Just a few weeks after Hanover defeated Norwell, 20-7, in its annual Thanksgiving rivalry game last November, Hanover coach Chris Landolfi received a devastating diagnosis: He had esophageal cancer.
The odds were against him, but the 49-year-old coach didn’t think of himself at first. Landolfi said his biggest motivation to persevere through months of treatment was getting healthy enough to coach the players he had come to regard as family.
“You were the one thing that was constant, the one thing that kept me going,” Landolfi said in an impassioned pregame speech to his players prior to this season’s opener at Whitman-Hanson. “You were the guys that got me here, and I could never give back what you gave to me.”
In addition to losing 55 pounds during the cancer treatment, Landolfi lost his childhood friend and assistant coach, Mark Flaherty, last March. Then, just a few weeks before training camp, his father, Michael, died.
Entering the season with a heavy heart, the seventh-year coach told his young group that Whitman-Hanson and other teams didn’t know most of their names, so he exhorted his players to “Show them who you are!”
Inspired by his pregame speech, the Indians earned a 20-10 win in the opener, and went on to upset defending Division 5 state champion Scituate four weeks later.
Hanover (6-4) will conclude its season with a home date against Norwell (5-5) at 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving.
It’s the 54th edition of a rivalry Hanover leads, 30-22-1, and a tradition Landolfi has been part of as a fan or coach since he was 8 years old.
“To be honest, with the diagnosis and what the doctors said about the percentages, I didn’t know if I’d be back or not,” Landolfi said.
“I would constantly envision myself being where I’m at, and that’s what got me through that stuff. It’s going to be a great feeling as a coach, seeing former players [during Thanksgiving week].”
Though happy to be in remission, Landolfi is continuing to fight on behalf of others, including an 11-year-old girl from Hingham named Maddie who was in his chemotherapy unit and did not survive her illness.
To honor Maddie’s memory, Landolfi and the team are selling Hanover football T-shirts with the slogan “Show them who you are” on the back, and so far have raised more than $1,200 for Maddie’s Promise, a foundation raising funds to support pediatric cancer research. The shirts will be on sale when Hanover hosts Norwell.
“The first opportunity that comes up, he’s looking to help someone else,” said Stephen Avitabile, president of the Hanover Football Huddle Club and a consultant on the varsity staff. “He’s always thinking about other people, and that’s what you get from good leaders ultimately.
“He’s very humble. He doesn’t look to bring up what he went through. Nobody really expected him to come back and be there every night and day.
“His stamina and drive have been amazing, and he’s not 1 percent less of a coach this year than in years past.”
Aside from his speech prior to the season opener, Landolfi has not brought up his personal adversity to his players.
But for senior captain Ian Ritchie and others, every practice and game this season has come with extra significance as they rallied around their coach. A Thanksgiving win over Norwell would not only bookend their careers, it would honor Landolfi by capping his tumultuous year on a high note.
“It’s really emotional for a lot of us,” said Ritchie, a senior running back with 1,403 scrimmage yards and 17 touchdowns over 16 career games.
“Coach has been through a lot this year, and we want to make sure we end it right. The only thing Landolfi cares about more than winning is us as a team and as players. To get a win after all that adversity, I think it would mean the world to him.”