Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Dream For Derek

TigerBlog used to joke with Steve DiGregorio that Steve and his wife Nadia could have a hundred kids and they'd all look exactly the same. Why wouldn't they? There were three little DiGregorios at the time, and all three of them looked exactly the same.

Oh, the middle one had some physical issues, which eventually led to a diagnosis of Cerebral Palsey. Still, the three boys - Zack, Derek and Aaron - were almost identical in appearance, and together they were part of a great, traditional American family.

Steve - known to all as "Digger" - was an assistant football coach at Princeton under Steve Tosches, and TigerBlog and Digger spent many hours together at the football end of Jadwin Gym talking about any number of subjects. The sound of Digger's laugh could be heard all the way down the balcony of Jadwin.

Since leaving Princeton, Digger has been a high school athletic director, teacher and football coach. Today he teaches government and is the head football coach at Nutley High School, where both he and Nadia went.

The DiGregorio children are best friends with the Levy children, whose father Howard is Princeton's career leader in field goal percentage. Howard Levy, of course, went on to be an assistant coach here under Bill Carmody, John Thompson and Joe Scott and is now the head coach at Mercer County Community College.

Lior Levy and Zack DiGregorio go to Princeton High School together. Zack was the quarterback for the freshman football team and a member of the freshman baseball team, and only illness kept Lior from having a major role with the varsity basketball team as a freshman. Lior has two younger sisters, Mia and Noa, who are in middle school and elementary school.

If you ever got to Jadwin to see a men's basketball game, you probably saw at least three and as many as six of these kids on any random night.

Away from Princeton basketball, Derek was going about his childhood, complete with becoming a world champion in Tae-Kwon-Do for his age group.

Over time, though, it became apparent to Steve and Nadia that not all was right with their middle son, even with the C-P. After consulting several doctors, it was determined that Derek didn't have C-P at all.

Instead, he was diagnosed with a disease called Ataxia Telangiectasia.

A-T is a very rare genetic, progressive, degenerative disease that affects muscle control and the immune system while creating a predisposition to cancer. Children with A-T develop malignancies almost 1,000 times more frequently than the general population. Breathing problems and swallowing problems are a part of this disease as well. Due to increased difficulties with his stability, Derek has already developed a need to use a wheelchair. Although he currently does not need it all of the time, fatigue caused by the A-T will make him more dependent on it as this disease progresses.

It is a disease that as of now leads to death by the late teens or early 20s, though some have lived twice that long.

It's a diagnosis that the DiGregorio and Levy families weren't quite ready to simply accept.

To do what they could to combat the disease, the DiGregorios, along with Howard and Princeton associate head football coach Steve Verbit and a few others, have formed "Derek's Dreams," an organization dedicated to raising money specifically to offset the huge expenses Derek's care will incur and more generally to combat the disease itself.

Tonight in Belleville, Derek's Dreams will be having a fundraising event, a $100 per ticket evening that is completely sold out. Among those in attendance will be Princeton Director of Athletics Gary Walters, former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano and current New York Giants offensive lineman Chris Snee.

In addition to the cost of the tickets, money will also be raised through a silent auction featuring:

* tickets to Georgetown basketball games courtesy of Thompson
* dinner at Conte's with Pete Carril
* tickets to a Giants at Cowboys game
* Phillies tickets, donated by former Princeton broadcaster and current Phils' TV voice Tom McCarthy
* a tour of ESPN headquarters
* a Rutgers football sideline pass
* tickets to a game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay
* tickets to a Yankees-Red Sox game in Fenway Park
* multiple golf trips to big-time courses

The cause couldn't be more worthy. Contributions can also be made at:
Derek’s Dreams, PO Box 245, Kingston, NJ 08528-9442

TigerBlog is unable to make the event tonight because of commitments to youth lacrosse coaching. While he's there, he'll have his moments of annoyance over dropped passes, side-armed shots that miss the cage and lazy defense that relies on the stick and not the feet.

Hopefully when that happens, he'll stop and think of what Derek and his extended family are going through. Of course, people always say stuff like that, but this time TB is really going to try to mean it.

TB can't help but remember his own experiences of seeing Derek through the years and now seeing him at a late-season game in Jadwin, as he struggled in through the door. Once inside, he saw Lior, and he strained to get to where Lior was standing. Once there, Lior gave him a huge hug, a huge smile.

These are very courageous people. The DiGregorios and Howard Levy and Verbit for what they've done to attack this disease as much as they can. The other DiGregorio and Levy kids.

And especially Derek himself. He's 12 now, and it's all really starting to come down on him. And there he was in Jawdin, with the same wide smile he's had his whole life.

Like TB said, these are courageous people. Let them inspire you, and let's try to help them in any way we can.

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