Any time his New Hampshire football team plays UAlbany holds special significance for Saratoga Springs native Sean McDonnell.
“I get an awful lot of phone calls the week before,” McDonnell said in a recent phone interview, “and an awful lot of ticket requests when we’re coming down to play Albany.”
But when the two teams tangle next Friday in Durham, New Hampshire, it’s a game that’ll mean as much — if not more — than any he’s coached in his previous 20 seasons leading the Wildcats’ program.
Every CAA team has been waiting a while to get back on the field, with the novel coronavirus pandemic forcing the postponement of the fall season into an abbreviated spring campaign, but the wait’s been even longer for McDonnell. The two-time winner of the Eddie Robinson Award as the FCS coach of the year hasn’t led his team onto the field since Nov. 17, 2018 against Rhode Island, and hasn’t stepped onto home turf for a game at Wildcat Stadium since the week before that — when UNH posted a 24-10 win over UAlbany.
Nine months after that game, in early August 2019, just before getting his 21st season as head coach underway, McDonnell’s life was thrown for a loop when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer.
As he was sitting in his doctor’s office, McDonnell started to come to grips with what that meant.
“The first thought that came to mind: ‘How much am I going to miss?’” McDonnell said. “The doctor looked at me, he says, ‘You’re going to miss a lot.’ I asked, ‘What’s a lot to you?’ and he said, ‘The season’s in doubt.’”
Soon after, the 64-year-old McDonnell — a graduate of St. Peter’s Academy, which is now called Saratoga Central Catholic — made the decision to take a medical leave of absence for the 2019 season, with UNH offensive coordinator Ricky Santos serving as the interim head coach.
While he was undergoing surgeries and other medical treatments for his cancer, McDonnell maintained contact with the program that he’d forged into a consistent FCS contender. Under his guidance, the Wildcats reached the national playoffs for 14 straight seasons from 2004 to 2017, but he tried to maintain as much of a “hands off” approach as possible in order to give Santos and the remaining staff a chance to lead the way.
“I thought it was really important not to have any mixed messages to the kids,” McDonnell said. “I thought it was very important that the staff got the opportunity to coach and do it the way they wanted to do it.”
New Hampshire went 6-5 in 2019 — “A couple heres and theres, we could’ve been 7-4. A couple heres and theres, we could’ve been 8-3 and back in the playoffs,” McDonnell said — as the veteran coach went through a fall unlike any he’d experienced in his adult life.
“It was good to watch from afar, in a lot of ways,” he said, “to see something that you’ve built where you know that if you’ve taught people the right way, they can take care of it. It was tough in a lot of other ways, because you’re sitting there watching something that you’ve done for over 40 years, and it’s the first time in a fall in that period that I wasn’t doing anything. It was unique. It was an eye-opening experience.”
McDonnell thought it would only be one fall without football.
After months of treatment — McDonnell expressed gratitude to doctors at both Mass General in Boston and Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in New Hampshire for seeing him through his course — last March 1, he got medical clearance to return to his duties full-time, and was gearing up to lead the Wildcats into spring practice in preparation for the eventual 2020 season.
“Then,” McDonnell said, “we got shut down.”
The pandemic put a halt to any plans for the spring, and that was just the beginning.
In June, McDonnell said, there was a “light at the end of the tunnel” as it seemed that there would be a chance to play in the fall, but that evaporated by July as the Ivy League and Patriot League opted out of fall sports, and most of FCS football soon followed.
However, he said, UNH made it through the entirety of its fall semester from late August through Thanksgiving without having to force its students to work remotely, allowing the Wildcats to make up for the lost spring.
“We got back to doing football,” he said. “That little sabbatical that I had, and then we missed last spring, it just flipped the seasons on us. Now, it’s crazy that on March 5 we’re teeing it off with Albany in our home opener.”
Even with the odd time of year for an opener, McDonnell said, “it feels like game week.”
And what will be running through his head when he steps onto the field for his first game in nearly 28 months?
More than anything else, a sense of thankfulness at the end of a long fight.
“You’re going to be able to go out there and be with the people that you love the most,” he said, “your players and your coaches.
“And you’re out there doing what you love the most.”