Tuesday, June 28, 2011

HS coach leaves coaching to spend time with cancer-stricken wife

Cappelleri chooses one passion over another

Author(s):    Joe Bush
Date: May 24, 1996
Page: 3
Section: Sports Extra (High School)

This is a love story.

Phil Cappelleri met Sonja Olsen when two of his baseball team captains at DeLaSalle conned him into taking along their English teacher to the pre-season Chinese dinner to which Cappelleri traditionally treated his captains.

While the boys were away from the table, Phil and Sonja agreed to trick the tricksters by pretending to have hit it off so well they would be discussing their future together when the boys returned.

The mischievous adults even exchanged class rings to wear to school the next day.

Pretty soon, they fooled no one. The current Willowbrook coach proposed to Sonja two months later, and she accepted. That was nine years ago.

"Everything we talked about (that first night) came true," Cappelleri said.

What they didn't talk about was Sonja's near-fatal bout with diabetes and its complications four years later - the days when she would vomit up to 12 times, the 50 pounds she would lose, the 75 pills she would swallow daily, the pancreas and kidney doctors would replace with transplants, the toe they would amputate or the eyes they would assault with over 7,000 laser burns during surgeries to repair damage from the complications.

They couldn't have seen the ordeal coming, but together they have seen it through.

After a two-year break, Sonja, 39, resumed teaching, at Kennedy Junior High in Naperville, this year - at one point she taught in a wheelchair three days after the toe amputation - and will return to graduate school.

She takes just 15 pills per day now, and though the pancreatic transplant has weakened her resistance to infection, and either of the two transplants could still be rejected, life has resumed as usual.

Sonja cites a study which concluded that 80 percent of multiple transplant patients never return to their previous careers.

"I was going into (the illness) to be normal again," Sonja said. "Life is really pretty good."

Sometime in the next three weeks, Willowbrook will either lose a playoff game or win the Class AA state title. In either ending - most likely the former - the game will be the last in Cappelleri's 29-year coaching career.

He's leaving one passion for another.

"It's just time for me to spend some time with my wife," the 46-year-old Cappelleri said. "She hasn't asked for it, but she deserves it."

Naturally, most of the credit for Sonja's survival goes to her and her doctors, most of them at the University of Minnesota.

The couple will never forget their junior-high faculty friends at Kennedy, Madison - where Phil is a P.E. teacher - and Jefferson (where Phil taught for a year), who brought Sonja food when Phil was coaching and wasn't home to cook, and who donated money to help cover expenses.

Sonja's parents, Hans and Alma, of Muskegon, Mich., were by Sonja's side wherever and whenever she needed them.

But Sonja and Phil had looked each other in the eye and said "in sickness and in health," and by all accounts, Phil has been a man of his word.

"There's no one like Phil," Alma said. "We think the world of Phil."

"No matter what, he's there," Sonja said. "He's always been the exact same person. I don't know if anybody's as sure of their relationship as we are."

Of course, this is more Sonja's story than Phil's. He's a husband doing what any husband should; but he once helped Gordie Gillespie coach Lewis University to three straight national titles, and has a 412-168 record as a high school baseball coach, and that's why this tale is told in the sports section.

In addition to his jobs as a teacher and coach, Phil worked at a grocery-chain deli and at Team Sports International baseball camps in Gurnee during winter weekends.

Still, the couple had to move into a smaller house, cutting their mortgage payments in half, freeing up even more for the medical bills.

Phil is humble about all this - "She is so much tougher than I am," he said - but Sonja has begun to see her struggle for what it is.

"I used to be modest about it," Sonja said. "But after going through it, I really do feel the patients are the heroes. I'm really pretty proud of myself."

"She is one gutsy little girl," said 70-year-old Alma. "She was very independent from the time she was born. That was her favorite saying, 'I'll do it myself.' "

Imagine then how hard it was to need all the help required to regain her health. As tough as that was, leaving her job in March of 1993 was tougher.

A kidney failure caused by the July 1993 pancreatic transplant delayed her return an extra year. The couple had moved to their smaller house, which is a stone's throw from Kennedy, and day after day she had to listen to the dismissal bells.

"The hardest thing in all this was the day I left teaching," she said.

Now, Phil is leaving coaching, and it's not difficult to understand that the decision is an easy one. The two don't have grandiose plans for the extra time - "I just want normal things," Sonja said - they just want to share it.

"It's just nice to come home at 3:30 and say hello to her, or to be here when she comes home," Phil said. "From February on, it's not that way."

A trip to Norway to visit her relatives is a goal of theirs; otherwise, they'll enjoy running errands and eating dinner together. Phil recently bought a fishing boat; Sonja would like to see him use it.

The couple has included each other in all but one issue. After a malnourished Sonja came off a feeding tube at the Loyola Medical Center, she met with a cousin of Phil's with whom she has grown close.

"We sat down and talked about my funeral, because I couldn't talk about it with Phil," she said.

Fortunatley, finding organ donors wasn't a drawn-out affair; in a bizarre twist, the pancreas originally belonged to an English teacher, while a kidney was found despite the need for a rare antigen match.

Instead of two years, Sonja waited six months for the kidney; still, she insists on spreading awareness of the ease with which people can donate organs.

She's nearing the end of her first full school year since 1992; her husband is nearing the end of his last high-school season.

"(Coaching) truly was his calling," Sonja said. "It so much defines who he is."

"Of course I'll miss it," Phil said. "I would be very remorseful if I spent five more years coaching and didn't spend any time with her. I love coaching, but I love my wife more.

"I'd like to spend some time with my hero. Few people do."
© Copyright Daily Herald, Paddock Publications, Inc.


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