By Chris Goldberg
Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 10/11/09
Few could appreciate the impact of the Third Annual Nick Colleluori Classic held Saturday and Sunday at Ridley more than Tom Gravante.
The 15-year Mount St. Mary’s head coach had no trouble motivating his team when it competed with eight other Division I squads in the annual Fall Ball tournament, which benefited the HEADstrong Foundation’s drive to raise money for blood cancer in honor of Ridley High grad Nick Colleluori.
After all, Gravante suffered the exact same disease that struck Nick Colleluori – Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. That made it easy for Gravante to appreciate the realization of Nick’s dream to help cure blood cancer through the creation of the HEADstrong Foundation, which has raised $1 million for needed research.
Gravante’ diagnosis came late in 2000 when doctors found a 15-centimeter tumor beneath his collarbone, sitting just above his heart on his left lung. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation and was in near-remission, but in November 2002, the cancer returned.
Doctors at Johns Hopkins tried a bone marrow transplant – in hopes of using Graft Versus Host (GVH) to kill the cancer cells by raising the T-cell count – with Gravante’s brother as the donor. But the marrow was such a good match that Gravante’s cells did not recognize its new host and instead his vital organs and tissue became severely at risk.
Six months after his transplant, doctors introduced GVH directly into Gravante’s bloodstream in a last-ditch effort to kill the cancer. The GVH did kill the lymphoma, but it also nearly killed him, causing a temperature of 106 and later causing major skin lesions on his face and intensive burning sensations that threatened to kill him.
Somehow, he survived and missed only one year of coaching (2005), although he ran the show from his office and the press box. In the last year doctors told him he was cured; his facial burns remain, but Gravante, now 43, is thankful for his life and the chance to raise his two children with his devoted wife, Nicole.
Gravante said he has wanted to bring his team to the Nick Colleluori Classic since it began two years ago. Due to prior commitments, this was the first year the Mount could go – but Gravante and his players were thankful to participate.
“This is dear to my heart,” he said. “I have known the Colleluori family for at least three years. I heard of Nicholas’ diagnosis and it was the same as mine.
“It is truly a shame that we lose such a bright young man with a great future. But it’s wonderful what the (Colleluori) family has done in his honor. I would have played in this a long time ago, but I didn’t have enough space on the schedule.”
This weekend Mount St. Mary’s will again play in the Lacrosse for Leukemia Fall Ball event at St. Paul’s School in Brooklandville, Md.
One of Gravante’s top players appreciates his struggle to survive, as well as the message of Nick Colleluori.
“He (Gravante) doesn’t bring it up too much,” said Mount sophomore attackman Christian Kellett, a Malvern Prep grad who led the team in scoring (14 goals, 13 assists) last year in a standout freshman year. “But he’s a big supporter of this type of program.
“(We know) he beat the disease. It’s great to come back, it’s like a homecoming. My family is all here, and a bunch of Malvern people, too.
“Having a coach that beat cancer and getting out to these kinds of things and spreading the awareness is great.”
Kellett said Gravante and Nick Colleluori are perfect role models.
“Take every day,” he said. “Carpe diem … seize the day.”
Gravante was presented with the 2006 Jim Muhlfelder Award for service to lacrosse at the US Lacrosse National Convention in Philadelphia. He returned to the sidelines fulltime in 2006 as Mount St. Mary’s finished 7-9 and fell just short of an NCAA tournament berth when Providence rallied to beat The Mount, 8-6, in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) championship game.
“It took me eight years to get my body back,” he said. “Johns Hopkins threw me out.
“It’s a pleasure to be here for the (Colleluori) family and to raise funds for a cure,” Gravante said. “No family should have to lose their child.”
Gravante said competing in the Third Annual Nick Colleluori Classic was a dream come true.
“It’s everything I hoped it would be,” he said. “I threw the wife and kids on the bus, and told them it will be a wonderful day. I said, ‘Let’s go have some fun.’ It truly is a special event and a special thing.”
Tom Gravante Year-by-Year Record
Year Overall/MAAC Notes
1996 7-9 /5-2 ECAC Bid
1997 9-7/7-1 ECAC Bid
1998 7-10/6-1 ECAC Bid
1999 11-5/8-0 MAAC Champion, ECAC Bid
2000 8-8/8-1 MAAC Tournament
2001 11-6/8-1 MAAC Tournament Champion
2002 6-11/6-2 MAAC Tournament
2003 10-8/7-1 MAAC Tournament Champion, NCAA Bid
2005 Missed Season due to Health Reasons
2006 7-9/6-2 MAAC Tournament
2009 5-10/5-3 MAAC Tournament
TOTAL: 95-125, 76-25 in MAAC Regular Season Games