Words cannot begin to describe how heartbroken I am to post this, but yesterday I found out that Paul Gorham, Director of Operations for UMass football passed away on Saturday, June 9th. It doesn’t seem real that this man who had overcome such adversity in the past few years is no longer with us, but when I learned he had cancer, I knew the end was near. My mind knew, anyway, my heart has yet to accept it and probably won’t for quite a while. I didn’t know Coach Gorham all that well when Bill and I arrived at UMass in the summer of 2000. I was still trying to find myself and my place as a staff wife, and I didn’t spend nearly as much time around the team as I do now, so I didn’t really have that much of a rapport with the coaches. What I knew of him, I knew from his bio posted on the athletic department website – he was a 1984 graduate of the University of New Hampshire and he had worked with Coach Whipple at University of New Haven in the late 80’s. as a recruiting coordinator and offensive line coach. At UMass, he was in his first year of coaching the receivers when we arrived, and he was here until Coach Whipple left to work for the Steelers. He then ended up at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut as their head coach.
That was my early knowledge of Coach Gorham, and I never knew we’d end up as close as we did, but I came to think of him as my uncle Paul when he came back to UMass in 2014. When Bill and I heard that Coach Whipple was coming back, we assumed that he’d bring Coach Gorham back with him. What we didn’t know, until our former strength coach told us, was the absolute hell he’d been through health-wise in the previous couple of years. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him to go from thinking he had pneumonia to finding out he had an incurable lung disease for which the only options were either a double lung transplant or eventual death, but that’s exactly what happened when he was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis in early 2012. You can live for years with it, but his case was so severe that in a matter of a few months, he was at death’s door. A series of devastating tornados in the southwest turned tragedy into his miracle, as his doctors were able to find a donor for him, and he received the double lung transplant that saved his life. Of course, that was just the beginning of his recovery – he had both legs amputated below the knee due to oxygen deprivation so the “new normal” was anything but for him. Of course, the true tragedy of Coach Gorham’s illness was that it meant the sudden and irrevocable end to his career; coaching isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle that is filled with extreme stress, long hours on the road, sleep deprivation, all the things that would take their toll on even the healthiest of men. For Coach Gorham, it was just too risky, and even though he didn’t want to give up his career, he couldn’t be on the field day in and day out. I’ll never forgive Sacred Heart for firing him instead of letting him come to the decision on his own to retire with dignity. It was such a cheap, cowardly thing to do to a man who had never known any other professional life and who was so dedicated to his players.
As his close friend and colleague, Coach Whipple had been there for him from the start, doing what it took to help him and his family through it all, and when he returned to UMass, he hired Coach Gorham as his operations director so that he could still be involved in the game without the wearing grind of coaching. I remember seeing Coach at the 2014 signing day party at the Hanger and tearing up as I gave him a hug. We kind of became the odd couple as far as friends go – he was a gruff Maine native and I was the stereotypical southerner, just about as different as two people could be, but one thing I quickly learned about him was that the “crusty New Englander” persona he was famous for only went so far. The “crust” was there but it was pretty easy to break through, as long as you accepted his dry, sometimes snarky sense of humor, and when you did, you found a man who was not only passionate about the game of football, but about making a difference in the lives of the young men for whom he was a role model and father figure. More than anything, he wanted to be out on the field coaching our receivers or offensive line, but he sadly could only watch from the plaza when the weather was decent. Every time I went out to practice, I’d go up to say hello – his wife was in Connecticut working at Yale Hospital, and his children were both in college at the time, and he was on his own during the season. I took it upon myself to check on him and make sure he was doing as well as he could be. I tried to keep my ‘mother hen-ing” subtle so I didn’t make him uncomfortable, but I’m pretty sure he knew what I was doing. I’m also pretty sure that he appreciated it, even if he didn’t come right out and say so. Along the way, we had many memorable conversations overlooking the north endzone. I remember telling him how he was an inspiration to me because my niece has cystic fibrosis and might someday need a lung transplant; I let him know that his situation gave me hope that if the worst happens for her, she’ll be able to get through it, too. I think it might have embarrassed him a little because he certainly didn’t want to be thought of as a hero. He definitely had the attitude that it was the hand fate had dealt him and he was going to do his best to handle it without complaint and face any future obstacles head on. That was exactly what I found so inspirational about him.
Not every conversation we had was so serious – I remember one that makes me laugh to this day: I was watching practice with him and the offense was in our end zone, practicing red zone pass routes. Blake got intercepted from about the 10 yard line and I got all dramatic and slammed my hand down on the railing: “And THAT’S why you don’t pass in the red zone!” I declared. Coach Gorham gave me the side eye and that slight grin that was his trademark, and replied “It’s third down, Jennie. You have to pass.” I suppose it was one of those things you had to see to find funny but the next day in a team meeting as Bill was setting up the video of the red zone drills, he said “hey Billy, this film would give Jennie a heart attack.” It still would, Coach. I still hate passing deep in the red zone.
I didn’t see him much at all last year, and I suppose I took it for granted that he would always be with us; the average lifespan post-transplant is between five and seven years, and he was with us for six. In the four years I knew him, he taught me what true heroes are made of, he taught me how to have courage in the face of adversity and that life is what you make of it, through the good times and the bad. I have no doubt in my mind he’s with Michael Boland now and they’re talking shop about our offensive line. UMass football has two guardian angels now. Until we meet again, Coach, thank you. For everything.