MADISON — On Friday night, Hand’s football team will be hosting its third-annual Pink Paw Game for cancer awareness at the Surf Club, a cause Dave Mastroianni has championed in his three seasons as Hand’s head football coach. Mastroianni is, after all, a cancer survivor himself.
But, for the second consecutive week, the two-time defending state championship coach won’t be coaching his unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Tigers.
Mastroianni recently learned he has cancer again.
It was spotted in his appendix two weeks ago during a routine checkup following surgery for its removal, which he had a day before coaching Hand in a victory over Wethersfield on Sept. 27.
Mastroianni, 40, had surgery to remove the new malignancy and sections of his colon as a precaution on Thursday and spent Friday night watching his No. 1-ranked Tigers defeat Norwalk 41-6 with family and friends, including former Hand coach Steve Filippone, at St. Raphael’s in New Haven.
“It sucks and it’s scary,” said Mastroianni, whose mother, Tyyné, died three years ago from a similar diagnosis. “I’ve been in the hospital longer than I’ve been at home the last three weeks.”
Yet, Mastroianni said he’s confident this will be nothing more than an inconvenience — albeit an exhausting one. He hasn’t needed chemotherapy treatments and, best case, believes this second bout with the disease will be over save for his recovery. “I have to go back in for another checkup, but they’re pretty confident this is it,” he said.
As for returning to coach Hand football games, Mastroianni says he’s hoping to return in at least a limited capacity within a couple of weeks. Hand faces 4-1 East Lyme on Friday and then will travel to play West Haven, a game he’s hoping to make.
“It’s mentally draining more than anything else,” Mastroianni said. “What’s really tough this time is that now I have three little one at home. My wife (Catherine) has been great. I told her I feel like she’s a single mom, because I haven’t been able to do anything.”
Mastroianni informed the Hand players at an emotional meeting before practice two weeks ago, while Hand was on a bye week.
“I told them, every now and then we tend to get caught up in things that don’t matter — winning football games, wanting to win championships and all those kinds of things,” Mastroianni said. “But you learn that, really, none of that matters when you encounter something like this.
“What really is important is family and you’re a part of that family. You have to know I’m going to be away from you guys for a little while.”
The news stunned and saddened the Hand players. But in the few weeks since, they’ve adjusted and continue to work toward winning a third-straight championship, as their coach expects.
“We were all just kind of shocked,” senior quarterback Phoenix Billings said. “The seniors were all pretty much like, wow. It really set in that we may not have him the rest of the year and, maybe, it the last time we’d be with him forever as our head coach. So we just started the soak up the moments from there, on.
“Even though these last two weeks have been weird, I think our morale and team chemistry is a lot closer. It’s terrible thing to happen, but we’re using it the right way and he’s going to be back with us soon and we’ll be fine.”
Mastroianni says he talks and texts with his players and assistant coaches regularly, all of whom continue to offer their support. He and his staff spent a few hours at St. Raphael’s to go over the East Lyme game plan on Sunday.
“Twenty three hours after the surgery on Thursday, he was watching the game texting with his coaches,” said his stepfather Tony Catapano, a Hand assistant who also coached Mastroianni at Foran of Milford. “He’s a tremendously driven person. He always has been.
“There are a lot of people that love him here and take care of him. He’s got a great staff. They all know this stuff. He’s in good hands.”
At Hand’s practice on Monday word filtered down that their coach had secured an early release from the hospital.
“I’ll tell you, the big man’s a bulldog,” said Hand assistant Mike DeVito. He has assumed titular command of the team, although all the assistants say Mastroianni still runs the show.
The news of Mastroianni’s return home brought smiles to some of the Hand players’ faces.
“We know how strong he is as a person, so we’re not too worried about it. We’ve been helping his family out as much as we can,” senior captain and lineman Ben Corniello said. “Obviously, it’s a huge loss for us, having him not here. We kind of feel it, every day we come out here.
“But it’s not that much of a loss because he set up this whole program. He’s a great person. We feel terrible for him and his family, but he’s still going to be with us. His presence is felt every day. We can’t wait to have him back.”
Correction: The cancer was found in Mastroianni’s appendix, not in the colon, as a previous version on this story indicated.