Jeff Jacobs: Rich Boshea, the rock of West Haven, still coaching football as he battles cancer

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Rich Boshea went to the dentist in February. He had a cut on his tongue that wasn’t healing.

“He looked at it,” Boshea said, “And he said, ‘I don’t think that’s a cut.’ He is a very good dentist.”

The West Haven football coach was sent to have a biopsy.

Boshea played the line for coach Tom Hunt at West Haven in the late '70s. He went on to play college football at Widener, was a member of the 1981 national Division III champions and returned to his high school alma mater in 1985 to coach for the legendary Ed McCarthy. First as a freshman coach. Then as an offensive line coach. He was named CHSCA assistant coach of the year in 2002.

Rich Boshea is a West Haven lifer.

“Absolutely,” he said.

Boshea grew up on the hill one block from the high school. His 87-year-old mom, Betty, still lives in the house. Every autumn when he was a kid, Rich would hear the band playing on Saturday mornings of home games.

It was a siren’s call for a boy who loved football and who, truth be told, had a secret place where he could sneak in through the fence.

“Right over there at the end zone,” Boshea said, pointing toward the Long Island Sound side of Ken Strong Stadium. “That’s where I was standing when we beat Lee 9-0 and won the (mythical) state title in 1972 (as the Register's No. 1 team in the final poll).”

And now, 50 years later, Boshea had the results of his biopsy.

“I had a tumor in my tongue that was breaking in two,” he said. “So at the end of March I had half my tongue removed and rebuilt back from my forearm.”

He rolls up the sleeve on his left arm to show a patch of new skin near his wrist. That’s where his new tongue came from. He shows me a rectangle of healed skin on his upper left thigh. That’s where the skin for his wrist came from.

The surgery at Smilow Cancer Center lasted 14 hours.

“One doctor to remove,” said Boshea, 62. “One doctor to replace. They’d take out part of the tongue and check it for margins to make sure they’d get past the area that’s cancerous. They said, 'We kept finding more cancer, so we had to cut your tongue more and more.' ”

Everything was going as well as possible in the following months. He did his radiation. Ed McCarthy and his wife would check in regularly. They still do. He couldn’t have solid foods, but for a time he could have liquids. Ed and Marilyn would bring him chocolate milkshakes.

Boshea went to the Yale football camp. Didn’t miss a day. He went to the New Haven football camp. He didn’t miss a night. After the last night at UNH in early August, he developed trouble breathing and swallowing.

He went to the Yale New Haven emergency room. He was injected with steroids. Non-invasive surgery would show a tumor on his esophagus and one on his trachea.

Boshea still can’t swallow. He has used a feeding tube in his side for months. Now, it’s for everything: water, food, everything.

The tumors were too large for immediate surgery. The plan is to shrink them through eight chemo treatments. As of Friday, with Boshea on the sidelines for the 54-0 victory over Hillhouse, he has completed half of his treatments.

Those four days of chemo are the only ones he has missed from the team since the start of the season.

“I am really tired afterward,” he said, “but no ill effects. No nausea, no throwing up, no pain. I go home at 3 (p.m.) and wake up at 6 in the morning.”

Turns out Boshea has lost his taste for everything except the game.

“The man is a rock,” Boshea’s assistant Tom Unger said. “He has battled through everything.”

To be sure, his assistants have stepped up.

“Tom Unger is in the school (as a math teacher) and has kind of taken over for me,” Boshea said.  “We have guys who already have been head coaches.”

Ultra-prepared Mark Manes calls the plays, although Boshea reserves the right to make the occasional change. Tim Nixon has been around for a long time and remains a steady presence.

Mike DeVito, once head coach at Amity, went through something similar at Daniel Hand in Madison when Dave Mastroianni had his battle with cancer. Unger was once the head coach at Guilford.

Boshea does have a former player with him on the sidelines if he needs something yelled out to the players. He cannot raise his voice.

“And the officials are very happy about that,” Boshea said. “Seriously, the officials sent me something very nice, wishing me to get better. I almost feel bad for all the years of anguish we caused. Usually, I was telling McCarthy he had to shut up. It wasn’t me as much.”

If they weren’t real people, McCarthy and Boshea would be characters out of a novel. They are Westies. They are beauties. McCarthy — who won seven state titles at St. Joe’s and West Haven and was the state’s all-time wins leader until passed by New Canaan’s Lou Marinelli — owned a bar in West Haven called The Dugout. After he retired as a West Haven cop, Boshea owned a place on State Street in New Haven called Diesel Lounge. They are both Red Sox fanatics.

Boshea, who took over for McCarthy in 2015, got so flippin’ mad about A-Rod slapping the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove during the 2004 ALCS, he admits he may be the only bar owner in history to ever kicked out of his own bar. He eventually sold the place and became a security guard for the high school before the cancer hit.

Unger said you could write a book full of Boshea stories. People gravitate to him, and the outpouring of concern has been substantial.

“They call cancer the big C,” Boshea said. “I think the C stands for caring and cards and cash. So many people are trying to help me. It's amazing. It’s very emotional.”

“Coach means everything to us,” said senior captain Preston Denno. “He’s always here, even with all he's going through. We’re still No. 1 to him. The best we can do for him is show up every day and work as hard as we can. And that’s what we do. Our goal is to win the state title.”

Unger said the coaches have tried to keep everything as smooth as possible for the players.

“Bo is West Haven football,” Unger said. “He sets the tone. That’s what the kids see. He cares so much for the kids. Preston hit the nail on the head. We tell the kids: You want to help Bo get better, play your hardest, practice well.”

The players have accepted the challenge.

“I’ve been here since 1985 and this is without question the best group of kids off the field,” Boshea said. “There isn’t one behavioral problem. Nobody with bad grades. We have practice at 3:30. They are here at 3:15. We have four captains, which we’ve never had before, because we have so many good kids.”

If everything goes well, there will be successful surgery to remove the tumors, including some in his lymph nodes. Boshea knows it could come during the season, which is off to a rousing 4-0 start and a No. 10 ranking in the latest GameTimeCT poll. Chemo is scheduled to end the first or second week in November. The state playoffs start after Thanksgiving.

The surgery? TBD.

“I’ll have to have that argument when the time comes," the Rock of West Haven said.  “To be continued. This could be a really special year for us. You never know.”; @jeffjacobs123