Aug. 09--The son of the former Penn State football player had only five weeks to live.
Pete Curkendall and his wife, Renee, already were caring for an adopted girl with AIDS and cerebral palsy. Doctors then stunned them with news that their 2 1/2-year-old biological son, Joshua, had a cancerous brain tumor and almost certainly wouldn't survive.
They had just moved to the Syracuse, N.Y., area and knew hardly anyone.
At least they weren't lacking for hope and resolve. Caring for kids with special needs was a life-long plan for Renee Curkendall, as much now as it was then, 16 years ago.
More than anything, they didn't know how they would pay their bills.
They got some fundraising help from Pete's sales company and from the Lutheran church they had just joined. But Renee was forced to leave her speech therapist job to care for the kids.
The co-pay for just one of Joshua's cancer-treatment prescriptions was $400 a week. There also were uncovered costs of an experimental medical procedure to try to save his life."
I had good insurance, but it wasn't going to pay for a stem cell transplant," Pete Curkendall said. "We were going to go bankrupt, and I didn't care. ... There was nothing we could do about it."
That's when help came most unexpectedly and mysteriously.----Curkendall was one of the more enigmatic Nittany Lions of his time.
The high school All-American was outgoing and big-hearted with a sharp wit. He was good enough to earn a spot on the depth chart as a true freshman, but he was so nonchalant about academics that it was often difficult to convince him to go to class.
For all of his talent and goodwill, he knocked heads early and often with head coach Joe Paterno.
Another part of that was this: Blessed with natural strength and speed, Curkendall pushed himself only to do what was needed, never more.
"He was born a 400-pound bench presser and gifted athletically," said Matt Johnson, a York Catholic grad and a Curkendall teammate on the 1986 national title team.
"I think if Pete would have had the right work ethic he would have been a perennial (NFL) All-Pro, he had that much talent. But his lack of work in the classroom and lack of work in football came back to haunt him.
"Look, part of that is desire, right? But it's hard for me to criticize a guy who does what he does with his life."
Children With Special Needs
Now, Curkendall, 48, and his wife, Renee, are raising five kids, all but one with severe physical, mental or emotional disabilities. Their sixth child, the adopted girl who was born with AIDS and developed cerebral palsy, is now 24 and lives on her own.
But to make all of that happen, Curkendall first had to get through Penn State.
Fuming over his expected lack of playing time, he walked out of preseason camp before his junior year in 1986, threatening to quit altogether.
Though allowed to return, he never escaped the constant harping of his head coach over his grades and work ethic.
Paterno was simply "trying to push me to do my best. I got to the point where I never thought I had a fair shake," Curkendall said. "Looking back, I would have done the exact same thing he did. He was looking for a team leader, someone responsible, and I wasn't that guy."
Rather, he was this guy: Before Penn State's ninth game of that 1986 season, against mediocre Maryland, Curkendall figured he wouldn't play much with a pinched nerve in his neck. So he devoured three hot dogs and downed a 30-ounce soda in a bathroom stall during Paterno's pregame speech.
But when the starter in front of him was a last-minute injury scratch, Curkendall was suddenly forced into heavy action. He spent much of the day sucking wind against Maryland's fast-paced offense.
Even tougher, the Lions couldn't pull away. They clung to a four-point lead early in the fourth quarter, their backs against their own goal line, when the unfathomable happened. The 270-pound Curkendall stepped in front of short pass, intercepted it and then chugged nearly the entire length of the field, finally pulled down by an offensive lineman.
He made it 82 yards, tackled inside the 10. Penn State scored one play later and hung on for its 10th victory on the way to its second national title.
But things still didn't really change. Curkendall missed all of preseason camp before his senior year because of an academic issue.
The anonymous checks began showing up in the church office not long after Joshua's brain cancer diagnosis.
They came in odd amounts, a few thousand one month and maybe more the next. It eventually all added up to about $50,000.
Finally, a substitute church secretary slipped up and told Curkendall that the gifts were from the same person: Joe Paterno.
The same man who pestered and angered Curkendall to no end. At the time, Pete's Penn State football career had been over for a decade. He and Renee were still learning their life's mission.
"On one level I was totally shocked, and on another level I was like, 'Of course, that's Joe.' Because he was always there," Pete Curkendall said.
"I didn't even look at it as the money. He gave us a year that we could stay home with our son that we thought we would never have."He gave us a year, and you can't repay that."
Plus, the stem cell transplant provided new life. Though Joshua is learning disabled and suffers with severe seizures, he is about to turn 19 and seems happy most of the time. Whenever meeting after that, Paterno would ask Pete Curkendall about his kids and shrug off any thank yous.
"Hey, just keep doing what you're doing. Don't worry about it," he would say."You tell me if you need something, you let me know ..."
Only after Curkendall and his wife began raising special needs children did he understand what Paterno was trying to teach him years before about work ethic and goal focusing.
"This is a guy, I gave nothing to," Curkendall said. "I had great time at Penn State, but I did nothing in the classroom, to my own detriment, and he still wanted to give."
Jay Paterno told a version of the story at his father's memorial service 2 1/2 years ago.
A couple of weeks ago, Sue Paterno talked about it on the phone.
Helping the Curkendalls was "just the right thing to do. You don't stop and think, 'Why?' It's, 'We have to help, period, and we can't be there personally to do it,'" she said."To me, a gift is better if no one knows about it."
Pete Curkendall still makes it back for one Penn State home game each fall. He hangs out with former teammates, many with similar revelations of lessons learned years after leaving Penn State.
Most, though, didn't make his kind of life leap. Doctors predicted that all but one of their kids would die within a handful of weeks or months, maybe a year or two. Each has blasted through those barriers under the care of their parents.
"What (Pete Curkendall) did, that's what you want (players) to become," Sue Paterno said. "It's one big family, and it's a good family."
Contact Frank Bodani at 771-2104.___(c)2014 York Daily Record (York, Pa.)Visit York Daily Record (York, Pa.) at www.ydr.comDistributed by MCT Information Services
|By Frank Bodani, York Daily Record, Pa.|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|