DJacks coach Ben Fonseca has packed on 88 pounds since his battle with a life-threatening disease.
A little over a year ago, Ben Fonseca was just a couple months removed from cheating death. He was working his disease-riddled body back to a functioning entity, but had a long way to go in regard to returning his ravaged body to some semblance of athleticism.
While his own health was a critical motivator, so was the quality time the longtime coach intended to spend with his wife and three young sons.
“Going from where I was with my illness to where I am now, looking back when we were doing the original story, I try to forget it,” said Fonseca.
Fonseca’s stocky, muscular frame had wasted away to 106 pounds under the duress of scleroderma, a brutally unforgiving autoimmune disease that attacks and hardens your organs, including your skin. Fonseca’s heartbreaking but inspirational battle was documented in detail by DiamondNation.com last October.
Right about the time of the story, Ben had embarked on a workout regimen that was familiar, but cautiously scaled back from what he was used to during his healthier days.
“The disease took away movements in my joints,” said Fonseca. “It tightened my skin, my ankles, everything, restricting movements. It was very difficult at the beginning but working out with free weights and machines was like putting oil in an engine for me.”
Returning to his home gym, HealthQuest Fitness Center in Flemington, N.J., Fonseca’s body slowly began to respond and return to some semblance of normalcy.
“The more active I became, the better I felt,” said Fonseca. “The medicine I was taking to treat my disease was making me better internally. Working out with weights was lubricating my joints and stretching out my skin.”
Ben was getting progressively better on the outside but nothing was easy at the start.
“When I first started, my joints were so bad,” Fonseca said. “Raising my shoulders to throw a ball or going on the machines, it was like cracking peanut brittle. I had to incorporate more shoulder workouts and my back and core to help in my throwing motion, so I could throw BP to my son.”
Through October, November, December, January, February and March, Fonseca was more than visibly improved to his friends and fellow coaches at Diamond Nation. He was getting back to himself in every way. “I think it’s more of a mental thing to overcome,” said Fonseca. “I’ve always enjoyed working with weights and I’ve always been very active. Coaching keeps you going. I had just spent two years in a hospital bed and a wheelchair.”
There was a point where it didn’t look like Fonseca would ever get out of that hospital bed again, never mind rejoin his favorite workout plans.
Scleroderma is also referred to as systemic sclerosis, which is a chronic connective tissue disease. Hardening of the skin is one of the most visible manifestations of the disease. The seriousness or intensity of the disease varies patient-to-patient. Essentially, Ben’s immune system was attacking healthy tissue in his body.
Fonseca’s case would soon qualify as the most serious of the serious scleroderma cases. And his condition would quickly go from unsure to bad to much worse. The latter of which occurring seemingly moments after doctors finally understood what was ailing him.
“Ben was diagnosed in August of 2017 and with a prognosis of 3-5 years life expectancy,” said Toni Fonseca, Ben’s wife. “The body overproduces collagen, causing a hardening of the skin and organs. In short, the human body begins to turn to stone.” Collagen is the main structural protein in the body’s connective tissue.
While Toni, a middle school math teacher, would prove to be very much her husband’s savior in her quest to research and eventually find medical solutions to Ben’s health crisis, it was Ben who’d become a warrior in his battle back to full health.
“I think the biggest thing that working out did for Ben was bring balance to his life,” says Paul Kolody, the strength and conditioning coach at Hunterdon Central High School in Flemington. Kolody and Fonseca are longtime friends dating back to their days with the Somerset Patriots and the independent Atlantic League. “Our bodies are essentially a chemistry project. If you’re not moving you’re going backwards. Ben was always a mover and shaker. That was his M.O. Getting back to that was normal for him and he began to thrive with that renewed lifestyle.”
Having access to an incredible fitness facility like HealthQuest proved critical to Ben regaining his strength, flexibility and endurance and picking up momentum toward his full recovery from scleroderma.
“Everything goes back to HealthQuest for me,” says Foneseca. “Their entire staff is incredible. Without them I’d be an old man sitting at the window watching cars go by.” Instead, Fonseca has pulled his 106-pound body up from the depths and packed on 88 pounds, miraculously returning his frame to a more familiar 194 robust pounds.
But Fonseca’s refortification ran into a roadblock before March was over, courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic. HealthQuest, like all fitness facilities in New Jersey, was shut down and would not reopen until September. Fonseca had to find a way to keep building his body while the source of that renewed vitality was taken away from him.
He turned to his old buddy, Kolody.
“I called Paul and got some weights to get me through it,” said Fonseca. While HealthQuest creatively began virtual classes for its membership, Ben still had no access to the diverse equipment that had helped return the oil to his stiff joints.
“There has never been a more important time to take care of your health,” says Lisa Carlson, HealthQuest general manager.“ And, fortunately, HealthQuest’s doors have reopened as the community, state and country inch slowly and carefully toward normalcy.
But COVID created a whole new dilemma for Fonseca, whose compromised immune system leaves him susceptible to a whole petri dish of diseases and illnesses. He, more than most, had to take every possible precaution while undauntingly continuing his coaching duties at Diamond Nation.
His workouts also began to build up a renewed head of steam in September with HealthQuest’s reopening.
“HealthQuest has a whole spectrum of programs that we offer that address injury and illness recovery,” says HealthQuest assistant general manager Brian Comerford. While some remained hesitant to return to public places, such as health clubs, this summer and fall, Fonseca found a comfort zone at his home gym, HealthQuest.
“We take our safety protocols very seriously and compliance of our membership is excellent,” says Carlson, who with her staff compiled a 30-page COVID compliance re-opening playbook. “We have all of our protocols in place and our members get it. They want to work out and they want us to remain open.”
Certainly one of the main beneficiaries of that painstakingly careful approach to member safety is Ben Fonseca, who spends three-to-four days a week diligently staying ahead of the scleroderma threat on his favorite machines and with free weights at HealthQuest.
“All the changes from the governor, people are scared to go back in the building,” says Fonseca. “In my highly contagious condition, every second I’m exposed. I was able to get my 3-to-4 days a week of workouts in. I’ve been careful. I feel bad sometimes people wave and want to stop and say hello, whether I’m at HealthQuest or Diamond Nation. I wave and keep going. I’ve had to stay away from everyone.”
Fonseca’s workouts have taken their old form at HealthQuest.
“We were aggressive when we first came back,” he said. “After the shutdown we made routines up at the house. But we’ve come back very aggressively, just because it’s my best medicine. In my mind I feel good. Then I get into my third set and my body starts laughing at me.”
Ben is, indeed, still learning the limitations to the pace of his rebuild, whether it’s in the gym or in a batting cage.
“A half-hour lesson takes me three hours to recover from,” says Fonseca. “I was giving lessons three days a week and helping the Finch’s Aces teams twice a week (before the governor recently put limits on indoor activities).
Kolody points to the multiple benefits of weight and resistance training, particularly for Fonseca.
“The strength put tension back on his ligaments and muscles,” says Kolody. “His bones became more healthy with stress added to them. His body was ready to accept the weight and still move efficiently. That’s balance. There is also the stress relief of going back to a lifestyle he is familiar with, spending more time with his family and feeling better about his outcome. Less stress equals better sleep, better nutrition, hydration and, overall, a better outlook on each day.”
Ben certainly has that after gaining the unenviable perspective of having been to death’s door.
At the same time, Ben learned he had a mental hurdle to clear as he first battled, then recovered from his horrific disease. Fonseca had succeeded at a high level in the coaching ranks, boasting a resume that is eye-opening. His reputation in the sport of baseball is unimpeachable. He forged that impressive career with fierce independence, an ability to bring players and teams together but, also, with an intent to not lean on others to get things done.
“Being a coach and player, I depended on myself for everything,” said Fonseca. “Ten days after my diagnosis I was down for the count. Suddenly everyone had to know my business. I was now an open window. It was tough to swallow that during my recovery. I didn’t welcome help. Finally, someone told me, ‘You have to accept the nurses’ help, the doctor’s advice. You have to open up. They know more than you.’ I finally did that and it gave me peace of mind.”
Ben would learn that everyone, no literally everyone, wanted to help him. He’d had that effect on so many during his coaching career.
“My former players, many who are coaches now, came out of the woodwork when I got sick,” he says. “It was overwhelming. Strangers would come to my house with gifts. It was weird. I wondered, why would someone do that? The Cust family, Diamond Nation and HealthQuest put me in a position for a second chance to rebuild my body.”
And, perhaps coolest of all, Ben found he had a new workout partner in his son, 15 year-old Ben, Jr., himself a Diamond Jack and a sophomore at South Brunswick High School.
“I found out how much I missed being a father to him during those two years I was sick,” said Fonseca. “It was just the normal father-son things and his development. One thing I did learn was how to separate being a dad and a coach with him.”
The two Bens work out together with little restraint.
“We’re trying to get as big and strong as we can,” says Fonseca. “We hit every body part. There’s not just one routine and there’s more advanced routines and workouts now. What Paul Kolody taught me and the staff at HealthQuest have done for me is phenomenal, It’s what they do.”
Ben’s gained a unique perspective on life through a grueling illness. Perhaps it showed him most how amazing it is just to have his everyday life back.
“Every day I wake up is a blessing,” he says. “I went through all those stages with my wife and kids and felt they were suffering worse than I was. I know what they were going through.” Ben, Toni and their boys, Ben, Jr., Mason, 13, and Sage, 9, have come through it stronger.
Ben takes eight pills a day, a precipitous drop from the 30 he was on during the worst months of his illness.
“I was one of those elderly people in rehab, scared and embarrassed to do it,” he says. “I knew I had to fight through it to stay alive. Growing up an athlete, I make it like I’m getting ready for a season and put myself in athlete mode. I can’t use ‘I’m tired’ as an excuse. I have to be my best.”
It would be hard to imagine Ben being much better given his circumstances and challenges.
“We are so happy to see Ben back working out, getting stronger and looking like himself again,” said Mike Cust, Diamond Nation’s assistant general manager. “We feel fortunate to have HealthQuest here at his disposal where he can continue the body-building momentum he started a year ago.”