Anthony Pecorella envisioned the moment dozens of times. The end of the odyssey. The feeling of relief. The smiling faces he would thank. The sound of the bell.
And he told himself he would not cry. But when the moment came, he couldn’t help himself.
The emotion of being declared cancer-free on Nov. 29, punctuated by the ringing of ceremonial bells while being surrounded by all the family, doctors and nurses who had helped him through the most difficult challenge of his 22 years was simply too overwhelming.
“Even though you play the moment in your head over and over, you never know how it’s going to turn out when it actually happens,” Pecorella said. “As soon as I heard the chime of the bells, I just lost it.”
The diagnosis — Burkitt lymphoma — came just as Pecorella was ready to write what he believed to be the perfect final stanza for his college football career: as Stony Brook’s punter. The Malverne native had played four solid seasons at the University of Maryland and graduated. Using his final two years of eligibility to play for the Seawolves was the chance to do what he loves in a place that he loves.
“I wanted the new challenge and I thought there was no better place to do it than in my own backyard, to represent Long Island,” said Pecorella, who earned a 2018 Newsday All-Long Island second-team selection as a senior at Chaminade High School.
There were other options aside from Stony Brook. With a career average of 42.1 yards per punt, there were Football Bowl Subdivision schools interested. However, the pull of being back on Long Island made the idea of playing for the Football Champion Subdivision Seawolves irresistible.
A test unlike any other
It wasn’t long after he enrolled that his plan began to take a different course.
An inflamed tonsil lingered, and Pecorella’s mother, Marisa, insisted he have it looked at. It was removed and biopsied, and then he was summoned to discuss the results with his doctor. There, he was told that he had cancer, “But it was like the words hung in the air but didn’t sink in,” Pecorella said.
“I told him I wanted to go to practice the next day,” Pecorella said. “I thought, this was something I could play through.”
“Anthony is one of the most positive people you’ll meet, the guy who never gets discouraged and keeps everyone around him up,” said his father, Anthony Pecorella. “His mother and I were shocked, but that was the optimist in him speaking.”
That was July 26.
It wasn’t until he met with oncologist Dr. Lisa Roth at Weill Cornell Medical Center two days later that things finally hit him. A battle against Burkitt lymphoma was going to test him — physically, mentally and emotionally — as he’d never been tested in any classroom or on any field.
Pecorella had been on the Stony Brook campus just seven weeks before he was diagnosed, and training camp began days after he got there. He asked for and got permission from then-coach Chuck Priore to address his new teammates at their initial meeting.
“Everyone from the athletic director to the custodians was in this room, and I didn’t want this thing to be one of those things that they just heard on social media,” Pecorella said. “So I went up in front of the room and before I said anything, I realized I didn't know half the room. I quite literally introduced myself and then said, ‘OK, now that we've gotten that out of the way, I want to let you all know that I was diagnosed with lymphoma.’ The whole room, you could have heard a pin drop, it was so quiet.”
Teammates, new and old, reached out directly and posted words of support on social media. Maryland raised money to donate to the American Cancer Society in his name and kept its fans updated on his progress.
“You never really know the impact you had at a place,” Pecorella said. “To see all those people in my corner was unreal.”
Burkitt lymphoma is a blood cancer described by the Cleveland Clinic as “rare and fast growing” which can “come on suddenly and quickly get worse.” The recommended treatment, it says, is “intensive chemotherapy.”
The chemotherapy treatments caused fatigue and loss of appetite “like when you have a really bad flu,” Pecorella said. Those would abate after a few days recovering at home. And when the hair loss began, Pecorella shaved his head.
Each round of chemo felt progressively worse, he recalled. The third and fourth — his last round — laid Pecorella especially low.
“You have good days and you have bad days, but the biggest thing they told me was that on your bad days, you can’t beat yourself up,” Pecorella said. “If you don't attack chemo with a positive attitude, it's only going to be worse.”
A scan taken soon after the third treatment indicated significant improvement, but Pecorella kept his optimism in check. He’d made the chime of the bell his finish line and he wasn’t going to breathe easy until he heard it.
He went in for his fourth series of chemo infusions on Oct. 23 and returned to the hospital for another scan four weeks later.
He got the results of the scan on Nov. 29.
From bell to whistle
Pecorella has a new date and a new sound to look forward to now. He wants to hear the crowd at Edwards Stadium on Aug. 31, when Stony Brook opens next season at Marshall.
“I had come to terms with the idea that my body and health had to come first, but I explained to the doctors that I still have dreams and I don’t want cancer or anything to get in the way of them,” Pecorella said. “They assured me that I would again be healthy enough to play football and then I knew I had to get through this and then go attack the rest of my dreams.”
Marisa Pecorella said returning to the field was always the goal.
“I was in the room when he got the [diagnosis],” she said. “Other mothers probably wouldn’t have thought this, but I thought, ‘He can’t play football.’ But I know how important that is to him. It became a goal, and when he is back on that field at Marshall, it’s going to be a great sight.”
Pecorella kicked a football three days after he had the port put in for his chemo infusions. He went to Seawolves practice on Aug. 13 and, though he knew he wasn’t supposed to do football activities, he brought his cleats. When the special teams came out first to warm up, he slipped them on.
“I just thought I’d fool around and I'll never forget, right before practice, I had one punt and it was a bomb,” Pecorella said. “Right after that I took my [cleats] off and I was like, ‘I am satisfied for the next few months.’”
Priore was just coming out on the field when he connected. “Are you just trying to be a tease?” the coach said, as Pecorella recalled.
That was almost five months ago. In the time that’s passed, Pecorella said there have been so many people who have touched his life. It wasn’t just the doctors and nurses that he described as “angels sent from above . . . who helped save my life,” but also the others at Cornell waging their own fights against disease. Many of them were there to watch him ring that bell.
Riding the train into Manhattan recently to visit another cancer patient, Pecorella said that physically, he felt as good as he did before being diagnosed.
Before long, he will have to build his stamina and strength to get into football shape. All part of fulfilling the rest of his dreams.
“He’s such a hero,” Marisa Pecorella said. “He could stand as an example to anyone who complains about anything.”