July 1, 2012

Steve Solloway: Sidelined from the sidelines but winning a bigger fight

Paul Gorham is going home. Six months after his world quickly and horribly turned upside down, he’ll return physically changed but emotionally even stronger.

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Paul Gorham, the South Portland native who coaches football at Sacred Heart University, is taking it one day at a time, and has to. It’s the way he can recover from an illness that led to an amputation of both legs below the knees.

Courtesy photo

He’s the three-sports star from South Portland who played in the late 1970s and more recently has been the head football coach at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. Now some are calling him a miracle man for what his body endured.

Weeks after he was on the sideline at the Rose Bowl watching Oregon beat Wisconsin on the second day of 2012, he was airlifted from his Connecticut home to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, fighting to breathe. He had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease with no known cause and no known cure. What was thought to be a bad chest cold or maybe pneumonia suddenly was more serious.

He needed a double lung transplant, and in early March got it. He was at the clinic for nearly six weeks before surgery: getting enough oxygen to parts of his body was a challenge. Weeks later, both legs were amputated about 6 inches below his knees.

More recently he was moved to the rehab unit. He’s been measured for his prosthetic feet. Daily, physical therapists work with Gorham to bring back muscles that haven’t been used for six months. His new lungs work fine. Just ask his nurses, said Kathy Gorham Connelly, his sister.

Six months? Many times he and his family didn’t know what the next day would bring, let alone the next week.

“I don’t reflect on it too much,” said Gorham after he returned to his room from another session of physical therapy. “I can’t. I’d get discouraged. Those are six months that are lost from my life. I have a daily schedule on my wall. What I do tomorrow gets all my attention.”

He is 51 years old and has survived a personal trip to hell many can’t imagine. Brett Brown knows his closest friend well. They met as Mahoney Middle School teammates in South Portland more than 35 years ago.

“There’s some inherent toughness that’s revealed when you compete,” said Brown. “He’s always been that way. He’s always been resilient. He’s Maine. It doesn’t matter where he lives, he’ll always have that Maine toughness.”

Brown is the son of Bob Brown, who coached both boys on the 1979 South Portland team that won the Class A basketball state championship. Brett Brown is the head coach of the Australian Olympic basketball team and is getting ready to leave for London and the upcoming Olympics. He called from half a world away to talk about Gorham. “I wanted to. I had to.”

Brown is also an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs. He visited the Gorham home in Cheshire, Conn., when the Spurs were in New York last winter. “The drive back to New York was as disturbing as anything I’ve experienced, worrying in my heart of hearts that I might not see him again.”

Gorham asked his family and friends to keep his medical condition private. Sacred Heart simply posted a statement on its website saying its head football coach was on medical leave. Now his fraternity of college football coaches and his extended family that is the Sacred Heart community are stepping up.

The target date for Gorham’s release from the Cleveland Clinic is July 10. There are plans for Gorham to return home in a handicap-accessible Winnebago.

On Aug. 2, the university is hosting a Welcome Home Paul Gorham Tribute. Athletic Director Don Cook thinks 200 to 300 friends may attend. A donation of $100 is requested. A website, paulgorham.org is up.

(Continued on page 2)

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