Notre Dame High School celebrates winning football title, fighting cancer

By Rich Fisher, Contributing Editor, and Jennifer Mauro, Managing Editor

Religion teacher Carolyn Graham stands with senior linebacker Sam Ponticello and supporters at the Pink Out event Oct. 26 at Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville. Ponticello accompanied Graham onto the football field during half-time to honor “heroes and angels” who have battled cancer. John Blaine photos

It was an evening just as good off the field as on it.

Notre Dame High School defeated Trenton, 21-7, to clinch a share of the West Jersey Football League’s Capitol Division championship Oct. 26 in Lawrenceville. Serving as a backdrop for the big night was Notre Dame’s Pink Out to fight cancer, honor survivors and remember those who have passed.

“We’ve been talking about this all year,” coach Marc Lordi said. “One of the things we really wanted to focus on was the stuff outside of what happens on the football field – about educating our players to be more than just a good football player, but a good person. What our school does with this Pink Out is absolutely incredible. I’m proud to be able to be part of an institution that gives back to the community like this.”

Photo Gallery: Notre Dame High School Pink Out

Indeed, as action played out on the field, hundreds of students, families, friends and staff packed the bleachers wearing pink hats, scarfs and mittens as students sold T-shirts, collecting donations for hospital care packages.

Half-time kicked off with cheerleaders forming a human pink cancer ribbon as a parade of 45 “heroes and angels” – family and friends honoring cancer survivors or those who had passed – were introduced and marched onto the field.

“This is a tribute to cancer strong,” said Notre Dame English teacher Diane Wargo, who started the event 10 years ago. “It’s a night where our community embraces anyone who has been affected by cancer.”

The Good Fight

One of those affected by the disease is from the NDHS community. Religion teacher Carolyn Graham discovered a lump in her breast after a self-check in March, which was later confirmed as Stage II cancer.

“When I was diagnosed, I was scared; I was upset,” she said, explaining that she got the call while at school. “I never said, ‘Why me?’ or ‘Why is God punishing me?’ I took it and said, ‘This is happening. How am I going to get through it?’”

Graham, 38, a mother of two, underwent chemotherapy from April to August and had a bilateral mastectomy Oct. 3. She will continue with radiation five days a week for six weeks, and hormone therapy for five to 10 years.

She credits her strong support system with helping her through the past year. Also helpful was teaching at a Catholic school, where, she said, “I could openly say I’m going to do this with the grace of God.”

When it came time for Graham to be accompanied on the field during the halftime ceremony, Irish senior linebacker Sam Ponticello was by her side. Ponticello first had Graham for a teacher as a sophomore.

“Sam is an amazing young man; a man of conviction and his faith is extremely important to him, as well as it is with me,” Graham said. “I try to set an example for the kids here. So I didn’t want to waste the negative energy on [sadness when first diagnosed]. I knew I need all the positivity to beat this.”

Another survivor tied to the Notre Dame football family is Michelle Williams, whose son Michael is a senior defensive back/wide receiver. Williams has been cancer-free for more than six years, and her son has accompanied her onto the field at halftime for four of those years.

“It’s a great feeling knowing [my mom] was able to overcome cancer. It makes you grateful for what you have.”

“Well said,” his mother said while wiping tears from her eyes.

Success All Around

Those who were honored were a major part of the night, but not the only story line of the event, which was sponsored by ND Cares, the school-based organization dedicated to providing support to patients and their families. About 65 young girls had their hair cut at half-time for the Pantene Beautiful Lengths Program, which partners with the American Cancer Society and others to provide wigs made of real hair for those who have lost theirs due to cancer treatment.

“It’s so short!” many of the girls screeched after having anywhere from four to 12 inches cut.

Said senior Brianna O’Malley, who had 12 inches cut, “It makes me feel good knowing that instead of my hair getting thrown out, it’s going to help someone and help them feel great.”

Once the inspirational half-time festivities concluded, the Irish went about earning their share of a division title after a scoreless first half. Quarterback Rob Buecker’s 21-yard touchdown run was offset by a Trenton score, but Cortaz Williams answered with a short touchdown run and Ricky “Pop” Spruil caught a scoring strike from Buecker to spark a 21-7 victory. Williams rushed for 175 yards while his twin brother, Coleon, added 129.

Notre Dame (7-1) has won seven straight heading into the Nov. 2 Non-Public Group IV playoff game with St. Augustine’s. After getting blown out in their first half of the year at Allentown, the Irish had a strong second half (despite losing) and have never looked back.

“My favorite part about our team is that they learn from their mistakes, and it’s a team that each week is getting better,” Lordi said.

Roche summed up the entire night, saying, “It’s an absolutely incredible event. We had a huge crowd and a huge win. It couldn’t have been a better night.”

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