If you’ve ever taken the time to watch Lakeview football coach Jerry Diorio on the sidelines, you know he puts his heart into everything he does.
In previous seasons, you could see him running up and down the sidelines, shouting instructions to players and other kinds of opinions to referees – it all gets his blood flowing.
So when his heart started skipping a beat, and it wasn’t just because of an incredible touchdown, there were fears that Diorio might never find himself on the sidelines again.
And it was scary.
“It was the most terrifying thing I have ever faced,” Diorio said.
Maybe stepping away from football was scary, yes. But what Diorio described were his feelings on the day he was due to undergo open-heart surgery last January.
Now, almost nine months later, he can almost laugh it off as he is back as Spartans head coach with the opening day of the 2022 season behind him last week. But there was a much different feeling at the end of last year.
“It was pretty scary…there were signs it was happening. He had issues, but we missed a few,” said Kathy, Diorio’s wife.
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In the days leading up to the Michigan-Ohio State football game last fall, Diorio had difficulty sleeping and breathing while lying down. During those sleepless nights, it was reasonable to assume he had COVID-related health issues, but he had tested negative twice. On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, he asked his son to take him to the hospital.
Diorio thought it was something like pneumonia, but the former University of Michigan football player wanted to know for sure as he was planning on going to “The Game” the next day.
Those plans changed within hours, and so did his life.
“They came back and said I had congestive heart failure and my pump function was very weak,” Diorio said. “In December they did more tests and on January 24 they did open heart surgery and fixed my aortic valve.”
His wife wonders what would have happened if he hadn’t gone to see if he had pneumonia.
“Just think, if I had gone to the Michigan-Ohio State game and how those games went,” Kathy said. “He was actually in the hospital room with the game on TV. The nurses had to turn it off.”
As his life revolves around football, Diorio also remembers what’s next.
“The day before the surgery was playoff weekend…the Kansas City Chiefs played in this crazy playoff game….But the next morning it was terrifying. It was pretty scary to get to operate,” he said.
Almost as soon as he was in the recovery room, after surgery at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, the thought came to mind. Would he coach again?
“I was saying more football. My girls were saying more football,” Kathy said. “He was like, let’s wait and see how it goes.
“The only thing I’m saying is he’s a great patient. He listens to his doctors and he realizes he has a lot to live for. So he was going to listen to his doctors and do what he had to do. to get better. .”
It meant taking his time before deciding whether he would return to football.
A milestone happened quickly. By January 31, he had taken 10,000 steps and was ready to walk a few miles, 4-5 times a week. In March, he was walking 4-5 miles a day in hot weather in Naples, Florida.
And he started thinking about coaching the Lakeview Spartans again in the 2022 season.
“My family was pushing me not to come back, and I appreciate their feelings. But I thought, what am I going to do?” said Diorio. “I had a friend who went through this and the doctor told him the #1 thing with heart disease is stress. He said there are two stresses. There’s stress in the training and there is stress in not training. It was very revealing tome.
“I thought you wanted to do the things that you feel good about, that you enjoy doing. I thought the stress of not coaching football would be more than coaching. And the doctors told me that. said. You’re a coach. You like to coach. You should do this. Just be smart about it.”
And his wife could see that logic, even if his kids weren’t quite on board yet.
“My girls still didn’t want him back,” Kathy said. “But he was going to come back and teach anyway. He was allowed to teach. So if he was to be back in this school, around all the players and the team, and not coaching, it would be more stressful than to do this.”
So they all came up with a plan.
Diorio would delegate more to his assistant coaches, which he has. He would also have a cart that would help him get to the training ground and allow him to rest during practices and get up. Diorio also spent the first game of the season in the press box last Thursday in a road contest against Harper Creek, instead of being on the sidelines, to limit his walk and, perhaps, the intensity of the action.
Kathy also has other ideas.
“I would love to be able to put a tether on him to hold him down,” she said, half-jokingly. “And maybe have a button I could press to tell him to stop when he gets too excited. But, he’s who he is, and he’s going to train. He just has to take the doctor’s advice. .”
And also follow some of his own advice. Diorio said he plans to yell less at games – although he doesn’t describe it as yelling.
“It was scary to hear what the coach was going through,” said Lakeview senior player Andrew Berryhill. “He’s been a great mentor to me for the past five years, since I was in college, so I was worried about him. But I was convinced he was coming back. It’s just him. He won’t leave anything stop him.
“He just said he was going to be more careful. Maybe not yell as much or as loud as he used to… Wait, I don’t mean yell, he’s not yelling. I mean , he won’t express his voice as loudly as he has in the past. He still expresses his voice, as he calls it, but he does it less and that is exactly what he must do to stay healthy.
Being allowed to shout to the line of scrimmage, so you can be heard, or to let the referee know something may or may not happen, is part of being a football coach. But Diorio took it down a notch.
“I tell everyone, I never shouted,” he said, slightly ironically. “I project my voice, so I project my voice a lot less. And I’ll try to project my voice a little less towards the referees this year, but maybe that’s the hardest part,” Diorio said.
Following these kinds of doctor’s orders is key, along with a different diet and some exercise. He is undergoing routine checkups and having his heart monitored. They note spikes in his heart rate, but also note that these spikes aren’t as sustained and aren’t dangerous.
And he’s happy to take all those precautions to allow him to do what he loves to do and be there longer for those he loves to spend time with.
“It’s me. I’m a coach and that’s where I have to be – coaching football,” Diorio said. “So I’m going to do whatever it takes so that I can coach football and so that I can be here for the team and my family. I have three beautiful granddaughters, beautiful daughters, a beautiful son, a beautiful woman. And I want to continue enjoying it all.”
Bill Broderick can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @billbroderick.