Notre Dame's Mike Denbrock transcending prostate cancer

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — All the post-surgical tests, the renewed energy, even Mike Denbrock’s ability to get worked up over an overthrown would-be TD pass all strongly suggest to Notre Dame offensive coordinator that the darkest moments are well behind him now.

Less than a month removed from prostate cancer surgery, the only certainty he is willing to accept, though, is that the best elixir is heavy doses of Notre Dame football.

“I’m not going to say how much I’ve been involved in what’s been going on (with the team), because my wife and my doctor will probably hunt me down and get after me,” Denbrock said Tuesday with a sly smile. “But I’ve been able to do more than I anticipated I would to this point.”

His vision, his fingerprints, even his inspirational recovery are all over a retooled offense for which head coach Brian Kelly is co-conspirator and will call plays, and that will be unveiled along with the new Irish defensive scheme Aug. 30 in 17th-ranked season opener with Rice.

That’s even after Denbrock missed the team’s five-day trip to Culver for the team’s off-campus opening to training camp because of the surgery, though he kept tabs on the practices through phone conversations and watching practice tape on his iPad.

Talking about the offense’s potential was Denbrock’s joy on Notre Dame football’s later-than-usual Media Day. The 50-year-old who also coaches ND’s receivers was willing, though, to share his journey for the first time that started with the chance discovery of the cancer.

“Late in June, my wife and I were applying for some extra life insurance for my son and my wife and myself,” he said. “I took a blood test and went through some testing, as you have to do for life insurance and those types of things, and I had a very elevated PSA (prostate-specific antigen) level on the test.”

Denbrock was sent to a specialist, had more testing done and was given the news in short order. Surgery was scheduled as soon as possible, which turned out to be the last week in July.

The support from the team, from the coaches, from athletic director Jack Swarbrick and university president Rev. John I. Jenkins was overwhelming, Denbrock said. So too was the support he received from strangers.

“The people who love Notre Dame football and follow Notre Dame football, the messages that they’ve sent me, the things that they’ve sent me, the encouragement they’ve sent me, have absolutely done nothing but help get me back on my feet and moving again," he said.

“I’d also like to make a special mention of my wife, Dianne, what a solider she is. And what a great partner I have in the things she’s helped me with as I’ve gone through this battle — a battle that maybe it’s over, maybe it’s not. Maybe it will continue.

“Obviously, we’ll continue to pray about it. We’ll continue to try to do the right things to put us in a position where this is the end of it.”

That includes, for now, football in measured doses, and not workaholic ones during recovery. It didn’t take him long, though, to find the big decibels Tuesday on a rare flubbed play by quarterback Everett Golson.

“I have to pick my spots,” he said of the high-intensity moments. “It’s just that some things get a little frustrating, and it’s hard to keep it under control. I’ve got to be careful obviously about being too aggressive too fast.”

Grad assistant Kyle McCarthy, battling cancer himself, was also back on the field Tuesday after having undergone four chemotherapy treatments.

“He's an incredible young man,” Kelly said of the former Irish standout safety who coaches the safeties as if he’s a full-time assistant coach. “Some people obviously don't take very well to those treatments. He was on the field coaching the safeties like it was his first day of practice.

“He'll have a week off, and then he'll go back into another round of treatments the following week. But he expects to be here through his treatments. We've made accommodations for him if he needs to be off the field.

“The NCAA has made an accommodation for us, as well, in that we can hire another graduate assistant if we are forced to pull him off the field. So if we have to do that, we can act on it. But we're going to hold off right now.”

“Cancer, it’s an awful business of any kind, of any form,” Denbrock said. “My heart goes out to Kyle McCarthy as he battles through what he’s battling through. God love him.”

Denbrock said he is feeling stronger every day, and adds a little bit more to his plate incrementally. And incrementally, the first-year offensive coordinator, elevated to his new post in January, likes what he is seeing from an offense that is aiming to be the first in the five-year Kelly Era at ND to finish in the top 50 nationally in passing efficiency and in the top 45 in either scoring offense and red-zone offense.

Last season, the Irish were 56th, 74th and 77th, respectively in those three statistical categories. On Tuesday, Golson’s scream-inducing misfire was the rarity and not the rule on a day when the No. 1 offense flexed its muscles and a faster tempo.

“I think in their minds, the faster, the better,” Denbrock said of the ND players’ reaction to up tempo. “I think in their minds they like the potential of the explosiveness of keeping the defense on their heels, dictating the tempo of play to the defense instead of being so reactionary.

“(Reactionary) is probably the best way to describe really the way we played offense the past couple of years. Maybe we were at times a little too analytical and precise about being in the exact play at the exact time.

“I think we’ve got playmakers in places that, once they get the ball in space, they’re going to be able to do some exciting things with it.”

And at the top of the list is Golson, who continues to accelerate away from both an offseason depth-chart battle with sophomore Malik Zaire and a season away from the team while serving a university-imposed suspension for academic misconduct.

“I think he’s the cornerstone of the whole deal,” Denbrock said of the reborn 6-foot, 200-pound senior. “He has the keys to the offense. He’s the guy who’s the puppet master, who’s pulling the strings, even though coach Kelly’s calling the plays.

“He’s got some adjustments (audibles) he can make. He’s done a great job with those in camp. The last three or four days in particular, in my opinion, he’s seeing (and reacting to) things — rotation of safeties and blitzes and different things from our defense that he never saw in 2012. He is just remarkable in the way he’s developing, in my opinion.”

Denbrock took a deep breath and smiled.

“It’s great to be here,” he said.

EHansen@NDInsider.com | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock has returned to coaching less than a month removed from prostate cancer surgery. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)