Philadelphia, PA – At this point in the summer, just about every conference has had or is completing its media day and preseason festivities.
The players have finished summer workouts, coaches have hibernated and caught up on months of lost sleep, and fans have a few more weeks to have spirited conversations with co-workers and rivals.
But for one conference, one team and hundreds of other members of a specific college football community, the start of the preseason will take a back seat to an event being held Thursday night, a "Welcome Home Paul Gorham" tribute fund-raiser for his medical hardship.
About seven months ago, Sacred Heart head football coach Paul Gorham's life completely changed in a matter of weeks. Just after the winter holidays in early January, Gorham was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease, which as of now, has no know cure or cause. Gorham had to spend time in Ohio at the Cleveland Clinic after difficulties with his breathing.
Shortly after, Gorham was in need of a double-lung transplant and finally found a donor in early March. After the operation, the 51-year-old found out that both of his legs would need to be amputated below his knees because the lower half of his body had been seriously impacted by his condition.
After facing every obstacle and problem along the way, Gorham finally made it back home last month, thanks to coaching colleagues from Brown University, and numerous others along the way.
Many coaches spoke on Gorham's behalf Thursday during the NEC preseason teleconference. Although the conference was announcing preseason teams, polls and other offseason news, few things seemed as important as the respect everyone in the conference had for Gorham.
"I don't know if admiration is the right word to use, but the way he has held up, kept his family together and responded to adversity, I think he's a model for all of us," Bryant coach Marty Fine said. "I think we all at times have a tendency to complain about the hand were dealt. Things happen in life but I've never had to go through something like that. I hope when my time comes to handle adversity, it can be just a portion of what he has been able to do ... how he's handled that is nothing short of spectacular."
Gorham's widespread support has come from all over - family, friends, coaches and hundreds more from the football community. The amount of people who have come to his side is no surprise to longtime Albany coach Bob Ford.
"Paul was a big strapping guy, he obviously played college football at a high level, was in pretty good condition and all of a sudden to have him go through this, I think it's a statement of how many friends Paul has had along the way," Ford said. "They've really rallied around him."
Mark Nofri, who enters his 18th season at Sacred Heart, has taken over as the acting head coach. He explained this offseason was an important learning experience for everyone involved in the program.
"Coach Gorham wasn't just my boss, him and I have become pretty good friends over the past nine years and we talked about his situation with the kids through winter workouts and spring practice," Nofri said. "How you need to overcome adversity, and nothing is given to you, everything you get, you fight and work for."
Nofri said most of the people, including himself, who kept in touch with Gorham were amazed by the type of attitude and outlook he shared after going through so much in such a short amount of time. He had spent nearly 25 years coaching and since his diagnosis hadn't been able to be around the program until last week.
"Last Tuesday and last Thursday he wanted to come in see the place (the office) and he hasn't been on campus since December," Nofri said. "I went and picked him up and brought him in for about four or five hours each day. He got a chance to see a lot of colleagues, coaches and players who were up for the summer, they came in and visited with him. He said coming in and seeing everybody was just as good as the day he came home."
Although many of the NEC's current coaches won't be able to attend the fund-raiser because of conflicts with preseason practice schedules, Nofri and Sacred Heart officials expect around 250 people to attend, donate and bid on items up for auction. All of the proceeds will benefit the Gorham family and their medical bills.
"For what he went through and to see where he is today, it is unbelievable," Nofri said. "It's a miracle, after talking to him one-on-one about some of the stuff going on, and then to see him get home from Cleveland on a Wednesday, then I pick him up the following Tuesday to bring him into the office."
The recovery process will certainly be a long one, but Gorham has already been fitted with temporary prosthetics.
It begs the question, will he ever be able to walk again? Or will he ever coach again?
Nofri responded without hesitation,
"Of course," he said. "He will do whatever he has to do to get around football again because that's his goal. He wants to be around this program and coach again."
For more information on the Sacred Heart coach's plight, visit paulgorham.org.
Albany was picked as the preseason favorite by the conference's coaches on Thursday. The Great Danes received the NEC's second automatic playoff bid last season but fell to Stony Brook in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
Duquesne, which has been an NEC member for five years, shared the 2011 league title with Albany, and was picked to finish second in this year's poll. The Dukes' only conference blemish last season came in a 28-point loss at Albany, costing them the automatic bid.
Reigning NEC Offensive Player of the Year and third-team All-America running back Jordan Brown leads Bryant into its inaugural season of NCAA Division I postseason eligibility. As a junior in 2011, Brown led all FCS players in carries (329) and rushing (165 yards per game), but was not recognized as a national statistical leader because Bryant was in its last year of transition to Division I.
2012 Northeast Conference Preseason Coaches Poll
1. Albany (6 first-place votes)
2. Duquesne (1)
3. Bryant (2)
4. Central Connecticut State
6. Robert Morris
8. Sacred Heart
9. St. Francis (Pa.)
2012 Northeast Conference Preseason All-Conference Team
QB - Sean Patterson, Duquesne, Sr.
RB - Jordan Brown, Bryant, Sr.
RB - Larry McCoy, Duquesne, Sr.
WR - Jordan Harris, Bryant, Jr.
WR - Ryan Kirchner, Albany, Sr.
TE - Tyler George, Monmouth, Sr.
OL - Steve Ciocci, Wagner, Sr.
OL - Justin Martel, Sacred Heart, Sr.
OL - Mike Murphy, Monmouth, Sr.
OL - Chris Willadsen, Bryant, Sr.
OL - Kadeem Williams, Albany, Jr.
DL - Tyler Foehr, Sacred Heart, Sr.
DL - Jordan Kelly, Bryant, Sr.
DL - Eric Macik, Monmouth, So.
DL - Nolan Nearhoof, Robert Morris, Sr.
LB - Lorenzo Baker, Central Connecticut, Sr.
LB - Kyle Jordan, Albany, So.
LB - Jon Morgan, Albany, Sr.
DB - Serge Kona, Duquesne, Jr.
DB - Cameron Chadwick, Robert Morris, Sr.
DB - Leon Saddler, Albany, Sr.
DB - Jeremy Woodson, Bryant, Jr.
PK - Chris Rogers, Sacred Heart, So.
P - Paul Layton, Albany, Jr.
RS - Jordan Brown, Bryant, Sr.