Sontag Inspires Amid 'Miracle' Cancer Fight

January 3, 2020

By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half

PINCKNEY – Dave Sontag could tell something was wrong.

The gymnasium at Petersburg-Summerfield High School is bigger than most in Monroe County. But when Sontag, a veteran official, was running up and down the floor, he felt unusually tired and began feeling pain in his back.

“I knew something was wrong,” Sontag said. “During a timeout, I told one of the other officials who was in the stands watching that he might have to finish the game.”

Sontag, however, pushed through and made it.

“That’s when it all began,” he said.

A few weeks later, as the Saline varsity baseball coach, Sontag was hitting fly balls to the Hornets’ outfielders.

“I was struggling,” he said. “I called the players in and told them something was wrong. I had to stop.”

Still trying to fight through whatever was wrong, Sontag was coaching third base during a Saline intra-squad scrimmage a short time later.

“I started to see white,” he said.

He had another member of the Saline coaching staff call his wife, Michelle, who came and picked him up and took him to the hospital in Chelsea.

“My blood counts were trash, just trash,” he said. “The doctors said I need to have a blood transfusion.”

He was rushed to a Detroit-area hospital for the transfusion. After tests, Sontag was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, an extremely vigorous, aggressive cancer. That was May 15, 2018.

During the 18 months since, Sontag has gone through chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He’s watched multiple communities respond with fundraisers and benefits and amazing support. He’s had more than one bone marrow transplant. He’s heard from countless friends and ex-players who have continued to lift his spirits day after day via e-mails and text messages. He’s been counted out more than once.

Yet, he’s survived.

“Every day has been a challenge,” he said.


Sports and Sontag have gone together from the beginning.

He is a Monroe County native who was The Monroe Evening News Player of the Year in baseball in 1978 and went on to play at the University of Toledo. He taught journalism and English at his alma mater, Monroe Jefferson, before becoming a counselor for another 12 years. He was also the Jefferson director of athletics and recreation for a time.

He coached baseball for the Bears, leading the team to nearly 400 victories and the Division 2 championship in 2002. He stepped down from coaching to follow his kids, who were playing at higher levels; Ryan Sontag played at Arizona State University and in the Chicago Cubs organization. Susan played softball at Bowling Green State University, and Brendan played ball at Indiana Tech University.

Still, the desire to coach never left their dad.

“After my kids were done playing, I coached freshman baseball at Jefferson,” he said. “I missed it and still wanted to be part of it.”

With his wife a principal in the Saline district, Sontag was asked by Scott Theisen, Saline’s head coach, to join his staff in 2015. He was with the Hornets when they captured the Division 1 championship in 2017, then was named head coach before the 2018 season started.

“That was the year I got sick,” he said. “I didn’t even finish the year.”

Sontag also has been a basketball official for years, getting his start in the early 1980s. He’s been a registered MHSAA high school basketball official for 40 years and has trained officials for the Monroe County Basketball Officials’ Association. He’s called four MHSAA Finals championship games.

“My first varsity game ever was when I was 21,” Sontag said. “I refereed a game at Whiteford.”


Sontag previously battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995-1996, beating that disease after a nine-month battle.

Although this cancer battle began as he was new to the Saline community, they embraced his fight, selling “Team Tags” T-shirts and painting the youth baseball diamond with a big ribbon. His son, Ryan, was invited to throw out the first pitch before the youth baseball season started in Dave’s honor.

Back home, in Monroe County, Sontag’s school held similar fundraisers and blood drives.

“I had so much support,” he said. “It was quite amazing to see.”

He tried all sorts of treatments, ultimately boarding an airplane and heading to Seattle for a clinical trial. It didn’t work.

“At that point, I didn’t think I was going to live,” Sontag said. “They told me there was nothing more they could do. They just were giving me something to take the pain away. I was miserable.”

Still, Sontag said, he held out hope.

“I felt it wasn’t time yet,” he said. “I have three grandkids. There are things I want to do. There’s so much I haven’t accomplished yet. In Seattle, they didn’t count on me living.”

But, for a still-unexplained reason, a combination of the medicine he was given to “take the pain away,” on his flight home and a different medicine he received when he returned to Michigan, started to change the way he felt. His blood counts started getting better.

“The side effects were lousy, but, for some reason, it threw me into remission. They checked for leukemia and it was not there.

“We called it a miracle.”


Sontag, who lives in Pinckney now, is still dealing with the side effects of nearly two years of treatments. He has a tingling sensation in his arms and legs – the feeling people get when their hands or feet ‘fall asleep’ – and he has a weak immune system.

But he gets a little better every day.

“Every day is a blessing,” he said.

In addition to the community support and constant praying, he credits his wife with guiding him through this process.

“Michelle has been a rock through all of this,” he said. “She’s been by my side every single day. Without her, I don’t know if I would have made it.”

Recently, the Monroe County Officials’ Association held a banquet during which Sontag was presented with a “Courage Award.” He isn’t sure if he’ll be able to referee again anytime soon.

“I told them that night that I’d like to do it again, somewhere,” he said. “I don’t care of it’s a seventh-grade game. I just want to get out there again.”

In addition to the outpouring of love from multiple communities, family and friends, Sontag said sports has kept him alive.

“Sports is part of my fabric,” he said. “Baseball and officiating basketball games has given me that motivation I’ve needed to fight through this. I don’t know if I will coach again or referee again. I’m definitely not going to jump into the same schedule. But there are things I would like to do.

“Will I become a head coach again? Probably not. The task of being a head coach is probably too big right now. But I’d like to be involved. I’d still like to run camps and clinics. I’d still like to officiate too. I want to be a part of it. It’s something that’s in my blood.”

His son Ryan lives in Saline and has three children. Ryan coaches his son in a youth baseball league.

“He called me the other day and asked if I’d help him out,” Dave Sontag said. “I told him I think he will get me out there at some point.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: Longtime official and coach Dave Sontag – standing in front row with wife Michelle, daughter-in-law Amy and son Brendan – is presented a “Courage Award” by the Monroe County Officials Association. (Middle) Sontag, formerly baseball coach at Monroe Jefferson and Saline, mans his spot on the baseline. (Below) Sontag with officials, from left, Mike Gaynier, Mike Bitz, Mike Knabusch and Dan Jukuri. (Top and below photos courtesy of Knabusch; middle photo courtesy of the Monroe News.)

Be the Referee: Officials Registration

By Sam Davis
MHSAA Officials Coordinator

May 30, 2023

Be The Referee is a series of short messages designed to help educate people on the rules of different sports, to help them better understand the art of officiating, and to recruit officials.

Below is this week's segment – Officials Registration - Listen

We talk a lot about the need for registered officials. But how do you sign up? What does it take to become a referee, umpire, or judge?

The steps are simple. Go to to the Officials Tab, and identify the sport or sports you are interested in. Next, complete the MHSAA Principals of Officiating and the Officials Guidebook exams.

The Officials Guidebook covers basic elements and procedures for becoming a sports official. This first step of the process covers playing rules, ejection protocols, game assignments, and payment of game fees.

Once you pass the exams, it’s time to connect with a locally-approved officials association. The local associations are the ones that provide the training – whether it’s on the court, on the field, on the mats, or video training – to get that person completely immersed in the rules, mechanics, and coverages of what it takes to become a good official.

Previous Editions:

May 23: Soccer Offsides or Goal? - Listen
May 16: Track & Field Exchange Zones - Listen
May 9: Girls Lacrosse Self-Start - Listen
May 2: Baseball/Softball Overthrow - Listen
April 25: Fifth-Quarter/Third-Half Rule - Listen
April 18: Soccer Referee in Play? - Listen
April 11: Softball Strikeout - Listen
March 14: Basketball Instant Replay - Listen
March 7: Hockey Overtime - Listen
Feb. 28: Baker Bowling - Listen
Feb. 21: Ski Finish - Listen
Feb. 14: Swimming Touchpads - Listen
Feb. 7: In or Out-of-Bounds in Wrestling - Listen
Jan. 31: Over the Back - Listen
Jan. 24: Competitive Cheer Judges - Listen
Jan. 17: More Lines - Listen
Jan. 10: On the Line - Listen
Jan. 3: Basketball Measurements - Listen
Dec. 13: Pregame Dunks - Listen
Dec. 6: Gymnastics Judges - Listen
Nov. 22: Football Finals Replay - Listen
Nov. 15: Back Row Illegal Blocker - Listen
Nov. 8: Swim Turn Judges - Listen
Nov. 1: Soccer Referee Jersey Colors - Listen
Oct. 25: Cross Country Tie-Breaker - Listen
Oct. 18: Soccer Shootouts - Listen
Oct. 11: Safety in End ZoneListen
Oct. 4: Football Overtime Penalty - Listen
Sept. 27: Kickoff Goal - Listen
Sept. 20: Soccer Timing - Listen
Sept. 13: Volleyball Replays - Listen
Sept. 6: Switching Sides - Listen
Aug. 30: Play Clock - Listen
Aug. 23: Intentional Grounding Change
- Listen

PHOTO: Officers confer during a soccer match early this season. (Photo by Chris Mudd/National Photo Scout.)