College Sports

Former Grizzlies infielder has cancer. NCAA rules say university can’t pay him to coach.

Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader

Craig Massoni woke up the morning before his final game at Arkansas State to find his belly button was bleeding.

The former Gateway Grizzlies infielder was alarmed, but he thought a quick shower would take care of it. The inside of his belly button looked purple and gross, so he threw about seven bandages on it and went to the field.

Massoni, 27, threw batting practice and didn’t think too much of it. While the opposing team took the field to warm up, he sat back in his chair in the dugout as he always does before a game.

He looked down and found his pants covered in blood. It was senior day and his team was wearing all-white uniforms.

He needed to figure something out. He wanted to be there for his team so, again, he bandaged himself up with the hopes that he could make it through the afternoon.

Following the game, Massoni took off his bandages. There was a lot of blood.

This time, he made his way to urgent care and saw a doctor so he could stop the bleeding. Two days later, he saw a surgeon to do a biopsy. The following week, he received his diagnosis.

He had cancer.

Cancer treatments and a new job

Massoni was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the 33rd round of the 2013 Major League Baseball amateur draft. He landed in the independent Frontier League two years later, most prominently with the Gateway Grizzlies organization, which which he spent parts of four seasons.

He traded in his glove for a stop watch after the 2017 season, and moved to Jonesboro, Arkansas to begin his coaching career at Arkansas State.

When he found out he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma — a dangerous form of skin cancer — he made three phone calls: one to his mom, one to his dad and one to Missouri State head baseball coach Keith Guttin.

Massoni already planned on leaving Arkansas State to become the new volunteer assistant at Missouri State. He received his diagnosis the day before he planned on moving to Springfield, but he was going to have to soon begin treatments.

“I told him, ‘Look, I’m really excited to be there but this is what’s going on, I don’t know what it means for my upcoming schedule and I understand how competitive this business is and if you guys feel like you need to move on, I totally understand,’” Massoni said. “He responded to me like I was nuts. That made me feel really good.”

“We want him,” Guttin added. “Even though he hadn’t been on the staff yet, you treat him like you would anyone else. You want him to, number one, to get well and when you do, come to work.”

Massoni is now on campus as Missouri State’s volunteer assistant coach after two years at Arkansas State. He flies back-and-forth between Springfield and Nashville for treatment every third Monday. He’ll do that until around Thanksgiving.

Why Missouri State can’t pay Massoni

As if the fear of having cancer wasn’t enough, Massoni has also had to worry about his financial situation as he pursues his dream of coaching baseball.

Being a volunteer assistant means Massoni can’t be paid by the university.

The NCAA allows three full-time roles on baseball and softball staffs — a head coach and two assistant coaches. In Missouri State baseball’s case, it pays Guttin, Paul Evans and Matt Lawson.

This past April, member conferences had an opportunity to change that legislation. The SEC proposed an amendment to allow — not require — schools to employ four full-time staff members and get rid of the volunteer coach position.

Missouri State’s administration and the Missouri Valley Conference were in favor of adding the new full-time position, according to Guttin.

But the vote ultimately failed by a vote of 36-25 with three conferences abstaining.

The Big Ten and Big 12 voted no. Their decisions — worth four votes each — could have swung the proposal.

As it stands, college baseball and softball staffs have a fourth coach as a volunteer assistant. It is not a full-time role and does not receive benefits.

“That was a major, major concern of mine when I first got diagnosed,” Massoni said. “I wasn’t on health insurance through the university and I wasn’t making a lot of money. That’s a scary moment. I didn’t know what it was going to cost. Seeing all these doctors is not cheap.”

Massoni feels fortunate that he doesn’t have a wife or kids because if he did, he would have had to give up coaching. He wouldn’t be able to support a family while being a volunteer coach.

Massoni with hat.jpg
Craig Massoni, who spent parts of four seasons as a player with the Gateway Grizzlies, was diagnosed with an advanced form of skin cancer as he prepared to move to Springfield, Missouri to be an assistant coach at Missouri State University. File

The costs of volunteer coaching

Minus cancer, every volunteer coach across the country is facing something similar.

“Ultimately, it’s what’s right for college baseball,” Massoni said. “You’re talking about human lives. Whether I’m good or not at this job has yet to be seen, but that’s not what you want chasing people out of this game ... people’s inability to pay the bills.”

The fear of losing his life has inevitably crossed his mind throughout the last few months. He also had the fear of his parents having to sell their house in order to help pay for his medical bills.

Massoni is now on private health insurance — not through the university, per NCAA rules. He doesn’t have a second job, as many other volunteer coaches across the country do.

He wants to put his attention on helping Missouri State get back to its winning ways. His ultimate goal is to be a head coach someday, and the opportunity to be a full-time coach would not only help him financially but it could also give him the experience he needs to advance in the coaching profession.

Volunteer assistants don’t get any recruiting experience. The full-time coaches handle building the team’s future pretty much on their own.

“When you try to move out of the volunteer position into a full-time position, you have to apply for a job and say ‘I’ve never done this but I think I can do it,” Massoni said. “It’s a hard thing to do. We work long hours and it should be honored as a full-time position.”

Hope for NCAA changes, help from friends

All hope isn’t lost for the third-paid assistant coach.

D1Baseball reported Friday, citing sources, that a paid third assistant coach for both baseball and softball will again be considered by the Division I Council in October. If the vote to reconsider the legislation passes, the legislation could be voted on again on the same day or in April.

“If you talk to volunteer coaches across the country, we’re not asking for a $1 million salary,” Massoni said. “We’re asking for enough money to help pay our bills and put food on the table.”

Massoni hopes his story could help get legislation passed for not only himself but for coaches across the country.

He doesn’t want people to feel bad for him, but he knows his situation is a possibility for others.

“Would I have gotten medical attention sooner had I had health insurance at the time? I don’t know,” Massoni said. “I do know that being a volunteer and having minimal health insurance, that I was paying myself, I was hesitant to seek medical help because I don’t know what the bill is going to be afterward.”

Missouri State isn’t allowed to pay him. Missouri State isn’t allowed to give him benefits. Missouri State isn’t allowed to raise money for him.

However, that doesn’t mean his friends can’t.

Massoni’s friends back in California, where he’s from, began a GoFundMe page for their friend. As of Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 10, Massoni’s GoFundMe has raised over $29,000 and is helping him pay his bills as he pursues the sport he loves.

“It’s all worked out and is fine, but my ability to get treated isn’t going to come down to finances, which is a good feeling,” Massoni said. “It’s a real-life thing. That’s real stuff and it was very scary.”

Massoni will continue to travel between Springfield and Nashville for the next few months.

He’s undergoing immunotherapy. The cancer is alive and growing, so the treatment has to be aggressive.

Massoni leans on his faith and his family to get him through. He believes he was put on this Earth to reach and impact lives through being a baseball coach.

“I’ll fly back this weekend for treatment on Monday,” Massoni said. “Then I’ll be back on a plane Tuesday morning in time for practice Tuesday afternoon.”

To support Missouri State assistant baseball coach Craig Massoni, click here to make a donation to his GoFundMe.

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