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Buzea on the road to recovery

"Live In Vision, Not In Circumstance."

An inspirational message that Barb Buzea shared by way of orange wristbands during her husband Craig's battle with acute leukemia has come to hold even greater significance to the Homewood-Flossmoor football program in a world clouded with uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"During the quarantine, Barb and I were texting and she told me she had something for me in my mailbox," associate head coach Zac Wells said. "During our four-month break, I've gotten a pretty healthy white line across my wrist, but it does speak to the mentality that we've had through this particular journey. As crazy of an ordeal as this (virus) is, it is a really good reminder when we've been cooped up that you need to keep in mind what you want to do and where you want to be, no matter the obstacles that arise along the way."

While much of the pandemic journey still remains, the H-F head coach's personal journey is back on a favorable path. Diagnosed not long after the end of the 2019 season, Buzea began undergoing chemotherapy at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he spent close to two months. He went into remission in April, but with a donor found who was a 10-10 match, he decided to undergo a stem cell transplant July 2 to further aid his recovery, which he is continuing at home.

"I'm getting better every day," Buzea said. "Everybody has a different recovery time. It's a six- to nine-month process, but I'm really happy where I'm at right now. There was a time the first week when I was whipped. I was sleeping 20, 24 hours a day, but that was 100 percent expected. I have to do a little more before I know I'm back to normal, but I feel good, so we're optimistic on that front. Hopefully, I'll continue to heal."

Home Health comes to draw blood twice a week and Buzea has a follow-up Friday at Northwestern to see if his medications are working properly. He's able to have company, but given his condition and the ongoing threat of the virus, he has to be particularly mindful.

"Barb's the boss," Buzea said. "People can come here, we just have to spread out. I stay away from them pretty much and have to have a mask on. I can go out and do what I want to do and feel good about it. I just kind of have to stay away from people. Essentially, I have no immune system. The donor has taken over my body, which is a good thing. It's going to take time. I'll just keep on keepin' on."

"Live In Vision; Not In Circumstance," part of a quote made by former Colts coach Chuck Pagano during his own fight with leukemia, has become an inspirational mantra for the Homewood-Flossmoor football program as Vikings coach Craig Buzea goes through his own battle with the disease. (Photos provided)

During his absence from the team, Buzea met with his staff virtually, coordinating workouts and practices via Zoom with Wells and assistant head coach Tom Cicero.

"It was a little rough in the summer, but I coached off video and helped with practice plans," Buzea said. "I've got coaches who've been with me a long time, so it's not like they need me."

Had Illinois' season remained in the fall, Buzea's involvement would likely have been limited to the back end of the schedule, and that, too, was no sure thing. Now that it's been bumped back to spring semester, he figures to have a much better chance to return to the team in person.

"My wife says there are signs out there, so when they came out with the decision, she said, I told you," Buzea said. "It really helped me in regards to coaching. At that point, I'll be 100 percent ready to go and coach a little football. (The fall) would've been pushing it. I'm better off being at home two, three months, where I can get healthy and be able to come back and do both (coaching and teaching)."

While the opportunity to return to coaching has provided 'Buz' with an additional source of motivation, his battle has likewise served as an inspiration to his staff and players.

"As much as anything, this helps the kids understand the challenges that come with every day life," Wells said. "I've been with him six years and coached against over 20 years, and he's always been kind of an icon. When they see something like this, it humanizes him. He's taken his challenges head on, and he's really been very real with us as coaches and as much as he's felt comfortable with the players in letting them know. 'Buz' does a great job of developing relationships with kids. Something I've really taken with him that I've tried to impress upon the kids is that part of coaching is teaching the life lessons that may be valuable 15, 20 years down the road. They may not realize it now, but it can plant the seed for down the line."

Buzea's personal fight also puts the issues of football in a different light.

"Above everything else, it helps keep things in perspective, that it could definitely be worse," Wells said. "A lot of times, the coaches, even the kids, get lost in football. It's your passion. That was even the case with 'Buz' at times. This allows us all to step back and get a great feel for things. He's assembled a great staff at H-F, and it's really hit home for the more experienced coaches and also for the younger guys. I know he'd love to be out there, but he just can't right now. 'Buz' has had everything organized from the beginning, so there's a really good structure already in place."

Heading into his retirement year of teaching, Buzea hopes to continue working the sidelines beyond that. He's 94-24 in 10 seasons with the Vikings, including just three losses in the last three seasons, all to two-time state champion Lincoln-Way East.

"Nobody wants to coach more than I do," he said.

Homewood-Flossmoor coach Craig Buzea underwent a stem cell transplant July 2 and hopes his recovery from leukemia will progress to where he can he can return to the sidelines for the Illinois prep football season when it is played during the spring semester.

(Photo by Robb Quinn)

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