As his team prepared for the upcoming season during a practice in early September, Belmont football head coach Yann Kumin couldn’t help but relish in what most might take for granted.
Kumin – with “Marauders Family” on the back of his shirt – clapped and smiled as he watched players and coaches work hard in positional drills. When the first-team defense huddled up to take on the scout offense, Kumin pumped them up. Friendly barbs were barked. Coverages were honed. Smiles were exchanged.
These are the simple luxuries of coaching Kumin loves, and when he was diagnosed with cancer back in late June, they were almost taken away. But there he stood on the practice field, five weeks into an intense radiation program, post-surgery, with a “stick it to cancer” attitude and cherishing what he didn’t lose.
“It was my second greatest fear, outside of the darkness, not being able to (coach),” he said. “I love coaching, I love being here. This is my happy place, this is my church, this is my Zen. All the stressors of life and my own personal issues go out the way. I get to do this and call it work. So, I was really scared I wasn’t going to be able to do it.”
In April, what started as a growing lymph node on the left side of his neck turned into the possibility of a cyst. Inconclusive tests turned that into a probability of cancer. Surgery at Massachusetts Eye and Ear was necessary to remove the node, and a diagnosis of Stage 1 squamous cell carcinoma was made from there. He had no idea what it would be like going under the knife, so he was extremely nervous.
The long scar curling down Kumin’s neck, from the tip of his jaw line to his Adam’s apple, tells the story of the 64 lymph nodes and the tonsils his surgeon had to remove to get all the cancer out. No chemotherapy meant he could coach, but six weeks of radiation – five days a week – makes it tough. Every single week has taken a toll on a man that has made a habit of staying busy.
What the scar doesn’t tell, however, is the story of just how much the support around him has meant even after discovering he wouldn’t die. It doesn’t tell how grateful he is, nor does it tell just how much his perspective has changed.
“I’m so amazed by the strength of people who are going through treatment that completely debilitated them, more so than my treatment is debilitating me,” Kumin said before coming to tears. “I’m continuously reminded of how lucky I am. … I just like getting up in the morning at this point. I like getting to come here, hang out with these guys, coach this game. Somebody was smiling on me to give me a chance to do that.”
After wiping his eyes, Kumin says that if there’s any lesson he wants to teach through this, it’s that not everything can be controlled. What can be, though, is one’s attitude.
To an outsider, the scar is probably the only indicator of what Kumin is going through. The constant exhaustion, temporary loss of taste, and pain with swallowing and speaking are all shadowed by the positivity he comes to through the love around him. He tries to spread that as best as he can in such dire circumstances.
Some of his captains, who were taken aback upon the news the coach had cancer, have noticed the message. And it certainly inspires them.
“Before, we took everything for granted,” said Ryan “Tuna” Santoro. “If he’s fighting to be here, the least we can do is fight with everything we have on every play. Sometimes things are out of your control, but what is in our control is our effort.”
“It really puts life into perspective, we’re all family here,” added Zach Hubbard. “He puts in so much work, sometimes more than he’s capable of. He’s never missed a practice yet. The guys on the field should want to put their most into everything.”
That kind of connection with his players is what Kumin lives for. Getting to be around it every day is also the kind of thing he won’t take for granted ever again