Beating the blitz

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Christine Zampese flanked by the first string at Paul Brown Stadium, son Anthony (left), daughter Marina, and husband Ken.

Since she is a mother, a wife, and a football coach's wife, Christine Zampese is running through her blessings like it is a roster. Or, better yet, one of her husband's game day call sheets.

"Domata and Anna Peko sent me flowers before my last chemo treatment," she is saying one day last week between all the games and medicine and nerves and nausea.

 "The Daltons have sent flowers. The McCarrons have offered to bring dinner and they check on me . . . Marvin will text me regularly. Hue and Michelle check on me.  Nancy Brown called and asked me to lunch  . . . She and Mr. Brown have been amazing . . . She calls and checks on me . . .Rhonda Simmons is my point gal and organizes all the coaches' wives . . . It's an awesome, amazing team."

Cincinnati Ben-Gal Cheerleaders host Cheer 4 Savannah Golf Outing 09/26/2015

And since Christine Zampese, wife of Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, is a football coach's wife, she's in the middle of a savage bare-knuckled, drag-out, pitched battle against breast cancer that makes last Sunday's AFC North slugfest in Baltimore look like recess. She's all-out against the all-out blitz as her teammates rally around her.

The Bengals honor breast cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) when they play the Chiefs. But Christine Zampese has been on the field since April 1 in an exhaustive but wondrous fight against the disease that has brought both pain and joy.

It is a particularly poignant game for the Bengals because Mary Jane Combs, the wife of assistant public relations chief PJ Combs, has been fighting the disease for nearly the same amount of time.

"I tease my family," Christine Zampese says. "One out of four people get cancer. We have eight people in our family. My dad had it, now I have it. I tell them I took one for the team, so we're all good.

"It's like fourth-and-one. Just do it."

There is fourth-and-one toughness like on Sunday. And then there is grace-under-pressure-when-no-one-is-looking toughness.

Like last month, when she had the fifth of her six chemotherapy treatments on a Wednesday in the week of her 50th birthday. She then proceeded to get in her car with her childhood friend from California and drive Chris and Kenny's daughter Marina to Kent State to help move into her freshman year.

They turned around on Friday and made it back to the University of Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium in time to see son Anthony Zampese play his first varsity game for St. Xavier High School.  Then on Saturday night she went to Paul Brown Stadium for the Bengals' pre-season game against the Bears and went down on the field for the club's pre-game family festivities. All the while fighting the flooding nausea and the grinding tiredness that is more bone weary than exhaustion.

The 26-year streak of never missing a Ken Zampese home game is intact for the co-ed who once hated football so much she walked out of the living room whenever the TV was turned to a game.

"I don't want sympathy,' she says. "This is life. And my life is family and football." The game plan for the final surgery, the one to remove her lymph nodes and finish reconstruction, is set for the Thursday of the Bengals bye week, of course, on Oct. 22. Since this is Chris Zampese and she has been with a football coach for so long, it is a smash-mouth strategy. The idea is to be able to make it that weekend to the St. X game in Cleveland against St. Ignatius and it works out because Ken is here to drive on a weekend usually engulfed by a game.

"I get great joy watching my son play and my husband coach. It's the highlight of my week," she says. "I've been doing this every season for 26 years and every week we're worried. What about this? What about that? You know what? Go have fun. Play the game. Have a good time. Enjoy your players. Enjoy your people. It's not the end of the world. Hallelujah. Let's enjoy it. Go for the ride."

She's got the AFC North mentality right down to the uniform. No wig. Bald is beautiful. She told Ken, look, this is who I am and I'm not ashamed of it.

"When I put that wig on, I feel like I'm hiding the person who I am,' Chris Zampese says. "Because of the experiences I have gone through, I'll never be the same person I was before."

 The Zampeses are both teachers. They met in grad school at the University of San Diego, where she got her master's in education and a master's in her passion, special education. They had a Friday afternoon class together and while he called her enough, the request for a date didn't come until after football season.

When her husband coached at Miami of Ohio in the late '90s, she was a student teacher supervisor and taught a senior seminar in the School of Education.  If anyone knows a teachable moment, it's these two.

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Mary Jane Combs makes a stand this summer.

"I was diagnosed April 1," Chris Zampese says. "I went in for my annual mammogram and the radiation technician said they had this new 3-D imaging machine. If insurance didn't pay for it, the doctors got together and said they'd only charge $70. I said, sure, why not? Let's do it. There was something abnormal on the right side. They called me back and tried to do the 2-D and the sonogram and it kept disappearing. They said it showed up on the 3-D, but not the 2-D and even though they thought it was just scar tissue, the doctors thought they should still do a biopsy."

They tried to do a 2-D biopsy but they still couldn't find it and the gut feeling was to remove it. She went to the University of Cincinnati's Barrett Cancer Center for a surgical biopsy and the 3-D exam confirmed cancer. The kind of lethal cancer that doesn't appear until Stage 4.

"If I'd gone for the 2-D mammogram," she says, "it probably would have come back clean, I would have waited another year and it would have been too late to do anything about it."

It is the kind of cancer where the question isn't will it return, but when? And so there was a double mastectomy and some emergency surgeries. It was a grim April. Kenny was preparing for the draft and they didn't tell anyone but family and a couple of close friends. They waited for about a month and then they had to tell head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.

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Ken Zampese's 13th season in Cincinnati has been his most trying, but he calls the support "a blessing."

There is the 3-D lesson and there is the family history lesson.

"On my father's side I had an aunt and cousin diagnosed with breast cancer before they were 50,' she says. "My mom had siblings with cancer. I took genetic testing for cancer and it came back negative."

Lesson Two: just because the test is negative doesn't mean you're free and clear.

And family history had a hand in how she has approached it all. When she was seven, her father, Alfred Multari Sr., passed at the age 43 of Hodgkin's disease. She was the youngest of six and he never told anyone but her mother and her aunts. When he went into the hospital for the last time, everyone thought it was for a checkup. A week before he died he called his father on Father's Day and still didn't tell him.

"He wanted to watch his kids grow," Christine Zampese says. He didn't want other people to hurt.  He didn't want people to remember him sick."

His daughter may be sick, but no one would begin to think it. She and Kenny kept a good enough lid on it that when people saw her bald on Facebook during the summer, they just assumed she had sheared her hair in support of someone else.

"That's the kind of person she is. She means so much to a lot of people," Ken Zampese says. "She gives so much of herself.

"We were built for this because of our commitment to each other and family."

Indeed no one can sum up the impact on a caregiver better than Mary Jane Combs.

"Patrick has taken care of me in ways I'm sure we never could have imagined," she says.

Kenny Zampese says the unkind fates have also dealt a kind one. It has, he says, galvanized his relationship with friends and colleagues.

"It gives your friends a reason to say how they feel more than they have," he says.

Zampese has been with the Bengals 13 seasons and Combs 21, so they know each other. But now they make sure they stop and chat when their paths cross in the lunch room or hallways. One day last spring, Zampese came around looking for Combs in his office, but he was told he was with Mary Jane at a doctor's appointment.

"You don't just ask how she's doing,' Combs says. "You also want to know how he's doing, too."

It is Chris Zampese who organizes the monthly dinners for the coaches' wives and still does when she can. It was Chris who visited her good friend, the wife of former Bengals linebacker Kevin Walker, before she died of cancer a few years ago.

"I felt so flattered that people would actually think I had done that for someone," she says. "But word kind of started to get out last week."

Naturally, it was at a Bengals-San Diego game. During "The Stand Up To Cancer" ceremony, where fans were asked to write on placards the name of a person battling the disease. In the press box, PJ Combs asked media types to hold signs with Mary Jane's name on them and he sent the photos to her in the stands as soon as he could.

"I was at the game and didn't even look at my phone until halftime," Mary Jane Combs says. "It was really cool. It's very humbling to see that much support."

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                                           The family at St. Xavier game.

Christine Zampese's open secret was suddenly about to happily vanish on social media because it unleashed a torrent of support.

Peggy Lewis, Marvin's wife, had everyone in her box write Chris' name on their sign and they went wild screaming her name and waving their cards. A section away down below, she emotionally waved back.

Some of those pictures made it to Facebook and she heard from friends as far away as Spain. But it really hit her when Anthony took a picture of one of the placards that was leaning against a blackboard in the locker room.

"Mrs. Zampese," it said.

"Now you know you're family when you come into locker room and you see this," she says. "We're blessed to be with the Bengals. They are my family. The coaches' wives take me places.

"We've been with so many teams," she says. "To have an owner acknowledge me and know me to the point they have sent me flowers and have told me to keep it up, it's amazing."

Except maybe for a John Wayne movie, no one circles the wagons better than a football team.  Rhonda Simmons, wife of special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, has been in charge of the E-mail chain making sure the Zampeses have what they need. The helpers range from the owner's wife to coaching assistants Sandy Schick and Jamie Janette.

Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson have told Ken Zampese whenever he needs the time, take it, just what Mike Brown and the Blackburns told PJ Combs.

Sometimes it's not a casserole or sandwiches, it's just a movie. Like the other day, when Peggy Lewis and Kathy Alexander, the wife of offensive line coach Paul Alexander, took her to the movies. To celebrate her last chemo treatment last week, Rhonda helped her organize a dinner out.

The social media coup de grace came when Marina noted that last treatment with a tweet that celebrated "my BFF." For a mother and father who would split up the football games by halves to make sure they could see both Marina cheering and Anthony playing, it meant everything.

"It's been overwhelming the support from everywhere,' she says. "Really, the only thing that is a negative is chemo sucks. I wouldn't wish that on anyone."

Six treatments. One every three weeks. Not so much pain. But constant nausea. More intense as you go. The last one was on a Thursday. She just couldn't make it to St. X on Friday.

"The thought of smelling people's food, I was just too sick," she says. "But I watched it on the computer so I feel like I didn't miss it."

She didn't miss a thing. When No. 11 (because Anthony was born on 11/11), made a hit on a kickoff, her phone lit up like the PBS scoreboard.

It's like when one of her relatives called wanting to know why she couldn't come for Christmas.

"We've got a game,' she said, a bit exasperated. "This is my life and I love it."

Not too long ago, the quarterbacks and their wives were over the house for dinner and she let them know the last time she cut her hair short, about 15 years ago, Kenny Zampese's Rams went to the Super Bowl but lost.

"Now I've gone all in. I've lost it all," she told them. "You better win the Super Bowl."

After the Oct. 22 surgery, radiation is all that's left. And they hope and believe it will be eradicated. The timetable seems a bit hazy on when the radiation treatments begin and end.

But Christine Zampese, football coach's wife all the way, has a script in mind.

"I told Peggy Lewis and Katie Blackburn it has to be all done by January,' she says. "I have playoffs and a Super Bowl to get to."

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