Football is a game of toughness. It’s about imposing a will. It’s about adapting to change, rising to challenges, and fighting for every yard. Of course, it’s also about talent.
It mirrors life in those ways. There are probably few who understand it like Omaha Burke head coach Paul Limongi.
He certainly understands what it means to fight in the football sense. Seven years ago, he led Burke to the state finals. His team was laden with talent. A one-two punch of thunder and lightning in the backfield with Carson Collins and Jordan Nelson torched opponents behind and offensive line featuring two 300-pounders in Hunter Greer and James Andersen. Through nine regular season games and three rounds of playoffs, the 2011 Bulldogs were unbeaten.
But something happened in Memorial Stadium in Lincoln when Burke faced Lincoln Southeast for the title.
“It was just the size of the stadium and the field,” Limongi said. “It took awhile just to get your eyes back to where they need to be, even as a coach.”
Burke hadn’t been to the championship game since 1980, their only other finals appearance. Lincoln Southeast was playing in its 12th. Burke did not win their first-ever state championship in football that night. Instead, Southeast claimed their ninth.
Limongi took it all in, hoping to use the experience to get back; to bring Burke the football hardware it inexplicably didn’t have. But getting back wasn’t easy, nor did it come quickly.
Sure, the Bulldogs made the playoffs plenty. But they were often not expect to contend for the title. And in 2015, they missed altogether, finishing 3-6.
It was a building year. Limongi played plenty of freshmen on varsity, laying groundwork for the coming years. There was talent there. It just needed to blossom.
And blossom it did. Nick Henrich and Chris Hickman became household names in recruiting circles around the country. Tyler Chadwick’s sophomore promise turned into real production. And James Burks, known more for his dominance on the wrestling mat, became a fearsome runner. Throw in receiver Xavier Watts, another highly-touted prospect, and Dylan Sales on the line and Burke started to look like, not just a contender, but a favorite.
In 2017, Burke began the season as just that. A preseason #1 ranking and an 8-1 regular season put them into the playoffs with a real hope for delivering that first title. But Omaha North had other ideas. Burke fell in the semifinals 29-28 to the Vikings, spurring a new mantra for 2018: unfinished business.
With all that talent, it certainly looked like business would be finished. But in mid March, there was a different business to attend to.
Paul Limongi had cancer. Doctor’s visits and PET scans confirmed a tumor on his tonsil. It was beatable, but cancer nonetheless.
“It was never a dreary outlook,” Limongi said. “It was always like, you could beat this.”
Limongi underwent radiation treatments, beginning right away, through the summer. While his team was lifting and conditioning, he was stuck at home, on the couch. Food lost its taste. Swallowing water became difficult. The fight was truly on.
“Early on, I just wanted to make sure I’m healthy and I get to live,” Limongi said.
As the summer passed, he involved himself more in the workouts, spending one then two hours with the team. He’d end up back at home, needing a soak in the hot tub to soothe the aching muscles in his legs. But he was feeling better.
August came in 2018 much the same as it did the year before, with Burke atop the preseason rankings. Limongi was well enough to coach and his Bulldogs were living up to expectations. But another blow was coming.
“The second week of the season, they found something else in my lung,” Limongi said. “They weren’t sure what it was.”
A biopsy of the abnormality was inconclusive. Doctors weren’t sure if the spot that showed up on the latest PET scan was new, old, or inflammation due to the radiation treatments on his tonsil. They also weren’t sure that Limongi’s cancer was contained.
“The first one, I was pretty confident I was going to beat it,” Limongi said. “ But when they come back with not knowing whether it’s spread or not, that scared me more than the first diagnosis.”
With turmoil swirling around his health, Limongi’s team kept winning, and doing so in style. No opponent came within 17 points on the final scoreboard. They remained atop the rankings, clearly deserving the accolades.
Finally, a later scan provided good news. The spot on a lymph node in his lung had reduced in size. It was very likely not cancerous. In late August, Limongi was declared cancer-free.
Coach is cancer free!!!! #GoHeavy pic.twitter.com/7yy3s5mzUK
— OmahaBurkeFootball (@BurkeFootball) August 30, 2018
But his outlook on life and football had changed.
“It might have relaxed me a little bit, in terms of the football part, that there are bigger things out there,” Limongi said.
There are bigger things left on the field for Burke, too. The Bulldogs have made their third state final. They’re once again undefeated. Grand Island high school and Memorial Stadium await. The grandeur of the stadium and the atmosphere won’t be a surprise this time. A first state title in football is on the line. But these things are still smaller than fighting for your life against a disease that has claimed so many. Limongi never doubted. “I really thought, no matter what the deal is with my cancer, I’m going to beat it,” Limongi said. “If it comes back, I’m going to beat it. If I go down, I’m going down fighting.”
In his words, it’s clear that football mirrors life.