon six weeks ago, and he acknowledged it was growing and the best thing we could do is schedule time to take the leg out, and then address the lung," said Thuma, who lives in LaGrange and is the director of product development at Suncast Corporation in Batavia. He's also the director of Western Springs Lacrosse.
Montini assistant coach Ted Fleckles recalls finding out about the impending amputation.
"The thing about Mike is he's such a positive and strong-minded guy, he doesn't break things like it's big news," Fleckles said. "He casually drops it into the conversation … 'The doctors said next week they are going to take the leg off.'"
But Thuma wasn't really off the clock, Fleckles said.
"He got out of surgery and he texted us coaches and asked if we needed a camera to film the game," he said. "It's always moving forward. He doesn't dwell on it and he doesn't want us to dwell on it, either.
"It's amazing that level of spirit."
'Just a different normal'
Ask Thuma about his positive attitude in the face of real adversity, including forthcoming lung surgery, and he's pretty frank.
"I knew I couldn't sit around and hope to get better," he said. "I need to keep moving. Sitting around isn't an option for me. It's something to deal with, deal with it and move on. I need to show my family and kids, this isn't something to worry about. It's a new normal, just a different normal."
To say his players, including Pierson and sophomore faceoff specialist Nathan Sniegowski, have been inspired is perhaps a gross understatement.
"He's missing a foot and if he's coming out to see us, we can set the bar higher," Sniegowski said. "I have to play for him and I have a new mindset of, it's bigger to play for coach rather than yourself. All he wants is his boys to succeed."
Added Pierson: "Before every game, we always talk, remember who you're playing for -- the name on your jersey and Coach. If a guy doesn't show up to practice, we just remind him that Coach is making an effort to come out, it's the least you can do."