Sacred Heart football players can probably learn a thing or two about perseverance and an impenetrable fighting spirit from their head coach Paul Gorham.

The Pioneers entered preseason training camp last week, but Gorham has been absent from his regular duties on the sidelines while he recovers from a six-month battle with serious health issues.

The ordeal started when Gorham began having breathing problems last December. The next month, he was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which is a scarring or thickening of the lungs that has no known cause.

At Yale New Haven Hospital, where he wife Noreen works with matching organ donors, doctors told Gorham he would need a double lung transplant and was airlifted to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

"To see him deteriorate that fast -- not only someone who is my boss, but a really good friend -- and try to keep the program going with him not around, and recruit … it was hard," SHU interim head coach Mark Nofri said.

"He tried to fight it off as long as he could, but it really got a grip on him very quickly," executive athletic director Don Cook said. "His lungs turned to mush on him, and he really had no ability to breathe at all."

Gorham received the transplant in early March, but there were post-operative problems that caused circulation issues making it necessary to amputate his feet.

In the meantime, Nofri -- long-time assistant -- took the helm of the program, guiding the Pioneers through recruiting season and spring football and getting ready for the 2012 season.

"It was a lot thrown on my lap at once, but I was worried about him because he was such a close friend," Nofri said. "I was texting his wife every day when he was in a coma because I couldn't talk to him. Because he was in Cleveland, it wasn't like I could go see him."

After being fitted with prosthetics and having his home retrofitted as handicap accessible for this new challenge, Gorham was able to return to his family in Connecticut in mid-July.

Brown head football coach Phil Estes, a former teammate of Gorham's at New Hampshire, along with Bears assistants Mike Kelliher and Neil McGrath rented a Lincoln Town Car and drove Gorham home from Cleveland.

"When this happened, it was really devastating for me to see him go through this," Estes said. "I wanted to bring him home. It was a great experience to see Paul happy. Now, that he is home with his wife and his kids, I think the healing starts."

Two weeks after his return, Sacred Heart organized a "Welcome Home" fundraiser that drew more than 300 people and raised more than $70,000 to aide in the costs of this unanticipated medical hardship. After a special Mass in the school's Chapel of the Holy Spirit, Pioneer coaches served as bartenders and several players volunteered to serve hors d'oeuvres at the function, while many of Gorham's coaching colleagues, like Estes, spoke to the group.

"It was a wonderful tribute, and certainly the ultimate expression of love and respect for him and his wife Noreen," Cook said. "It was an event I will not soon forget. I was absolutely overwhelmed by the outpouring of support."

"It overwhelmed me," Gorham said. "I was hoping for a hundred people. There were more people that could not attend who have sent cards and e-mails. The support has been amazing."

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With regular physical therapy, Gorham is getting stronger and more mobile with the prosthetics and not confined to the wheel chair all of the time. He has visited the football staff, and chatted with a group of about 40 players during their workout in the weight room.

"I have to be careful because I'm susceptible to so many things with the medications I'm on and the new lungs," Gorham said. "I have to pick and choose my spots."

"I think it is a boost for the kids knowing he is in recovery mode right now and working on physically rehabilitating so he can actually come back to work and be with the team," Nofri said. "It's also good for me because I talk to him three or four times a day to bounce ideas off of him, and get his opinion. That makes it more relaxed."

This year, Gorham will act as more of general manager, while Nofri runs the program on a daily basis. Gorham has complete confidence in Nofri, who has served as an assistant coach at SHU in each of the last 18 seasons.

"(Nofri) and I are on the same page," Gorham said. "He's been awesome with the whole thing. He and I will talk and make decisions on the side, and he'll implement them. If I feel better, I'll put more time in down there just to get out of the house and just be involved."

But football will not be Gorham's main focus this fall -- getting healthy and walking again will take up the majority of his energy.

"It's a great story about the human spirit and how people manage in crisis to reach out and help others," Cook said. "As we all do in athletics, I had always measured success in terms of championship trophies, but with all Paul has been through we have really learned a lot about life and what really matters. It was a great lesson for all of us. We look too much at the superficial sometimes, and don't remember where the biggest victories are."

Sacred Heart opens the season at Morgan State on Sept. 1.