Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Arizona Wildcats rally for Donnie Salum, vow to continue to help his medical fight

That'[s Donnie Salum third from the right with Rob Gronkowski on his left. Photo courtesy BearDownDonnie.com

That’s Donnie Salum third from the right with Rob Gronkowski on his left and Chris Gronkowski on the far left of the photo. Photo courtesy BearDownDonnie.com

The party is over.

It was a good one. The Arizona Wildcats football family — and then some — showed up at a resort in Chandler last Friday for a day of golf, a dinner, an amazing silent auction full of donated memorabilia, all in emotional and financial support of one of their own, Donnie Salum.

Dick Tomey. Rob Gronkowski. Nick Foles. Rob Waldrop. Mike Stoops. Byron Evans. Rich Rodriguez.

Salum’s high school coach. NFL quarterback Chris Miller, Salum’s former teammate with the Atlanta Falcons. Even Lute Olson.

“It was a pretty incredible day and night,” Salum said. “The love that was shown was off the charts.”

The Wildcats can’t, won’t, stop there. For Salum, the fight goes on. He has an extremely rare bone tumor at the base of his skull, touching his brain stem. It might be cancerous. It might not. Doctors can’t know unless they do a biopsy, which they recommend not doing at this time, due to the delicate location of the tumor.

What’s most basic is this: Salum has something in his head that doesn’t belong there.

He has suffered, among other things, severe weight loss, debilitating headaches, numbness on his right side, loud ringing in his head, difficulty swallowing. When friends held a dinner for him last fall, Salum said he “looked like he had one foot in the grave.”

He’s improved physically, gained back some weight, but the symptoms persist. A good day involves a good walk. But when he stops, stands still, “everything gets dizzy,” he said.

“They keep me fairly medicated up,” Salum added.

He regularly sees six doctors, five of them specialists. He will fly to Pittsburgh later this month for more testing, to see if this bone tumor is growing, to face whatever the next move might be.

Yes, last week’s event was great.

But Donnie Salum still needs our help.

Tomey insists on it.

* * *

Salum, 46, is one of the many walk-on-makes-good stories of Arizona football, playing in 1988 for Tomey as a junior college transfer linebacker and leading the team with 113 tackles in 1989, earning co-Wildcat of the Year honors with Darryll Lewis.

The Falcons selected Salum with the 250th pick of the 1990 draft. He stuck on the practice squad for a couple of seasons, but he spent most of his time on injured reserve and didn’t appear in a game. Several years later, he had a thriving fitness business, first in the Phoenix area and then beyond, which is how he met a guy from Buffalo who was in the same field — Gordon Gronkowski Sr.

If UA fans are fuzzy about Salum’s career, just know this: Without Salum, there is no Rob Gronkowski at Arizona.

“We ran into each other at a trade show and we were having some fun,” Salum said of Gronkowski Sr., “and then every trade show after that, we would plan to be together.

“We hit it off and started talking weekly. He was always telling me about his boys. I went out there to look at his organization in the exercise equipment business, and that was the first time I saw Robbie. He was in the seventh grade. His dad always called him, ‘My freak.’”

Rob could have gone to any school in the country. He picked Arizona because of Salum.

“Without Donnie, there’s no Rob,” Stoops said.

“That’s 100 percent true,” Salum said. “Robbie would have never even opened a letter from them. But his dad was comfortable with it, knowing there was someone up the road who cared about his family.”

Donnie Salum, with Dick Tomey and Tedy Bruschi at last month's alumni reunion to celebrate Tomey's 75th birthday. Photo courtesy of BearDownDonnie.com

Donnie Salum, with Dick Tomey and Tedy Bruschi at last month’s alumni reunion to celebrate Tomey’s 75th birthday. Photo courtesy of BearDownDonnie.com

Rob spoke at the event, calling Salum one of his best friends, one of the people he can trust the most. Afterward, Gronk went back to Salum’s house to sign more items that can be used later to raise more funds.

Business was so good more than a decade ago that Salum donated several hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment to a new weight room in McKale Center, which opened in the summer of 2002. Salum donated a lot more than that to UA over the years, too.

Stoops inherited the benefits of the weight room when he was hired after the 2003 season.

“That was a first-class weight room,” Stoops said. “That was the one cornerstone we had in the whole building.”

But Salum’s business eventually went south and collapsed. He sold cars. He worked in real estate and land investment. Now, he can’t work. He announced his medical condition on Facebook last September, writing “I’m not sure how to say this as never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be in this position.”

Salum has been one of the most loyal, most passionate, of Arizona alums. He cheered so hard on the sideline during the 2007 Arizona-UCLA game that he collapsed a lung.

“He’s just a great person,” said Stoops, now the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma who helped provide several auction items.

“You just try to help great people out any way that you can. He’s a great Wildcat, but he’s also a great friend. It’s important that all of us be there for people when they need you. …

“To see the passion he has for Arizona football, that’s loud and clear. If there was somebody more passionate and intense than me, it was Donnie, and he wasn’t even coaching.”

That passion and intensity is being reciprocated when Salum needs it most.

He is on COBRA insurance for the short term. Expenses are piling up, including travel costs. He has a wife, Missy, and three kids, ages 8, 6 and soon-to-be 3.

“He’s in the fight of his life,” Tomey said.

“It breaks my heart to see him go through this, but he’s going through it like the champion he is.”

* * *

Tomey spearheaded the fundraising event last week and even put the weekly use of his house in Oahu up for auction.

Former Wildcats Heath Bray, Ty Parten and Paul Glonek won the bid. That’s a trio that could do some damage.

“As soon as we won it, Coach Tomey put his head in his hands,” Bray said.

It could have been worse. Gronkowski, the New England Patriots star tight end who is noted as an NFL party boy, was also bidding for a while.

But as the page turns from that fun, happy event, Tomey remains vigilant that everyone stays with the playbook: Donnie Salum needs our help.

“Coach Tomey has been just unbelievable,” Salum said.

“He has done more for me than anyone has ever done for me in my life. It’s not even close. Tomey is on a mission with this.

“I’m blessed. I feel incredibly touched by everything. It gives me a whole lot more fight, knowing the people that are supporting me.”

Earlier this week, Tomey posted a letter on BearDownDonnie.com, which will continue to chronicle Salum’s fight and provide a means to donate. Here is what Tomey wrote:

“We wanted to boost the morale and spirit of Donnie, Missy and the family, and to raise awareness of the difficult path they are on as we begin to raise funds for the days and months ahead. That MISSION was ACCOMPLISHED.

“Now, as we turn to the future, the real fund raising starts! There are no golf tournaments or silent auctions now. We are asking those of you who were there Friday and those who couldn’t make it to spread the word. We need to widen the circle to include more people each day. This is not a one day, one week, or one month challenge. It must go on as long as Donnie needs it. So go to the website www.beardowndonnie.com and contribute as much as you are able. Big and small checks are appreciated.

“The doctor’s appointment in Pittsburgh later in May hopefully will provide some clarity. No one can be sure. Donnie, Missy and their family are so grateful for all the love and support shown them so far. We need all of you for the long haul – your love, your prayers and yes, your financial help to fight and win this fight!! I for one will be there for Donnie and his family. Are you in?”

The Salum family. Photo courtesy of BearDownDonnie.com

The Salum family. Photo courtesy of BearDownDonnie.com

Search site | Terms of service