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Helping grieving parents is only sure thing for Moorman

Brian Moorman, whose life’s work was launched by his ability to kick a football in a high, rainbow-like arc, is starting to speak in spirals. And he’s a little self-conscious about it.

The 39-year-old former – though not officially – National Football League punter is talking Sunday about what’s next. Could be real estate. Maybe construction. Working with athletes would be nice, though a coaching career would likely mean missing a lot of his 5-year-old son’s life.

His 13-year NFL career halted late last summer when the Buffalo Bills released him, and Moorman is unable to provide clear-cut answers for what comes next. He’s apologetic about “starting to get off on tangents.”

So Moorman refocuses, and it takes little effort for him to remember what truly matters. It’s happening all around him inside the dining room of The Lodge, the wood-paneled central building at the Holiday Valley resort in Ellicottville.

On the deck outside and in rooms down the hallway and down the stairs, families of 21 children lost to cancer are coming together to grieve, pray and build hope. They’re here because more than a decade ago, Moorman and his wife, Amber, decided to start a foundation to help families battling disease.

Today, even as its founder ponders life without punting, the P.U.N.T. Foundation lives on – and it’s much bigger than Brian Moorman, which is exactly how he wants it.

Based in Orchard Park, the nonprofit P.U.N.T. – Persevering, Understanding, Need, Triumph – is run by Executive Director Gwen Mysiak and her assistant, Bridgett Moffett.

Moorman, who moved to Ponta Vedra Beach, Fla., after his release, keeps in touch by phone and email and flies in for big events like this one, the organization’s second Remembrance Weekend at Holiday Valley. Open to parents, grandparents and siblings of kids and young adults who died from cancer, the program included a speaker, group discussions, artwork, music and dancing, and a candlelight vigil.

Many, maybe most, of these families know Moorman already, and not just from football.

For years, he and his wife spent every Tuesday visiting kids at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. He developed relationships so strong that kids would text him with updates on their treatment and families would rely on him for emotional support – both during and after treatment, and whether the child lived or not.

That connection continues today and transcends his playing status. In the banquet hall, Moorman pointed to the parents of a young man named Matthew whose dream was to see the punter go to the Pro Bowl. When Moorman was first selected in 2006, he called Matthew from the parking lot of the McKinley Mall to deliver the good news.

He picked up a shopping bag and pulled out a blanket knitted from blue, green, white and black yarn. It was the gift for the Moormans’ son from the mother of a boy who died. “She loses her son yet she thinks of us and makes us a blanket,” Moorman said, his voice soft and eyes glistening.

A group of nine fathers and grandfathers are sitting in a circle on the deck through a nearby set of doors. The Holiday Valley ski lift sits still behind them and a single box of tissues is placed next to a pitcher of ice water. Their discussion leader, the Rev. Bob Perelli, is talking about how the men and their families have decided what to do with their lost child’s clothes, toys and bedroom.

“It’s not the content, it’s the process,” Perelli said. “It’s how the husband and wife make the decision. It’s not the decision itself.”

Jason Leavoy, whose daughter Anna died three years ago at age 2 of a brain tumor that spread to her spine, offers an example of how he and his wife, Nicole, make those decisions.

“She’s the indecisive quarterback,” said Leavoy, who lives in Lancaster. “She knows what needs to be done but might not be comfortable making the final play call. So we’ll work together on that.”

Perelli smiled. “You couldn’t come up with a punter reference?” he asked. “It would fit the occasion.”

The men laughed. They hurt, but still share humor — especially with other families who understand their struggle.

“It’s an unfortunate club,” said Darren Showers, whose son Christian died in his arms at age 4, “but it’s a group of people that have an idea of what everyone else is going through.”

With Remembrance Weekend, the P.U.N.T. Foundation’s role is to bring those families together.

Working with staff at both Roswell Park and Women & Children’s Hospital, the foundation provides food and gas money for families who need to take off from work during their child’s treatment. P.U.N.T. has paid for funerals, takes kids to Bills games, and has a small wish program called Field of Dreams.

On Thursday, for example, Mysiak is escorting a 16-year-old girl to New York to meet the TV host Rachael Ray. Mysiak herself became attached to P.U.N.T. after Moorman arranged for a private, goodbye swim for her 15-year-old cousin Andrew, who was dying of cancer.

Three years ago, when Mysiak left an executive position at WNED to run P.U.N.T., the foundation had a budget of around $100,000. That’s steadily increased to about $150,000, generated through fundraising events, corporate contributions and smaller foundations.

Now, Moorman and Mysiak are aiming to involve large foundations, as well.

On Saturday afternoon before a “Grief Myths” workshop with California-based speaker Susan Whitmore, one of the fathers approached Moorman. “So what is your football future?” asked David Johnson of Bradford, Pa., whose son Tyler battled Ewing’s sarcoma and died at 18 two summers ago.

Moorman, still looking limber and strong in his red pullover, dark jeans and black Nikes, shook his shaven head and smiled. “I don’t think there’s much of a market for 39-year-old punters,” he said.

He hasn’t officially retired, nor does he expect a team to call. But if a punter were to get hurt and a team needed a veteran to fill in for a few weeks? Moorman can’t quite shake that possibility, distant as he knows it is.

As Moorman works on redefining himself, he’s certain of this: The P.U.N.T. Foundation will be a priority.

Most of the hands-on duties are in the hands of others: Mysiak, administratively, and current Bills specialists Garrison Sanborn, Jordan Gay, Colton Schmidt and Dan Carpenter for visiting hospitals. But there are visions to follow, funds to raise and, beyond all else, families to help.

“I don’t know which direction I’m going yet, but I do know this is one that’ll be a constant,” Moorman said. “A constant in my life and a constant connection to Buffalo.”

email: toshei@buffnews.com

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