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Authors: Pat LaFontaine,Ernie Valutis,Chas Griffin,Larry Weisman

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BOOK: Companions in Courage
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Sandy comforted Nick back to sleep when his dad’s fearsome yells subsided, and in time the youngster became conditioned and
slept through the night. Larry began drinking again, his nightmares now including his son. Sandy, sustained by a deep faith,
prepared herself to face whatever might happen.

The first few months were agonizing as the doctor and the Watrobas carefully monitored Nick’s progress. The option of putting
a shunt in his head was still open as long as its size didn’t increase. After about a year it became apparent that Nick’s
body was compensating and his hydrocephalic condition was healing. When Nick was six, Sandy started taking him to the neighborhood
rink to skate. Soon, with the doctor’s permission, his parents started taking him to Holiday Twin Rinks in Cheektowaga, where
he would skate around wearing a helmet and carrying a hockey stick. By age seven Nick was cleared to start playing competitive
hockey in the Holiday House League.

At twelve, he started playing golf. Using a set of clubs he found in the trash and balls he fished out of a lake, he won the
Junior Summer League tournament and was featured in the
Niagara Golfer,
a local publication. Obviously this kid, who couldn’t do anything for the first six years of his life, had athletic talent.

Serendipity helped move Nick’s hockey career along. One day he joined a threesome at South Park Golf Course that included
John Hillery, a man who sponsors students to attend Timon/Jude High School in South Buffalo, New York. Impressed with Nick’s
athleticism, Hillery asked if he would like to go to Timon. Nick was thrilled and attended for two years, excelling on the
ice and the golf course. In his second year he was voted MVP. When the school’s season finished, Watroba played for the Buffalo
Regals, coached by Jim Reaume, a man who has encouraged and inspired Nick throughout his young career. Watroba captained the
Regals for two years before joining the Depew Saints Select team. His play for Timon, the Regals, and the Saints led to his
selection to the Western New York All-Scholastic first team.

The first time the Select team played in Canada, Nick was shocked at the size and speed of some of the Canadian players. In
his room after the first game he struggled with whether or not he could compete. He thought about his dad and mom’s courage
and Coach Reaume’s words: “Even if you’re small, Nick, use that to your advantage. Play the angles and tap into your inner

Nick distinguished himself and was invited to play in the Prospects Tournament in Sarnia, Canada. He played for the Bluewater
Sharks and was selected as one of the top players in the U.S. and Canada. Because of that achievement, he was awarded a scholarship
to Kimball Union Academy, a hockey prep school in Meridian, New Hampshire.

I admire the Watroba family for modeling how to love and support one another through their crises—Vietnam, a hydrocephalic
diagnosis, alcoholism, and the tension created by that tough combination. Leaving the safe confines of western New York has
been a challenge for Nick, but he is ecstatic about playing for Kimball. In his first game, with scouts from Division I and
the NHL in attendance, Nick scored two goals and had two assists.

Given the chance to perform a miracle, his body came through. Facing the challenge of pulling apart or pulling together, his
family fought to stay intact. Easy? Absolutely not, not for Nick or Sandy or Larry. But worth it? Yes. Oh, yes.

Alison Pierce and Family

he would pull on her skates and scrap with anyone on the ice. The game just meant so much. Alison Pierce loved playing hockey.
She excelled in this demanding sport, relished its challenges. And she excelled when life put unreasonable demands on her.

She loved to skate and compete against her younger brothers, Michael and J. T., on Snow Pond near their home in Princeton,
Massachusetts. Ali, twelve, with her long black hair, contagious smile, and irreverent sense of humor, shouldn’t have had
to worry about too much more than chasing down loose pucks. This was childhood, the good times.

Neither she nor her parents were prepared for the news they received just two days before Christmas. On December 23, 1994,
Ali embarked on a journey that would test the heart and resolve of a seasoned athlete, let alone a twelve-year-old just beginning
her career. She was diagnosed with life-threatening liver cancer.

Together with her parents and her brothers, she was determined to fight this disease with the same high energy and competitive
fire that she exemplified on the ice. When she lost her hair, her attitude was, “There is one good thing about chemotherapy.
You can never have a bad hair day.” And by the end of her chemotherapy, her tumors had shrunk.

What was left of the diseased cells was removed surgically, and Ali returned to the eighth grade the next semester. John and
Anna, Ali’s parents, had anguished over their daughter’s plight, so they were deeply relieved when she was back in school.
Her brothers, who missed her competition out on Snow Pond, looked forward to taking her checks again. This young woman had
already faced death and could again live with joy and enthusiasm.

One day, when Ali was noticeably quiet, her mom asked her if anything was wrong. “It bothers me that my friends don’t understand
what life is all about,” Ali told her solemnly. “They’re upset because some boy won’t talk to them or they feel fat. They
just don’t get it.”

Maybe she had already matured beyond her years, gained a wisdom rare even in adults. How many people would say, as she did,
“Cancer is the best thing I’ve ever gone through”? That’s a perspective only life’s harshest difficulties could mold, and
one that gave her parents and brothers the strength to face the wrenching twists that lay ahead for them.

It was only a year later that Christmas again brought an unwelcome visit—Ali’s cancer had returned. The Make-A-Wish Foundation
offered the family a Hawaiian vacation, but Ali’s response was simple: “No. I’ve traveled. Let someone else have the chance
to go.”

Over the ensuing months, John and Anna worked desperately to find a remedy for Ali’s cancer. And through it all, this young
woman hockey player showed the courage of a veteran, maintaining her calm and an aura of peace. When Anna broke down in tears
of grief, Ali comforted her mother. “It’s okay,” she told her. “What is, is.”

So Ali battled cancer. But an indomitable spirit proved no match for a progressive, insidious disease. Alison Pierce died
on November 3, 1996, and her devastated family began to consider funeral arrangements.

They found that Ali had made some arrangements of her own. She had asked her friends to wear red to the funeral. To honor
her beloved daughter’s wishes, Anna went out and bought a red dress. We think of funerals as dark and somber, the black of
the mourners reflecting death’s emptiness, but red ruled at Ali’s funeral. It celebrated the living memory of the vibrant
girl who shook life by its lapels, who lived with the same vitality she had shown on the ice.

Parents should never have to bury a child. And they certainly don’t feel much like conducting the mundane business of their
own lives in the aftermath. It wasn’t any different for the Pierces. Anna felt as if she would never stop crying. John could
barely manage his brokerage firm, let alone his shattered feelings. Michael and J. T. continued to play hockey, but they always
felt as if they were a skater short and their games just didn’t seem to matter much.

Thanksgiving came, three weeks after the funeral. Anna went looking for John and found him in Ali’s room, weeping and wrapped
in memories. As she held him, John told her, “The best day of my life will be when I leave this world and join Ali.”

They talked. They hugged. And they agreed they couldn’t let grief diminish them, that they needed to be strong parents for
their two sons, that they simply had to live in a way that would honor the daughter they’d cherished so.

They kept that promise. They threw their energies into creating the Ali Pierce Endowment Fund through the University of Massachusetts
Cancer Center. This fund would support pediatric cancer care and research. John, an exmarathoner, got his friends and colleagues
to secure pledges from their associates to sponsor them in the Boston Marathon. They set a goal—$500,000 in five years. And
those who joined them became known as Ali’s Army.

Yet they struggled. Anna, who was shy and self-conscious, was still too grief-stricken to take part publicly. When she tried
to return to Ali’s classroom at Notre Dame Academy to give each girl a red carnation that symbolized Ali’s memory, she simply
could not. She finally asked the teacher to distribute the flowers. Anna couldn’t bring herself to see that roomful of young,
lively ladies.

Ali’s Army began to prepare for its first Boston Marathon, which would take place about eleven months after Ali’s death. John
and many of his supporters drove up to Hollis, New Hampshire, to run a half-marathon.

He didn’t come back.

As Anna worried where he was, as the starting time for Michael’s hockey game neared, the phone rang.

“Mrs. Pierce, I’m sorry but your husband has collapsed,” said the caller. “You need to come right away. They are giving him

Anna gathered the boys together and did her best to give them the news. “Daddy’s at the hospital,” she said, “but he is strong
and he loves you guys very much. He’ll be all right.”

J. T. told her, “He’ll be okay. God would never do two terrible things to us in one year.”

And that’s when Anna knew. Even as she frantically dialed the hospital, even as the doctor began to speak, she knew.

“We tried everything,” he said. “But we were not able to revive your husband.”

Ten feet from the finish line, John Pierce had fallen to the ground, the victim of a heart attack.

Anna put her arms around her sons. She told them, “Daddy’s gone. He’s with Ali.”

J. T. screamed and ran away. Mike hugged his mother and then both of them chased down J. T. Anna grabbed him, shook him, screamed
louder than he could: “We will make it. We’re going to be all right. We are going to make it.” Perhaps if she could convince
them, she could also persuade herself.

And together, together, they sobbed.

At the hospital, Anna looked at her husband. Fit. Handsome. How could this be? Yet in that moment of the deepest sorrow she
had ever felt, she also found that peaceful calm Ali had known and showed.

Lying next to John was his cap, the one with “In Memory of Ali” stitched on it. Anna thought about his words on that Thanksgiving
Day. “He’s with Ali,” she told herself. “How can I not be happy for him and for her?”

Bright sun played off the dying autumn leaves as she awoke the next morning. Somehow there wasn’t any question about what
to do next, what to do in the weeks and months and years ahead. She had sons to raise, and her own life to live as a tribute
now to both Ali and John. She had watched cancer strengthen her daughter, even as it took her from her. She had seen Ali’s
death transform John and make him live even harder and more selflessly, ultimately giving his life in her cause.

The shy and self-conscious Anna disappeared that day. The new Anna had a mission. She spoke of it at John’s funeral, reading
from a letter she had written to her departed love: “I will raise our sons to be like you. And I promise you I will carry
on the work you have started with Ali’s Army. But now we will call it Ali and Dad’s Army. My sweet John, thank you for all
you have given us.”

Anna became the Army’s spokesperson. She appeared on the
show. Her aversion to crowds faded. Hockey games, races, fund-raisers, all became venues to tell her story: “I have a daughter
named Ali. She left this earth, but she goes on and I continue to celebrate her life.”

On Ali’s sixteenth birthday, Anna took a bushel of roses to Notre Dame Academy and handed them out, one to each girl in Ali’s
class. On November 18, 1998, Ali and Dad’s Army—all those friends and family members, Ali’s former coaches, Michael and J.
T.—staged a hockey match against the Boston Bruins alumni team. The proceeds from that game put the Ali Pierce Endowment Fund
over its goal of $500,000—in just thirteen months.

When Anna and the boys stood watching the runners warm up for the 1998 Boston Marathon, a reporter asked her how she felt
about fulfilling her husband’s dream after such terrible pain and tragedy.

She paused before answering. And then she said, “Two years ago, we were a family of five. A year ago, we were a family of
four, then a family of three. How blessed we are today to number in the hundreds. No, this is not a tragedy. This is a love


A Father’s

Rich Morton

hen the 1998 high school football season began in Salamanca, New York, coach Rich Morton faced two problems that were disguised
as one. It would be enough if he were known only as the guy replacing a local legend and his own mentor, the area dean of
coaches George Whitcher. But Rich Morton was also a recovering cancer patient.

Coach Whitcher had led his team to seven sectional titles in twenty-five years, and he wanted to continue coaching after he
retired. The school board said no and appointed Morton, who had missed the entire 1997 football season because of his illness.
He had gradually regained enough stamina to coach wrestling, but it took him a year before he got his health and endurance
back. When he was promoted to head football coach for the 1998–99 season, people openly questioned whether he was strong enough
to weather the stress.

But Morton prevailed. Grateful for the opportunity, willing to push himself and carefully guide his players, he led his Salamanca
Warriors to a 12-0 record and into the title game against Edgemont High School.

BOOK: Companions in Courage
10.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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