Shane Carmody had to deliver heartbreaking news to a group of two dozen college students, but even as he sat down to write the painful message, he couldn’t wrap his head around that news himself.
He had just seen Mike Schambach a few days earlier. The assistant coach had talked to his boss about recruiting and other routine business involving the Montclair State lacrosse team. Hadn’t Schambach just attended his daughter’s christening that weekend? Hadn’t he just hung out with his old high school pals at an alumni game?
How could Head Coach Mike Schambach be … gone?
Carmody had known this day might come from the moment Schambach was diagnosed with colon cancer less than a year earlier. The disease, he knew, was aggressive and the treatment – the chemotherapy that forced Schambach to, reluctantly, miss an occasional practice – was not effective.
But Schambach was making plans to the very end. He was so full of life, and his steadfast refusal to burden anyone with his condition had made it seem that he would kick cancer in the backside and roar with one of his unmistakable laughs afterward.
Mike Schambach was ... gone?
Carmody wanted to call his old coach to get his advice on how to handle this. He wanted to lean on his mentor one final time for guidance, because, he remembers thinking, “He’ll know what to do. He’ll know what to say.”
Not wanting the players to find out from someone outside the team family, Carmody wrote a long note on June 14 and sent it to them in a group text.
“It’s with a heavy heart and deep regret that I am writing this message. There’s no easy way to say this but Coach is gone. His fight took a real bad turn earlier this week and he was unable to recover from it. He passed peacefully this morning.
“He fought until the end. He was an absolute warrior. And you guys were a big reason he kept fighting. You were a part of his family and he didn’t stop talking about you guys and our plans for the program until the end. He was so proud of each and every one of you.”
Carmody hit send. A few moments passed, and when the replies started coming he knew that he wasn’t the only one still too stunned to process the news.
Are you serious? Is this really true? How can this be?
Three and a half years earlier, Schambach was on top of the world. Not only had he been named head coach at a Montclair State program brimming with potential, but after three years coaching at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, he was coming home.
He was returning to New Jersey, the state where he and his twin brother, Phil, led Bridgewater-Raritan High to a perfect 19-0 record and a No. 1 state ranking in 1998. His new job was just up the Turnpike from Rutgers, where he anchored a 2003 team ranked No. 7 nationally and appeared in the NCAA Tournament.
“He could do everything,” his high school coach, Chuck Apel, says. “He played three sports, which is rare these days, and was pretty good at all of them. And he was such a fierce competitor.”
Schambach believed there was nothing his new team couldn’t accomplish, and soon after moving into his new office, he began to encourage his players to aim higher and higher.
Montclair State was the dominant team in the Skyline Conference and had been for several years. But why stop there? Schambach set his sights on bringing a national title to campus. He wanted to turn the Red Hawks into a powerhouse.
“It was his goal to take us from good to great,” says Ryan Anzalone, a captain on the team and a 2017 graduate. “And everything he did was focused on that goal.”
Any skeptics were quickly converted. The team reached the second round of the Division III NCAA Tournament in 2017 – its best performance ever – and nearly pulled off a massive upset against top-ranked Ithaca College.
He was a fair but demanding coach with a work ethic that never wavered. His team had one of the top grade point averages in each of his four seasons.
“He would ride us at times ... but he did it for the betterment of you as a person,” Anzalone recalls. “He didn’t just want you to be a good lacrosse player. He wanted you to be a good man.”
In the prime of life, Schambach was a 37-year-old husband to Lindsay and father to a son, Cameron, with a daughter on the way. Then, on a trip to the Jersey Shore with friends and family, he complained of severe stomach pain.
“I think I swallowed a chicken bone,” he told them.
The pain worsened. Guy Budinscak, his best friend, encouraged him to go to the emergency room. It was there, at Ocean County Medical Center, that doctors discovered an obstruction and delivered the grim prognosis.
He had colon cancer.
He underwent surgery days later at Weill Cornell in New York City, where he was told that the disease – in Stage 4 – had metastasized to his lymph nodes. He was in for the fight of his life and his friends and family were certain he’d beat it.
Business as usual
Schambach never let that fight define him. Even when he was delivering the news to Carmody, the coach was focused on the team and the future.
“He didn’t want to say cancer and he didn’t want to say how bad it was,” Carmody recalls. “He needed me to come home from a recruiting trip to give a campus tour to a recruit. It was business as usual.”
The players knew he was sick. But they had no idea how sick. Schambach, after all, only missed an occasional practice for treatment and never missed a game. He was on the field for several hours a day last spring, directing them with the same passion he had always brought to their preparation.
The practices ran longer than usual, and that didn’t surprise Carmody. The field wasn’t just an oasis from his illness; it was a place where he was surrounded by some of the people who mattered the most.
“He had two families,” Carmody says. “He had his family at home, his wife and his kids, and his family at Montclair State. He was always a happy guy, but when he talked about either of his families, you could tell how happy he was.”
He stopped the chemotherapy in February, telling a few people that it wasn’t working. Even then, he quickly changed the subject when people pressed for details, and usually, the focus shifted back to his team.
“He said, ‘Okay, here’s the deal, I have colon cancer,’” Luke Neal, a captain on the team, says recalling a meeting with a small group of players. “But then he just started talking about something else. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Montclair State had a rollercoaster season, and on April 28, it seemed the Red Hawks had run out of gas in their final home game. They were down three goals to Scranton heading into the fourth period when a heavy rainstorm drenched Sprague Field.
Neal remembers hearing the Scranton players whooping it up in the visiting locker room. He and his teammates were furious.
“Our coach was fighting just to stand on the sideline,” Neal remembers. “We had to win that game. It felt like it was destiny. There was no way we could leave that field without winning that game.”
They did, coming from behind for a thrilling 11-10 win. The five weeks that followed the season were filled with reunions, love and the birth of his daughter, Chloe Michelle, on May 7.
Schambach held his baby in his arms for her baptism, an event just two days after the entire ’98 Bridgewater-Raritan lacrosse team gathered to tell old stories about that season at an alumni game.
Schambach was at the center of it all. When he canceled plans to attend a Yankees game with Carmody, the assistant coach knew Schambach needed to preserve his energy with everything going on. They made plans to see a game later in the summer. Then, as usual, the conversation turned to recruiting.
Schambach died just days later, on June 14, with his family at his side. On that same day, he and his assistants were named the Coaching Staff of the Year for all of Division III.
Outpouring of love
No funeral home could hold all the mourners, so as temperatures soared above 90 degrees on June 18, more than 3,000 people packed Immaculate Conception Church in Somerville. Others stood along Mountain Avenue for more than an hour, waiting to get inside.
Phil Schambach gave one eulogy, and Budinscak gave another.
“I had the privilege of being with Mike until the end,” Budinscak told the packed church. “He would never let on how sick he was. Never complained. He was fighting until the end, planning his recruiting strategy for next season and discussing some projects that he planned to do around his house.
“He didn’t want to say goodbye. I think he knew what was coming, but he was trying to protect his friends and loved ones. Never making it about him. Never wanting to be the center of attention. Always brave, always with dignity and integrity. He was the bravest man I ever knew.”
The Montclair State players showed up in their lacrosse polos at the beginning of the service, still stunned that a man who led them onto the field with so much passion just weeks earlier was gone.
The players are preparing to head into another season in the spring, and when they do, two words emblazoned on their team T-shirts will serve as both a remembrance and a rallying cry.