The birthday party last week for College of San Mateo assistant football coach Mike Dovenberg seemed like an ordinary bash — a weekend barbecue Sunday, July 28 to celebrate his 30th birthday.
After a long battle with leukemia and 13 months of treatment at Kaiser Permanente Redwood City Medical Center, Dovenberg’s 30th birthday was anything but ordinary.
Now in remission, Dovenberg returned Monday to CSM for the Bulldogs’ first official practice of the upcoming 2019 season. He was met by a rousing welcome prior to taking the field when he walked into the team meeting room.
“For us as coaches … and our players to be with him through his battle, when he walked into our team meeting Monday, he got a standing ovation,” CSM head coach Tim Tulloch said.
After coaching at Gavilan College-Gilroy for four years, including three seasons as head coach, Dovenberg was hired at CSM as an assistant coach after the 2017 season. On June 6, 2018, he was diagnosed with leukemia. For the next eight months, he underwent chemotherapy until ultimately needing a bone marrow transplant.
Through it all, he continued to coach for CSM. While he wasn’t able to coach on the field through 2018, he served as the eye in the sky in the press booth for a majority of the Bulldogs’ games.
“There were days I’d go get chemo in the morning then I’d come up here and go into game plan meetings,” Dovenberg said.
Undergoing a bone marrow transplant Feb. 19, Dovenberg was fortunate in that he found a donor in his younger sister Kate. A testament as to how difficult it is to find an exact match for a bone marrow donor, Kate is one of Dovenberg’s three siblings, the three of whom being triplets. Of his two other siblings, neither was a match for Dovenberg.
The nature of transplant surgery is it depletes one’s immune system. As a result, Dovenberg was hospitalized for 32 days, including 28 days of isolation. When he was eventually released from Kaiser, he was completely sapped of his strength.
“When I got out, I couldn’t do a bodyweight squat.” Dovenberg said.
Now, Dovenberg is in remission, moving forward in hopes his newly built immune system will continue to regulate properly. He still has to have blood work done once a month, and a biopsy every two months going forward. He is also on a prescription of immunosuppressant medication.
In terms of ever knowing he will remain in remission, he said: “You don’t, really.”
Wednesday at College Heights Stadium, Dovenberg was functioning perfectly in stride with CSM’s regimented practice routine. Now the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, he was covering ground with ease, pronouncing his instructions with volume when need be, the only apparent reminder of his condition being his pale complexion.
“For him, 13 months later to be back on the field with us, he’s been truly an inspiration,” Tulloch said.
Dovenberg’s younger brother Matt is also on staff as an assistant as the special teams coordinator and tight ends coach. CSM’s outside linebackers coach Spencer Gilford also has history with Dovenberg, as the two worked together on staff at Gavilan.
“Those guys are my family,” Dovenberg said. “I’ve got everybody looking out for me.”
CSM currently has approximately 120 players in camp, with the roster of approximately 80 to be finalized Sept. 1. The Bulldogs will progress to suiting up in helmets and shoulder pads next Monday, with their first practice in full pads next Wednesday.
“Right now, we’ve just got started,” Tulloch said. “We have a lot to learn about his team. We’re going to figure out about our roster, our character, our toughness once we get into padded practices.”
The Bulldogs are coming off an 8-3 overall record in Tulloch’s first season as head coach. After a third straight undefeated Bay 6 Conference championship, CSM fell in the first round of the playoffs in a 14-0 loss to Laney.
CSM last advanced to the state championship game in 2017, falling 16-12 to Fullerton in the farewell game of legendary head coach Larry Owens. A familiar figure around College Heights Stadium on game days, Owens is still involved in the day-to-day practice operations as special advisor to the head coach and a defensive line coach.
“Everybody has the same mission,” Dovenberg said. “That’s really special.”
If you’re interested in learning more about bone marrow donations, visit www.bethematch.org/ for more information.