By Matthew De George
Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 10/9/10
Beneath his hat, sunglasses, and as much sun-blocking clothing as an immaculate 74-degree October day can reasonably allow, Mount St. Mary’s head lacrosse coach Tom Gravante bears the scars of a life-and-death battle.
His face retains the burn marks of a battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that raged on-and-off for almost five years. But a decade after his original diagnosis, the powerfully built coach can proudly place his name among the ranks of the survivors and aid in the fight against the
disease that has claimed so many lives.
“My feeling is that no family should lose a child or a loved one to blood cancer,” Gravante said today during the 4th annual Nick Colleluori Classic at Ridley High. “We have to make enough money for research to find a cure, and that’s what this day is about.”
The work of the HEADstrong Foundation and the Colleluori family hits especially close to home for Gravante, a survivor of the same disease that claimed the life of 20-year-old Ridley graduate and Hofstra lacrosse star Nick Colleluori and launched the foundation’s tremendous fundraising and awareness efforts.
Gravante was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2000 and underwent an initial battery of chemotherapy and radiation treatments to alleviate a 14-inch tumor in his chest that had rendered his left lung almost completely nonfunctional.
He briefly entered remission, but the cancer returned two years later, necessitating a bone marrow transplant. Gravante was a perfect match with his brother, John…too perfect of match, actually, as the nearly identical graft failed to illicit the required immune response to attack the host’s own aberrant cells.
To combat the transplant’s inefficacy, Gravante’s doctor had to artificially induce what is known as graft versus host (GVH) disease. The condition ran rampant on Gravante, nearly killing him as it did the lymphoma and leaving him with the burn marks he now proudly displays.
Gravante survived the ordeal, and uses his tribulations as one of his most potent coaching tools.
“At times, these youngsters, I don’t think they realize what a privilege that they have, that every morning they can wake up and see the light of day is a great day,” the 44-year-old Gravante said. “It’s ok; they’ll get it someday. I just hope it will be sooner rather than later and not under a circumstance such as myself.”
Within the carnival-like atmosphere of the Colleluori Classic, the lessons are not lost on his players.
“Our coach went through something similar and he was fortunate enough to beat cancer,” said Daniel Stranix, a sophomore midfielder who came through the ranks of both Ridley High School and the Colleluori family’s HEADstrong club team. “This is a great program. It’s raised a lot of money for cancer research, and it’s one of the premier tournaments in the country.”
Gravante’s lessons are hardly limited to his players’ post-lacrosse careers. He’s also brought the program unprecedented success in his 15 years at the helm (with a hiatus in 2005 while he was ill).
He’s led the Mountaineers to four Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) championships and two NCAA Tournament appearances. Last year’s squad won a school record 12 games and won the MAAC in historic fashion with a last-second goal by sophomore Andrew Scalley.
Their triumphs make them a favorite in the inaugural season in the Northeast Conference this spring.
But any on-field success (or failure) is secondary to the ultimate triumph of Gravante’s body and spirit over a debilitating and deadly disease.
“I’m just thankful to God and to my family and all my friends and that I don’t even know for their thoughts and prayers to be able to see this,” Gravante said. “Every day is a great day for me, just to wake up and be alive.”