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HS football: Pataky’s courage in face of leukemia unifies Wildcats

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GOUVERNEUR — Back in July, Gouverneur sophomore Tristan Pataky was counting the days to the start of football practice.

After two solid years at the junior varsity level, he was going to see time at fullback and linebacker on the varsity.

But one phone call and blood count replaced the countdown.

A call from his doctor’s office told Pataky that he had been diagnosed with leukemia, the insidious cancer of the bloodstream.

Suddenly his season was gone, and he and his mother, Susan Ruiz, were on their way to Syracuse, where the athlete was to begin chemotherapy treatments.

Gouverneur coach Sean Devlin remembers the phone call he received.

“When Tristan was diagnosed with leukemia, the first thing he did was have his mom call me and apologize because he couldn’t play football this year,” he said. “He was very upset and worried about losing his number. But that was never going to happen.”

The support for Pataky and his family was immediate throughout the team, school district and community. They quickly organized fundraisers.

When the Wildcats opened their season they wore Pataky’s No. 44 on their helmets. Teammate, close friend and co-captain Aaron McEathron said that “44” is like a 12th man for his team.

“Tristan is always with us. His No. 44 is on the back of my helmet and he is always in my head,” McEathron said. “He is fighting for his life and we want to fight like that to win.”

On Saturday, Pataky was with the Wildcats in person during a break after his second round of chemo. He donned his number and was very visable on the sidelines. The Wildcats reflected his fighting spirit to even their record at 1-1, posting a 12-6 overtime homecoming victory over Canton.

It was a happy homecoming for Pataky, too.

“Things have gone pretty well with the chemo, and it is just great to be here today with the team,” said Pataky, who is looking forward to returning to school in February and confident that he will be back on the football field next fall. “Football has always been my favorite sport because it is 11 players working together on the field to make things happen.”

An avid Louisiana State fan, Pataky also received a huge boost in his resolve when he received an autograph from LSU coach Les Miles. “It was really great for him to do that,” Pataky said.

Before Saturday’s game, quarterback/linebacker Troy Gates spoke of how his teammate’s determination and courage in the face of the disease and treatments had inspired him.

“Tristan makes me want to work harder and harder. It is great to have him here today to watch us win,” said Gates who had a 139-yard rushing effort and scored in overtime.

Another of Pataky’s closest friends, two-way lineman Mike Mandigo, spoke of what it meant to have No. 44 on hand for the game.

“I cried when I first heard about Tristan. He is one of my best buddies,” Mandigo said. “He always runs the ball hard and he will always congratulate you for a good block.”

Devlin said Gouverneur has been active in the fight against cancer for many years. Each year the athletic teams host a weeklong series of “Pink Zone” events, which raised about $20,000 for the St. Lawrence County Chapter of the American Cancer Society last year.

FIRST STATE POLLS

The first set of polls from the New York State Sportswriters’ Association finds five local teams among the top 20 in the state in their respective classes.

Leading the way is unbeaten Sandy Creek (2-0), which is ranked fourth in the first set of Class D rankings. The defending Section 3 champion Comets have outscored their first two opponents 85-14.

Potsdam is ranked sixth in the Class C poll after a 2-0 start, while General Brown is 16th in Class C after a come-from-behind win over Class D power Westmoreland and a 10-point victory over Class B South Jefferson.

Following an 18-16 win over Whitesboro, Carthage (2-0) is No. 8 in the first Class A poll. Indian River, off two impressive performances to begin the season, is 16th in Class A.

Times sportswriter John Day contributed to this article.

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