Twins Joe and John Tardif of Cutchogue share an uncommon and unbreakable bond.
Born 11 weeks prematurely on Nov. 19, 1997, Joe was born first and weighed 1 pound, 13 ounces. John weighed 2 pounds, 6 ounces. Their parents, John and Shelly Tardif, weren’t sure either child would survive.
They did, albeit with drastically different outcomes.
Eighteen years later, Joe is an accomplished athlete who is a star player in baseball, soccer and basketball at Mattituck Junior-Senior High School. John has cerebral palsy. He uses a wheelchair and cannot speak, but he can communicate with his family with hand signals.
John is his brother's biggest fan and never misses a game.
"We do everything together," Joe said. "We could be playing Xbox or having a catch in the backyard, which he loves, or just watching TV. I include him in everything I do with my friends."
John responds to any mention of his brother with a big thumbs-up.
Cerebral palsy can affect body movement, muscle control, muscle coordination, muscle tone, reflex, posture and balance.
"Johnny has made up his own signs with his right hand," Shelly Tardif explained. "He has no use of his left hand, so he cannot sign like everyone else. And unless you know him well, you would not know what he was saying or what his needs were."
When Shelly was pregnant, her body was producing too much amniotic fluid, which she had to have drained once a week. Doctors told her that her life was in danger and that she could die if she didn't give birth, or she could lose the babies. After the difficult birth, which resulted in John's cerebral palsy, the twins remained hospitalized for months.
"Johnny was pretty blue when he was born, and the doctors weren't sure he was going to make it," Shelly said.
Five days later he had to have emergency surgery to remove part of his intestines and also have a colostomy, which left him in a coma for five days. Joe went home in late January, but John remained in the neonatal intensive care unit at Stony Brook Hospital until March.
"The first three years were brutal," the boys' mother said. "Johnny barely slept two hours in a week. He couldn't sleep because the . . . [cerebral palsy] was making his muscles so tight and the nerves kept firing and never let him calm down and relax. He'd cry all night. I am a woman of faith, and it was so hard that I would pray to God to just take the both of us because I couldn't do it for another second. But God got me through it somehow and that's why I know he wouldn't give me something I couldn't handle. This child is mine and he's the happiest kid on this earth."
The Tardif family pulled together in the face of these challenges and made the best of the situation. Joe and John have two older siblings -- Katie, 28, and Brian, 26. Brian, who works as a health and physical education teacher in an elementary school in Lowell, Massachusetts, has done everything from feeding John to showering him.
"One of Brian's favorite things to do with John is to take him to the beach and just hang out," Shelly said. "He's taken John to the Strawberry Festival for the last three years, and they love going there.
Katie lives in Manhattan and owns a startup business development company called Comet Life. She has also helped care for her brother, from putting him to bed to helping prepare his meals, spending quality time with him in the pool or just talking.
"They all spend so much time with him, he is so loved," Shelly said. "He's the glue in this family."
Her husband, John, said,"Their births changed our lives forever. It brought the family closer together and it certainly opened our eyes to what is important in life. . . . It may sound corny, but it certainly has without a doubt made us closer."
Joe led the Tuckers to the state Class B soccer title in 2014 and the state Class B baseball championship in 2015.
On the baseball diamond, the 5-8, 150-pound centerfielder and pitcher has made a name for himself with his spectacular diving catches and speed on the bases. He was named the state's Class B Player of the Year as a junior when the team finished 27-1.
Mattituck's bid to duplicate the state title ended in May in the semifinal round of the Suffolk playoffs.
"I really wanted to end my career with another state title," Joe said. "It was a very emotional day for everyone when we were eliminated."
He was named the Suffolk League VIII MVP and a Gold Glove recipient for the second year in a row after batting .456 with an on-base percentage of .610. His brother Brian was also a two-time league MVP.
Joe credits his twin for his drive to excel.
"My brother is the world to me," he said. "He's an inspiration and the force behind my desire to be the best at anything I do. There's really never a down day because we celebrate the good in life every day in our family. We live for each moment."
Their dad beams when he reflects on his sons' relationship.
"From as early as he could walk, Joe took care of John," the elder Tardif said. "He made sure he was never alone. And as he grew he'd carry John to the toilet or the bath, and I never heard a complaint, never a change in demeanor. The song '[He Ain't Heavy] He's My Brother' comes to mind. I'm not sure Joe ever got a full night of sleep. John would shriek at night from the pain when his muscles got tight. John would only sleep five minutes at a time."
The twins are only apart for a short portion of the day. While Joe goes to high school, John takes a bus to classes at the Westhampton Beach BOCES, and is back in time to catch all of Joe's games.
That will change in the fall as Joe heads to SUNY Cortland, where he will play baseball and study criminology.
"It's definitely going to be tough not to be able to see each other every morning when we wake up," said Joe, who plans to keep in touch with John through FaceTime. "It's going to be very difficult and the first time we've been separated in our lives."
The heart of Mattituck
Mattituck, a small, tight-knit community on Long Island's North Fork, is known for wineries, tall corn stalks, its variety of vegetables and enormous sod farms. And anywhere you go, people know the Tardif twins.
"They are amazing people and a part of the fabric of everyday life here in Mattituck," said Steve DeCaro, Joe's basbeball coach. "Everyone knows the Tardif family. It feels like they've been a part of our community forever."
Go to any Mattituck baseball game and you'll find John cheering on the team.
"He's the mayor of Mattituck," said DeCaro. "Everyone knows Johnny. You come to the game you have to say hello to Johnny and give him a high-five."
Mattituck soccer coach Will Hayes made John an honorary captain in the fall. The basketball team asked him to throw out the game ball to officials before every home game this past winter.
"He looked forward to that at every game," Joe said. "That was his thing and he loved it."
When the season ended, the twins shared the Fred Williams Award, which goes to the player in the district who overcomes adversity. But perhaps the best moment came this spring when DeCaro came up with a special surprise for the Tardif family.
After getting the blessing of Mattituck athletic director Gregg Wormuth, the coaching staff of that day's opponent and the umpire crew, DeCaro made his move. At the beginning of the bottom of the fifth inning, Smithtown Christian's pitcher intentionally walked Joe. When he reached first base an announcement was made:
"Now pinch running for Mattituck, No. 37, John Tardif."
"It happened so quickly," Shelly said. "They gave him a jersey and a helmet and Joe pushed him onto first base. Wow!"
With Joe Graeb at bat, Joe Tardif helped his brother steal second base and then headed the wheelchair for third base and home while the theme song from "Rocky" blared. When the twins reached home plate, the team surrounded them in celebration."To say it was emotional is an understatement," DeCaro said. "It was a very emotional moment for all of us who've watched the twins grow up. Everyone was touched by it."
Joe Tardif was so touched by it he struggled to find the right words.
"There are really no words good enough for what happened that day; it's indescribable," he said. "It was a great surprise.
"I often wonder what it would have been like if things were different and he were out there with me every day. I've dreamed of those days because I know he would have been a great player. I'll never forget our run around the bases and the team waiting for us at home plate and the smile on his face when he scored.
"It was incredible."
At the end of the run, John gave his mom a big thumbs-up and signaled a request followed by the sign for hugs and more hugs.
"He was so excited and I said to him, 'How proud are you right now that you just scored?' And he signed, 'I wish I could just hug coach Steve DeCaro.' "
He got his wish. Another big thumbs-up.
More photos of the Tardif family
Shelly Tardif reacts as her son Joe puts on his cap and gown for his graduation from Mattituck High School on the morning of June 25, 2016
Joe Tardif embraces his father John after his graduating from Mattituck High School on the morning of June 25, 2016.
John Tardif holds his twin sons Joe and John, in a photo provided by the family.
From left, Joe and John Tardif are pictured in a photo provided by their family.
Portrait of twin brothers John and Joe Tardif, in the living room of their Cutchogue home on the afternoon of August 24, 2016.
Joe Tardif, left, plays video games with his twin brother John, right, in their Cutchogue home on the afternoon of April 26, 2016.
Joe Tardif, left, helps his twin brother,John, eat dinner in the kitchen of their Cutchogue home on the evening of May 16, 2016.
John and Joe Tardif play catch in the backyard of their home.