Leukemia, Down syndrome don't douse football fire
In this photo taken on Oct. 2, 2010, 9-year-old Jeremy Nativio holds his mother Stacy Nativio's finger as she offers some pre-game advice prior to a recent Neshannock, Pa. Pee Wee football game. Finding out their son had Down syndrome before he was born gave Stacy and Dan Nativio time to prepare for the challenges ahead. But there was no preparing for the news that came the day he was born. Jeremy had leukemia. Jeremy's gone from battling leukemia twice to being part of a new kind of battle: playing on the defensive line of his Pee Wee football team. (AP Photo/New Castle News, Lisa Micco)
NEW CASTLE, Pa. (AP) - Stacy Nativio was 17 weeks pregnant with her third child when she got the news.
Her unborn son, Jeremy, had Down syndrome.
"We said, 'This is what God's given to us,'" Stacy remembered, sharing how she and her husband, Dan, tried to remain positive.
"And we're going to take everything that comes with it."
Finding out their son had Down syndrome before he was born gave the couple time to prepare for the challenges ahead. But there was no preparing for the news that came the day he was born.
Jeremy had leukemia.
That was nine years ago. In that time, Jeremy's gone from battling leukemia twice to being part of a new kind of battle: playing on the defensive line of his Pee Wee football team.
The day Jeremy was born, Stacy said the doctor was suspicious because Jeremy's white blood cell count was abnormally high. The day after, Jeremy was transferred to Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh. By day five, Jeremy had started chemotherapy.
"It was very emotional, but I think our only concern at that point was: fight. He can get through this, and let's get him better," Stacy said.
While at Children's Hospital, Stacy said doctors were matter-of-fact about her son's condition, not showing signs of optimism or pessimism.
"But they were amazing."
Stacy said she didn't want to know about prior cases similar to her son's because she didn't want any ideas in her head about what could happen. She wanted only the facts.
For the first 21 days Jeremy was in Pittsburgh, Stacy stayed at the hospital. She said Dan would drive down from their Neshannock Township home as often as he could, all while balancing work and taking care of the couple's other children, Nathan and Erica.
That determined and dedicated attitude paid off. In a little more than a month, Jeremy came home from the hospital.
But getting Jeremy healthy was an ongoing fight for the family, and when he was 2, Jeremy's leukemia returned. Stacy didn't look at the situation with the same positive attitude she had the first time her son was sick.
This time, she was angry.
Stacy said the doctors weren't even able to give Jeremy a painkiller when they performed a bone marrow biopsy because the medication would have overwhelmed his body. Without anything to ease the pain, they drew bone marrow with a needle from Jeremy's hip bone.
She and her husband stood over their screaming son, unable to help him while the procedure was going on.
Incredibly, the next day when she walked into Jeremy's room, she found him sitting up in his crib, without pain and without tears in his eyes.
Instead, he was smiling and laughing.
At that moment, the anger subsided, she said.
In the midst of fighting cancer for the second time, something happened that would alter Jeremy's life forever. She had taken her son out of his hospital room and into another part of the building. When she got there, a Pittsburgh Steelers rookie was signing autographs and talking to the children.
Stacy admitted that she didn't know much about football and couldn't name the player. But she was pleased to see that the rookie had taken Jeremy by his side, posing for a picture and signing it.
But instead of giving Jeremy back to his mother, the player kept his arm around the 2-year-old and asked for another picture for himself.
Stacy went back to the hospital room and told Dan what happened, giving the player's number to her husband since she didn't know who he was.
Dan, however, knew his name: Troy Polamalu.
After a full five years in remission, Jeremy had conquered the leukemia. But there was still the issue of Down syndrome to cope with. Children with Down syndrome also have an increased chance of infection and respiratory problems, according to the National Association for Down Syndrome's website.
Individuals who have Down syndrome have 47 chromosomes instead of the normal 46, which causes physical and developmental delays, the association's website said. Additionally, the average life expectancy of people with Down syndrome is 55, but many live into their 60s and 70s. Although some require special living arrangements, others are able to live independently.
Despite the risks, Stacy said she and her husband weren't going to put any limits on their son. So when he expressed a desire to play football this year, the couple checked with Jeremy's doctor and got the all-clear.
Stacy described her son as "relentless."
"When he has a thought in his mind, it won't stop until he's satisfied the thought has been met."
Stacy said she wasn't worried about how the other children on the football team would treat Jeremy since they already knew him from school.
"He is so loved in that school," she said. "Now this is coming from a mother, but he is probably one of the most popular kids in that school."
Children in Neshannock schools are "incredibly compassionate," Stacy said. Even students older than Jeremy take time to interact with him. When he was in the hospital last year, Stacy said students from Nathan's class took time to visit him.
Jeremy's personality has brought notoriety on the football field, too. His coach and uncle, Jason Nativio, said that when the cheerleaders line up and hear Jeremy's name, they always cheer a little bit louder.
"He's a character and a half. Very friendly, very personable," Jason said.
When Stacy and Dan signed Jeremy up for football, they didn't know that Jason would be coaching.
"I think having his uncle as a coach is more beneficial because Uncle Jason isn't going to hesitate to say, 'Jeremy! Get over there!"' Stacy said.
Stacy also said Jeremy listens well during games and practices.
"I think he loves it so much that when he's playing, he knows what he has to do."
Jason agreed, noting that Jeremy is playing the line and learning his blocking assignments.
"Overall, I think it's a wonderful thing to see Jeremy on the football field."
With his success playing football, Stacy said Jeremy may take up basketball, too.
Regardless of what he does, Stacy said she has a few, basic desires for her son.
"I want him to be able to be socially accepted and to work a job, to take care of a home, pay his bills."
She said Jeremy's personality always makes him stand out.
"He kind of steals the heart of anyone around him."