By Matthew De George
It was borne out of a promise made in a hospital ward two years ago.
Sitting cancer-free beneath a tent with his family Saturday at the 4th annual Nick Colleluori Classic at Ridley High, Joe Clifford has reached a point in his journey few would have imagined he could, a point at which he, too, can now give back.
“What I wanted to do was make sure that every player here knew what they did for me two years ago in the hospital and how much that meant to me,” Clifford said. “It’s more me thanking them in person.”
Clifford, 30, graduated from Saint Joseph’s University in 2008. Four months later, he was diagnosed with leukemia and given a 20-to-30 percent chance of survival.
The treatment process, which included a bone marrow transplant, was arduous and kept him in the hospital for lengthy stretches during the fall and winter of 2008. The disease threatened to keep him separated from his young family – wife, Kim, and children Molly and Joe, IV, now two and four, respectively – during the holiday season.
It was then that the HEADstrong Foundation intervened to provide some much needed spiritual support. One of the many programs funded by the Colleluori Classic comes at Thanksgiving, when the foundation hosts Thanksgiving dinners for blood cancer patients at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
In 2008, Clifford and 21 family members were in attendance. The foundation also helped Clifford, on hiatus from his job while battling the disease, get a special Christmas for his children even under the most dire of circumstances.
The service came under one proviso from HEADstrong president Cheryl Colleluori, Nick’s mother: that Clifford be on the other side of the table the following year, in remission and serving other families.
It’s a deal that, happily, Clifford was able to make good on.
“Last year I got to give out the dinner,” Clifford said. “This year I’ll do it again, and I’ll do it forever.”
Over a year after being granted a clean bill of health, Clifford is back at work and raising awareness for other suffering from his former affliction. On Saturday he had the thrill of serving as the honorary captain for St. Joe’s at the Colleluori Classic.
“It’s something we kind of take for granted until you get to an event like this,” said Pat Cullinan, St. Joe’s head coach, whose team has participated in the Colleluori Classic each year. “We’re just happy that we can help Joe out, but also others who are waiting for transplants or were just diagnosed.”
Clifford’s presence is a boon to the players, who get to witness at least some of the fruits of their and their peers’ labors. He also has volunteered to serve on the entertainment committee when the HEADstrong Foundation holds its Lime Light Gala on March 25, 2011 at the Hyatt Regency. The event will benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Center.
“Joe’s a great guy,” said St. Joe’s senior defender Keith Belson (Strath Haven). “He was really down to earth. He thanked us for his support, and we thanked him right back. Him being out here really means a lot for us, and his support on the sidelines really got us going during the game.”
Clifford never played lacrosse himself, though his wife did play in high school at Archbishop Prendergast. But that isn’t stopping him from becoming thoroughly ensconced in the lacrosse community, a group whose ties he credits with helping his recovery. He’s already got young Joey penciled in as a top recruit in the high school class of 2026.
“We can all appreciate life and family much more than we ever did before, and I think that’s something that survivors have that other people don’t have put in front of them to get that perspective on life,” Clifford said. “The lacrosse community is such a tight-knit community; well, so is the survivors’ community of these diseases. If you intertwine those two communities, you’re going to have an event like this.”