BILLERICA – For the past 35 years, Shawsheen Tech Wrestling coach Mark Donovan has led his Rams teams to one big victory after another, building Shawsheen into one of the most successful programs in all of New England. Donovan has piled up over 550 wins overall in his remarkable career, including 25 Commonwealth Athletic Conference titles and an incredible 19 Massachusetts State Vocational championships.
Donovan, who is a member of both the Massachusetts Wrestling Hall of Fame as well as well as the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, is no stranger to seeing himself and his wrestlers take on all challengers. Year after year the Rams have made a habit of beating some of the best Division 1 teams in Massachusetts.
That ability to take on and defeat the toughest of challengers will be tested like never before in the coming months however, as Donovan will be battling an enemy far tougher than even the strongest of wrestlers.
Just a few weeks back, on Father’s Day weekend in fact, Donovan visited the Lahey Clinic. He had been having stomach pains for several weeks, but he had fought through the discomfort, until finally he couldn’t take it anymore and he made the trip over to Lahey on that Friday afternoon. By Sunday, Mark and his wife Patty had been given the shocking news, when he was diagnosed with Stage-4 Cholangiocarcinoma, or bile duct cancer. It was no wonder he had been in so much pain. He had a tumor seven centimeters wide on his liver, as well as two more tumors on each of his lungs.
As you can imagine, the news hit Donovan and his family like a ton of bricks.
“We were devastated,” Donovan said. “It was quite a blow for a couple of hours. Mostly I was worried about my wife and my two kids. But after a while I just said it is what it is and I knew I just had to fight the fight and that is what I’m going to do.”
Donovan will begin that fight in earnest on Thursday, when he heads to Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston to begin chemotherapy treatments. He will continue the treatments up until September, at which point his doctors will assess his progress.
“They will do a scan and check it out and then come up with a ‘Plan B’ if it’s not working,” Donovan said.
It will indeed be a rough road ahead for Donovan, and he knows he will be facing some tough days of chemotherapy in the coming weeks and months. But he also knows he will be able to count on the support of so many friends and colleagues as well as countless former students and athletes whose lives he has touched along the way during his illustrious career.
One of his biggest supporters will be Shawsheen Athletic Director and head football coach Al Costabile. Costabile has long admired Donovan’s coaching style, even going so far as hiring Donovan to coach the offensive line for the Rams football team.
“I met Mark 22 years when I first got to Shawsheen, and immediately there was a connection,” Costabile said. “We were similar in our personalities and similar as coaches. We hit it off right away, to the point where I just said ‘I have to have this guy on my football staff’.
“We have shared so many memories and so many athletes over the years. There have been times when half of the wrestling team or more were on the football team, and that is because of Mark. The kids just love to play for him.”
Perhaps no coach at Shawsheen is closer to Donovan than Doug Pratt, who has been Donovan’s assistant coach with the wrestling team for 29 of Donovan’s 35 years with the team. Pratt has little doubt that if anybody can overcome the odds and beat this dreaded disease, it is his long time friend and mentor.
“Mark always says that anyone can be beaten, and that’s what he instills in these kids. Basically, anything he puts his mind to, he can get done,” Pratt said. “He just has that attitude that he is going to fight this. He is going to have some tough days, but he will get through it. If he stays positive, good things will happen for him.”
Helping Donovan maintain that positive attitude will be the outpouring of support he has received from not only fellow coaches like Costabile and Pratt, but also from countless former athletes whose lives he has impacted. In the days following the announcement of Donovan’s diagnosis on both masswrestling.com as well as Twitter and the community Facebook pages, there was a nearly endless number of posts wishing Donovan well, most of them coming from those former athletes, but many other coaches, school administrators and reporters.
The outpouring of affection came as no surprise to Pratt.
“To be honest, I can’t even count how many people he has touched over the course of his career. But more than that, there are kids where he has actually helped frame their lives,” Pratt said. “He has helped so many people and now they are coming back for him. It is almost unbelievable how many people he has touched. The kids see how much he puts into it, and how much he cares. He will do anything for these kids.
“If you play for Mark, if you wrestle for Mark he is one hundred percent in it for you. He is always there for you. I have learned so much from him. Coaching with him all those years has made me a better coach. I am one hundred percent sure of that.”
Having coached for so many years, Donovan knew that he had certainly had a positive impact on the lives of many athletes over the years, but the outpouring of well wishes still came as a surprise to him. The well wishes included one of his wrestling families, the Foti’s, creating t-shirts to support Donovan in his fight, and former Patriots quarterback and 98.5 Sports Hub personality Scott Zolak posting a video on Twitter wishing him well. But more than just those examples, the most telling show of support has been the number of former athletes and students who have posted, called or texted to show their support for Donovan since his diagnosis.
“It has just been crazy. It has been overwhelming,” Donovan said. “From the wrestling fraternity on masswrestling and all of my friends, it has been incredible. And then the Zolak thing was great,” Donovan said. “I never realized I had touched so many people. It has been an honor to have coached for the past 35 years. I am going to use that as fuel when I am going through the chemotherapy.
“I don’t want to be one of those people that don’t practice what they preach. I tell my kids all the time, don’t quit, keep fighting. And I am going to take that attitude with me on Thursday when I go to Dana Farber.”
And while it won’t be easy, Donovan has set his sights on returning to the sidelines for the Rams for the 2020-2021 wrestling season. Assuming there is a season of course, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Donovan is looking forward to his 36th year of leading the Rams.
“I am planning on everybody seeing me coach the team next season,” Donovan said. “I am ready to go. I want to come back next season like nothing happened.”