CRAWFORD | Having beaten cancer, Nochta welcomes role on Louisville football staff
Pete Nochta has survived a frightening battle with cancer, but is all smiles as he assumes a new role with the University of Louisville football program.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Six months ago, former University of Louisville football player Pete Nochta would’ve been happy if you’d just told him he’d be able to walk into Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium on a cool, gray day like Wednesday.
Instead, Nochta, who in the past year has overcome a battle with Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, sat in the recruiting lounge of the stadium Wednesday afternoon, smiling through an interview with WDRB about his new job — as the U of L football program’s director of on-campus recruiting.
His hair is growing back. He’s getting back to life. And it's safe to say, if you see him around, he's the most grateful guy in the room.
“Not everything is guaranteed,” Nochta said. “That’s been highlighted for me the past year.”
Has it ever. Nochta played tight end for the Cardinals from 2006 to 2010, and was on the field for their big Orange Bowl win in 2007. He had served as a graduate assistant at Louisville, then worked at Purdue and Western Kentucky before coming back to Louisville in 2014.
He’s been in a football administrative role before. But he’s a different person from the one who last worked in this building as a graduate assistant for Petrino.
Just a couple of weeks after the Kentucky Derby last May, Nochta's world changed. After going to the doctor for persistent knee pain, he was diagnosed with cancer.
“The first thing you feel is is shock, because you don’t know what to think, and your whole life you kind of go through thinking, ‘cancer, I hope I don’t ever have to deal with that,’” Nochta said. “You hear about people getting cancer and feel bad for them, but you don’t really put yourself in those shoes. So when I was diagnosed, I was shocked. I didn’t know what to think.”
He had support. His family. His friends. A lot of people from his church, Southeast Christian, stepped in to support him.
But he had two mainstays in particular, beyond his family. One was Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, who called or visited him every week, and sometimes more often. And the other was Mike Cassity, a former defensive coordinator at Louisville who coached with Petrino and worked with Nochta at Western Kentucky.
Cassity was of particular help, because he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma while at Western Kentucky, and could advise Nochta on various elements of his treatments. And not only that, but he had navigated the entire road, from diagnosis to recovery, virtually before Nochta's eyes.
And here’s how life takes interesting -- or Nochta would tell you, flat-out providential -- turns sometimes. Cassity was the college roommate of Nochta’s dad, so he’s known him all his life.
“Just having that relationship with him, he kind of gave me some advice that helped me and just shared with his experiences that helped him,” Nochta said. “And I kind of was able to take that and run with it and not be down in the dumps too long, be able to stay upbeat and positive about what I am. And I was able to persevere.”
At first, Nochta responded well to the baseline chemotherapy. After his first three treatments, a PET scan showed that the cancerous area of his knee had shrunk to almost nothing. He went through the second round of treatments confident that the end was near.
But his next PET scan showed that the cancer had grown back. And after another couple of rounds of stronger chemotherapy, this done on an inpatient basis, the next PET scan was even worse.
All around Nochta, there was support. Louisville football fans had learned of his situation and were sending cards and letters, donating money to online campaigns to help with his medical costs.
“At that point in my life, I didn’t know what to do, or where to turn, so my faith really took another step in my relationship with God and just through doing that, honestly, literally the moment that I made that realization, that kind of faith, things started to turn around,” Nochta said.
Alone with those worrisome test results and the knowledge that his treatment might not be working, Nochta has no problem telling you where he turned — to prayer. And while he’d agree that it was a difficult time, today he describes that time in another way: He says it was a blessing.
“I was saying and reading and doing all the right things, but I don’t know if I was necessarily all-in with my heart and saying all the things I should and thinking the way I should,” Nochta said. “So literally, I look at it in hindsight as a blessing that the second bad result came in, because I was all-in then, and said I’m either going to die now, or die to my old ways and really take life and be invested with all my heart in all I do.”
Doctors decided to do another biopsy on his knee, and discovered that while he PET scans showed the cancer was growing, the biopsy showed that he was responding to treatment.
On Wednesday, he sat in the stadium recruiting lounge in remission, and beyond that, excited about his new career opportunity in football.
Sitting in seclusion, for the most part, while his immune system was compromised from his treatment, Nochta had little to do but watch football, and realize that the game is where his passion is.
You go through an experience like the one he did, and you decide not to waste a day, not to waste time in life doing something you don’t love.
Petrino had kept talking to Nochta. He would talk to him about getting better, about his life beyond his disease. It’s not a side of Petrino that people often see. But it’s a side that Nochta will share with anyone he sees — including guys playing for Petrino now, and recruits thinking about playing for him.
“Coach P called and said with the experience I’ve had working for him, and because I know the program and recruiting areas and the relationship we’ve had and I can share with others, the combination of all that made me a good fit if i’m up to it,” Nochta said. “. . . I’m excited when kids come in to share that, to make sure that people understand the loyalty of Coach P, honestly. If you’re one of his guys and work hard for him, he’s got your back, and more than just in football. That’s something that you don’t get everywhere you go. So I’m excited to share that.”
Petrino, as he did with Cassity during his fight with cancer, is still watching out for Nochta, making sure he is taking the best steps for his health.
“We are glad to have Pete back on our staff in this role," Petrino said. "He was the first person I thought of when this position opened. He has battled through a tough fight with cancer and beat it. He has been with me on two different occasions and is someone that means a great deal to me. As a graduate assistant for us, he was an outstanding recruiter for our program. He is very organized and has excellent people skills, which makes him a great fit for this role."
Without question, Nochta comes with a message that’s of value to college kids, whether they play football or not. As director of on-campus recruiting, Nochta will be responsible for the organization of all recruiting efforts and maintain relationships with coaches throughout the state of Kentucky. He’ll also lead the walk-on program and help organize summer camps.
“What I told (Petrino), there’s not another school or another coach that I want to do this for,” Nochta said. “The fact that he was here, and the fact that it was the University of Louisville, that’s where my real excitement came from, because I played here, I went to school here, graduated from here, I live here. And a lot of these players who are here now I know through recruiting or coaching. So just to be able to impact them, hopefully they can take a few things away from my experience without having to go through it themselves, and know the fact that I’ve been in that exact seat that they’re sitting in, been in that locker room, I think that’ll help.”