One of the most rewarding things about my job is the education I receive. Every topic I tackle, every interview I do, I learn something new. Often, I am inspired. That’s certainly been the case this past year. Thumbing through 51-weeks-worth of columns, I realized I encountered some truly remarkable people; people who, during these unsettled times, elevated my spirits and the spirits of many others.
Ricky Palermo taught me how tragedy can be turned into triumph. In 1981, the former three-sport Byron Bergen High School most valuable player was paralyzed in an automobile accident and was given the gloomy prognosis that he could count on living another 10 to 12 years, max.
Thirty-seven years after his mishap, I found him very much alive and filled with enough energy, as I wrote, to light up a village. Inspired by Rochester basketball referee Pete Pavia’s courageous battle with cancer, Palermo and his family began a golf tournament in Batavia in 1997 to raise funds for The Miami Project, a pioneering organization in spinal injury research. The Palermo family set a modest goal of $5,000 for the first year, and wound up exceeding it by $6,500. They decided to hold another tournament. And another. And another.
Three decades and $1.4-million later, the tournament and companion sports auction are still going strong and have contributed funds not only to The Miami Project, but also for local organizations, such as the Batavia YMCA bike program for people with neurological challenges.
“Rickey is just one of those positive forces of nature,’’ said Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton, one of numerous sports celebrities who have befriended Palermo and contributed memorabilia to his auction. “He’s a spiritual forklift who lifts people and things up and puts them in a better place.”
And Palermo, who zips around in a motorized wheelchair, hasn’t given up hope of walking again someday.
“People ask me when did I accept the fact I was paralyzed, and I tell them I still haven’t accepted it,’’ he said. “I’m going to keep fighting … the book isn’t closed. We all believe it’s just a matter of time before we find a cure.”
Bari Mance provided another profile in courage. The St. John Fisher College women’s softball coach showed us the power of perseverance and how the darkest times can bring out the best in people. Mance continued coaching despite energy-sapping chemotherapy sessions for breast cancer and, by doing so, taught her players lessons that went well beyond the diamond—lessons that will last a lifetime.
“Do not confuse my bad days as a sign of weakness,’’ she posted on her Facebook page. “Those are actually the days I’m trying my hardest.”
It was heartening not only to see Mance soldier on, but also to see the way her players—past and present—and the entire Fisher community got behind her.
Each season, she comes up with a motto for that year’s team. Last season, it was “Be inspired; be inspiring.” Her players didn’t have to look far to find inspiration. And neither did she. Before one game, they surprised her by changing from their maroon jerseys into pink T-shirts bearing the words, “Team Mance” and “No One Stands Alone.”
“There’s little good about cancer,’’ she told me in February, “but the way people have rallied around me has been overwhelming and so uplifting.”
I discovered that same indomitable spirit in two other subjects I wrote about: Tim Green and Joe Altobelli.
Green, whom I’ve chronicled since his days as an All-American football player and Rhodes Scholar candidate at Syracuse University, is battling ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease. In an unforgettable “60 Minutes” interview, he said: “Some people would say, you know, ‘Tim, God bless you.’ And I’d say, ‘He already has.’ ”
Green, who went on to have a successful career as an NFL player, attorney, television and radio contributor, and best-selling author, set up a #TackleALS GoFundMe page, which in just over a month has raised more than $2-million to research the fatal, neurological disorder. Although amyotrophic lateral sclerosis has robbed him of the dexterity required to type, he continues writing his 39th book through the use of special sensor glasses.
“As always, I will spend the coming days and years, counting the blessings I have instead of pining for things I don’t,’’ Green wrote on his Facebook page. “Today I will take a walk. I will work and write and kiss each of my kids, as well as my beautiful wife. That’s a great day. As good as it gets.
In March, I visited Altobelli, the beloved former Rochester Red Wings player, manager and general manager, to write about his comeback from a series of strokes. Spurred on by therapists and loved ones, especially his incredibly devoted longtime companion, Michele DiGaetano, Alto set a goal of becoming well enough to make it back to Frontier Field for a Wings game.
“There’s something about going to the ballpark that rejuvenates you,’’ he told me. “It never gets old.”
It took several months of arduous rehabilitation, but on Aug. 8, Alto, accompanied by his friend and fellow baseball legend Johnny Antonelli, returned to Frontier. Though confined to a wheelchair, Alto took to the infield grass, as the crowd stood and cheered. I was not the only one who viewed this triumphant homecoming through teary eyes.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.