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May 11, 2013

TUFF Love

For the last several years, Matt Rhule, Julie Rhule, Evan Regas and Cathy Bongiovi have been bound by Temple University and its football program.

Rhule, who spent six seasons on North Broad Street as an assistant, is now the Owls' head football coach and Julie is his wife.

But as Matt so appropriately put it the day he returned to Temple back in December, Julie is far more than just the coach's wife. She is a registered dietitian with Sodexo and works at Temple with its students. In fact, she continued to work at the university while Rhule spent the 2012 season as an assistant coach with the New York Giants.

Regas, a 6-foot-4, 305-pound offensive lineman, just finished his fourth and final spring practice with the Owls and will play his senior season this fall. Bongiovi is an associate athletic director and handles the media relations operations for the football team.

On Sunday, Mother's Day, the four will be bound by something far more emotional than a last-second field goal or a game-winning drive. They will serve as captains for Team TUFF (Temple University Football Family) at the Philadelphia Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, which is in its 23rd year of raising money for breast cancer research.

Regas will have 15 of his teammates with him, and Team TUFF will include more than 70 people as a whole. As of Thursday, it had raised almost $5,000.

"On one hand, it was Julie's idea to get me and her back involved with this," Rhule said. "And then as we started talking about it, Evan Regas and Cathy were already planning on walking in it together, so we just thought, why not do it all as one?"

Cancer is the dreaded word no one wants to hear, but Regas, the Rhules and Bongiovi have heard it - and dealt with it - far too often, and that's why this Mother's Day and the Komen Race will bring about a mix of emotions that they'll tackle together.

Matt Rhule's mother, Gloria, is a breast cancer survivor. So, too, is Bongiovi's mother, Rae. Regas and Julie Rhule, unfortunately, lost their mothers and best friends to the disease within days of each other. Susan Untoria, Regas' mother, and Donna Nibert, Julie's mother, both passed away in September after long and courageous battles with breast cancer.

"It was hard because as a son, you want to do whatever you can to help your mother and help her out," Regas said. "It was something I physically couldn't see and I couldn't help her get better. It was unbelievable to see how hard she fought it for four years."

For the Rhules, Regas and Bongiovi, the whole journey has been about moments, including the one that rocked their world when they first found out their mothers had been diagnosed.

Susan Untoria delivered the news to her son while the two stood in the kitchen not long after Regas had graduated from Toms River North High School. Matt broke down in tears when Gloria had the difficult conversation with him nine years ago. Bongiovi was working at the University of Virginia back in 2005 when her mother was diagnosed and felt helpless at the other end of the phone when she heard her mother's voice.

Julie was on the beach in Cape May six years ago when she found out about her mother's diagnosis.

"I felt like my world was coming to an end," she wrote in a piece she put together for OwlSports.com, Temple's athletics website.

Bongiovi has been writing and compiling the Team TUFF stories for the website. While she is typically the person behind the scenes setting up interviews for the media on gameday and every other day and making sure the stories get told, she found comfort in telling her family's story this time around.

"I credit everything good in my life to my mother," Bongiovi said. "She's had a tough life and she's brought up her four children with good values and good morals, and she's just been my lifeline. She's like my best friend, so I'd do anything for her."

It's easy to understand why, considering how much Rae Bongiovi did to carry her family at the most difficult of times. Her daughter learned of one of the more remarkable details only recently.

"I didn't know this until we started doing our stories to put on the website," Cathy Bongiovi said, "but she got her diagnosis the same day that my sister died unexpectedly. So she kept it to herself and didn't tell any of us until after the funeral and all that. We were battling a couple of different things emotionally, all at one time."

The emotions, thankfully, are more joyful now for Cathy and Rae Bongiovi. Last November, the day after Thanksgiving, Temple played Syracuse at Lincoln Financial Field. Cathy dubbed it "Take your mother to work day" because she was short-staffed on media relations help in the press box.

So she put her mother to work.

"Hi, everyone," Cathy said as she called down to the assembled media in the rows below. "This is my mother. She'll be helping us out today."

Smiles broke out in the room, but no one really knew how much it meant at the time for Bongiovi and her mother. Bongiovi, too, admits now that she probably didn't think of the signifcance of the moment.

"No, but I should have. Football game days are so crazy for me, so I was probably running around and bossing her around," Bongiovi said with a laugh.

Temple's football team first got involved with the Komen Race back when former head coach Al Golden, now the head coach at the University of Miami, launched the effort. At that time, the Rhules already knew the significance of the cause.

Matt Rhule will continually say Team TUFF is not about him, but in some ways, it is. It has profoundly affected the program he now runs, and it has of course taken a toll on both his families - the players and his "two mothers," as he calls them.

Former Temple center John Palumbo lost his mother to breast cancer. Then there was the difficult month of September last fall that saw both Julie Rhule and Regas lose their mothers. Not long after, wide receiver and tight end Romond Deloatch lost his mother, Wanda, to another form of cancer.

"One of my missions here football-wise is, you want the team to identify with the university, not just as football players, and I think there's no better way to do it than with this disease because it affected Evan Regas and it's affected other students on our campus," Rhule said. "So I think it's just one of those things that's affected so many of us that we all kind of have a connection to that you want to do something. You can't do everything, but you want to just do something and this is one way to do something."

Rhule will be the first to admit he wouldn't be doing what he is now as a football coach if it wasn't for his mother.

"Most people have a mom," Rhule said. "My mom is one of my best friends. She's someone that to this day I still completely value her opinion and completely trust everything that she says to me. As I've gone through my life, there were times where she had to be a disciplinarian and a mother, but she's always been one of my best friends.

"It wasn't the thought of losing her that was hard. It was the sadness that she had to go through this and the empathy that I felt for her because she didn't deserve to have to go through that, and it's the same way I felt about Julie's mother. She was one of her best friends. She shouldn't have had to go through that, but really, no one does."

When Rhule became Temple's head football coach back in December, he made a pledge to his boss, Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, that he would finish out the NFL season as the team's assistant offensive line coach.

So for several weeks, the Rhules had a lot going on. Matt was working two jobs, game-planning at an NFL level while calling recruits at the college level. Julie was working, keeping an eye on the Rhule's 8-year-old son, Bryant, at the couple's home in Ridgewood, NJ, and was pregnant with their second child.

When Vivienne Rhule was born prematurely, things didn't get any less hectic for the family. And while Matt Rhule knows how much his wife misses her mother and will miss her even more Sunday, he's also thankful for what he learned from Donna Nibert and what he continues to learn from his own mother.

"I'm obviously proud that both of my moms - my mom and my mother-in-law - fought it with such dignity and grace, and luckily my mother is still here with us," Rhule said. "Since I've taken this job, I've been able to work at a high level because my mother moved in with Julie and was taking care of my family with her as the baby was born. So she's just a wonderful woman."

So, too, was Donna. Julie said Bryant will run in his grandmother's memory Sunday, and Vivienne will be pushed in a stroller. It will be Julie's first Mother's Day without her best friend.

Regas will be pressing through those same feelings, too, when he takes part in the Komen Race. His coach said the experience can be equally sad, happy and empowering, but Regas doesn't know exactly how he'll feel.

"I'm really not sure yet," Regas admitted. "I've been thinking about it a lot. I'll probably have a mix of emotions. I'll probably be happy. I'll probably be sad. I'll probably be excited. I'll probably be a little bit of everything."

Regas has been to the Komen Race previously as a volunteer, but this will be his first time as a participant in the race.

"You look around and there's 100,000 people there and every single one of them is affected by this thing and here they are trying to do something about it in their lives," Regas said. "Especially when you see the survivors on the Art Museum steps …

That moment right there is amazing."

OwlScoop.com editor John Di Carlo can be reached at jgdicarlo@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @OwlScoop_com or @jdicarlo.

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Team TUFF includes captain Evan Regas, senior wide receiver Ryan Alderman, senior offensive lineman Cody Booth, Sean Boyle and Scott Roorda, senior nose tackle Levi Brown, sophomore defensive end Brandon Chudnoff, senior quarterback Chris Coyer, senior defensive end Sean Daniels, senior Matt Falcone, sophomore defensive back Will Hayes, sophomore offensive lineman Eric Lofton, junior offensive lineman Adam Metz, junior tight end Wanemi Omuso and junior quarterback Connor Reilly.











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