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Former St. Joe's three-sport manager Pat Veltri just keeps on moving

Former St. Joe's three-sport manager Pat Veltri just keeps on moving

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As Pat Veltri bounds toward his sliding porch door, his father, Patrick, advises to wear a seatbelt. There’s a slight drop-off awaiting the motorized wheelchair in which Veltri sits, its six wheels and burnt orange rims gliding across the hardwood floor with the tilt of a black joystick, but Veltri brushes aside his father’s safety request.

Veltri has used some type of device that aids movement since he was younger than 2, his strength severely limited since birth by congenital muscular dystrophy. There are 33 types of congenital muscular dystrophies, according to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and Veltri’s is classified as merosin-deficient CMD. Merosin is a protein that aids in connecting muscle fibers to their surrounding matrices. In layman's terms, Veltri needs help performing everyday tasks like getting in and out of the shower, getting in and out of bed and taking notes in school because he’s not strong enough.

Despite those physical limitations, Veltri managed three sports – football, ice hockey and lacrosse – in each of his four years at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, evolving from just another observer to an integral cog of each team. His clean bill of health, aside from spinal fusion surgery in seventh grade, has fueled his desire to follow his passion.

His blonde hair slicked back, his navy blue and lemon-lime colored glasses resting on his nose and his head tilted slightly to the side, Veltri holds nothing back when discussing his condition. His everyday routine of countering the obstacles posed by muscular dystrophy has become commonplace, Veltri feeling more and more like a normal 17-year-old than one with an excuse.

“It’s not gonna get me anywhere saying, ‘Oh I can’t do this, I can’t do that’ or ‘Oh I shouldn’t be here for this because of my situation,’” he said. “I can’t be on the field with the guys and play the sport, but I enjoy doing what I do and I’m not gonna make an excuse … I’m just a normal kid. I have my circumstances obviously, but I don’t let it hinder me from doing things.”

Each new chapter – getting a wheelchair, graduating middle school, joining a sports team – presents a new challenge, becoming accustomed to a change in routine and a change in venue. With Veltri headed to Canisius College in the fall, the next chapter and the next challenge await.

For Veltri, whose life has been filled with bumps minor to major, rolling onto his porch is no challenge. He keeps moving past his golden labrador named Roman and drops down onto the mahogany porch still dotted with rain from the night before. He removes his right hand from the joystick, stopping at the head of a glass table and resting his feet on a gray styrofoam footrest. A simple maneuver on a Saturday morning in early July just one instance, Veltri always keeps moving, no matter the bump that dares get in his way.

* * *

Veltri was supposed to start crawling at 1 year old, but all he could do was roll over and turn sideways.

That’s when concerns first arose for Patrick and Amy Veltri, who took their only son to the Cleveland Clinic and New York-Presbyterian Hospital for testing at around 1-1/2 years. Doctors performed blood tests and muscle extractions before an MRI back in Buffalo showed Veltri had merosin-deficient CMD.

In normally functioning muscles, positive ions rest on one side of the muscle membrane and negative ions the other. The only time those ions are supposed to cross the membrane is when muscles contract. Veltri’s muscle membrane leaks and ions erratically move back and forth, making it hard to generate strength.

"The absence of a particular protein (merosin) forming the muscle membrane leads to progressive destruction of muscle cells over time which are not able to fully repair themselves," said Dr. Nicholas Silvestri, who specializes in neuromuscular disorders at the University at Buffalo. "Unfortunately there is no disease-specific treatment for this form of muscular dystrophy at present and patients are treated symptomatically with interventions such as physical and occupational therapy."

The Veltris' first worry was mobility. How will Pat simply move around? Then came accessibility. How will Pat get to everywhere he needs to in order to interact with others? Veltri pushed a scooter-like contraption to get around at first, thus beginning a life of adaptation. Small, simple devices gave way to bigger, more complex ones over the years, like the QM-710 wheelchair he has now, with a custom-fitted seat cushion and buttons to move his chair up and down, backward and forward.

“Every time there was a new tool or device, he just figured out how to maximize that, mostly with the goal of playing, interacting or socializing,” Amy said, “and it worked.”

There’s one question Veltri often hears: How does that work for you?

Getting in and out of his father’s black Chevy Silverado pickup truck? The wheelchair hooks to a metal platform hanging off the back and Patrick lifts his son between the passenger seat and the wheelchair. Showering? Both his parents’ houses (they’re divorced) have no-barrier showers on the same plane as the floor and a rolling shower chair that they help him into and out of. Going to the bathroom in school? He had an aide who helped him.

“I need help with a lot of things,” Veltri said. “It’s been the daily routine from a young age, so it’s normal, so to speak, for me.”

At her Williamsville home, Amy recently had the beginning of the walkway leading to her front door re-done to form a 45-degree incline rather than a 90-degree one. At his father’s home in Kenmore, Veltri enters through a side door, away from the sharp drop-off from brick stoop to walkway. At St. Joe’s, ramps and two elevators helped Veltri navigate the school's two floors.

Yet ask Veltri the hardest part of his day, and it has nothing to do with being unable to walk.

He claims to not think about his daily hardships too much before confessing the true answer: It's the hours before kickoff – or faceoff, or puck drop – on gameday. The anticipation to get to the field or rink after school, the nerves pregame, especially for a St. Joe's-Canisius hockey game, ate him alive.

* * *

Amy taught art and Patrick taught health and physical education at Kenmore West High School, so their son’s next stop after Kenmore Junior High was set. That’s what they thought, at least, until a friend convinced Pat to shadow for a day at St. Joe’s.

Veltri didn’t know what to expect but stumbled upon a school atmosphere foreign to him. He never disliked Kenmore schools, but the student-to-teacher interactions at St. Joe’s were more like older siblings helping younger siblings rather than someone in power ordering students to listen.

Long before diving into the St. Joe's athletic scene, Veltri developed an affinity for sports even though he couldn’t play them. He’s a die-hard Sabres and Bills fan and cheers for the New York Mets and golfer Rickie Fowler. His favorite movies are Miracle and Friday Night Lights. On summer mornings, he’ll watch the Tour de France. “I don’t even like cycling,” he quips.

His rooms at both parents’ houses are littered with sports gear and memorabilia. Some highlights from his father’s house include a white, blue and yellow flag above his bed that reads Dominik Hasek 39 1992-2001 as an ode to the NHL Hall of Famer and former Sabres goalie, the book Where Have You Gone? by Steve Buckley about former Boston Red Sox fan favorites, and every NBA, FIFA, NFL and NHL XBOX One video game from 2016. At his mom’s house hangs a framed picture of Veltri with St. Joe’s grad and Denver Broncos QB Chad Kelly, a University of South Dakota green hockey jersey on his closet and a red, white and blue Saturdays are for the Boys flag draped over the end of his bed from popular sports comedy site Barstool Sports.

“It’s always sports-related with me,” Veltri said.

The logical next step upon starting at St. Joe’s, since Veltri couldn’t play, was to manage. “Obviously you’re not gonna be on the track team, but don’t let anything hold you back,” his father would tell him. Patrick is the varsity football coach at Kenmore East, so he’s used to not taking excuses. He admits bringing that mentality home may not always be beneficial, but it rubbed off on his son.

At first, Veltri was just an eager freshman, wanting to get involved in any way he could. The first time Dennis Gilbert saw Veltri on his football field, the former St. Joe’s varsity coach summoned the freshman coaches because he didn’t know who Veltri was. When lacrosse coach Peter Hudecki first met Veltri, he saw a kid who just wanted to be part of a team and follow along. On his first encounter with hockey coach Rich Crozier at tryouts his freshman year, Veltri was given a printout of the players with corresponding jersey numbers and vaguely told to let coaches know if anyone stood out.

“All I remember is this kid coming right up to me, little 14-year-old kid in a motorized wheelchair and saying, ‘Hey coach, I’m Patrick Veltri. I’m gonna be your student manager,’” Crozier said. “I was like, ‘Oh, OK!’ He was very assertive … I wasn’t expecting him.”

Little did they know, Veltri would become part of the fabric of their teams, and of a school that he wasn’t even supposed to attend.

* * *

At the end of Veltri’s sophomore year, Crozier, on a whim, hopped on the back of the wheelchair.

Together, with the rest of the team on its way to stretch, they rode past the Marauders' opponent gathering in the arena hallway that day, drawing stares of confusion while trying to contain their own laughter. It became a ritual from there on out, with the intention of throwing off the other team trying to comprehend a 40-year-old in a suit and tie surfing the back of a motorized wheelchair.

“What, you’ve never seen a grown man ride on the back of a wheelchair?” Crozier chirped at opponents. “Coach you really got into their heads that time,” his own players chimed back.

Whether it was giving Crozier a ride to team stretch or a variety of other duties, Veltri wasn't just another body on the sideline as his managing career progressed.

On the gridiron, he operated the end-zone camera with a joystick just like the one on his wheelchair and became the team's waterboy. On one occasion, Gilbert sat his team down on a day they needed a jolt. You think you’re having a bad day? You think you just had a bad game? You take for granted getting an easy drink of water in the middle of the night? What do you think he’d do to be able to do this for one day? Gilbert recalls 10-12 kids tearing up after barking those questions.

“He was a source of really kind of grounding our kids,” Gilbert said. “Nobody that’s got a bigger excuse than him … It was amazing … being different, but not wanting to be.”

In lacrosse, Veltri helped track time of possession. At the end of every game, when the entire team ran to the goalie, Veltri tilted his joystick forward and joined the swarm. Before Senior Day, when Hudecki glossed over the list of names to honor, he ran over Veltri's without hesitation. He even gave Veltri the flower that every other senior received.

“It was almost like he was an actual teammate at that time,” Hudecki said, “whereas before he was just kind of like a side helper.”

Hockey, however, left the most indelible mark on Veltri’s four years at St. Joe’s, and not just because he has three customized state championship rings to show for it.

Crozier asked him for advice on which goalie to play, who to play on which lines and what he knew about the Marauders' next opponent. The 10-year head coach admittedly doesn't weigh the opinion of many Veltri's age, but Crozier gradually realized his manager was a hockey aficionado. After games, and during the team’s 22-game winning streak this year, Crozier spoke, followed by assistant coaches, then Veltri. Often, he’d spew one-liners that incited a raucous reaction. “Seventeen is good guys, but 18 in a row is even better.” To pump up the team, he’d honk the small horn on his wheelchair.

He’s traveled to Saratoga with the team and to New York City for last year’s state championship on a wheelchair-accessible bus with team parents. He attended team meals, team mass and local away games when it was convenient for his parents to drive.

Veltri’s two favorite moments from high school are both hockey-related, winning the 2016 state title in overtime and then again in 2017 in front of a home crowd. Veltri used to be on the side in team photos, but Crozier thought that made him look like an outcast. They moved him to the middle of the group and the team tried to surround his wheelchair so it couldn’t be seen. In the team yearbook, one page is dedicated to every player with photos. Pages 26 and 27 are for Patrick Veltri, Team Manager.

“The St. Joe’s experience, particularly with hockey, that was just a whole other level of participation, involvement,” Amy said. “It changed his life.”

After this year’s state title win, the team celebrated at (716) Food and Sport in downtown Buffalo. Veltri approached Crozier in the packed restaurant with a request.

Together, for one last victory lap, Crozier hopped on the back of the wheelchair and around the room they went.

* * *

Every student at St. Joe’s graduation this year walked up a set of steps to the right of the stage, shook hands with the school’s dignitaries and proceeded down another set of steps.

Some of Veltri's hockey friends received an extra burst of noise from the crowd when their name was called. Amy sat nervously in Kleinhans Music Hall, hoping her son too would draw a little extra applause. What happened next left her in tears.

Out of sight from everyone in the audience, a lift hoisted Veltri to stage level, where he waited not so patiently behind a side door to the right of the stage while several students before him received their diplomas. Finally, the door opened and he rolled out in front of thousands.

Patrick Joseph Veltri.

The crowd erupted. Everyone rose to their feet. Veltri shook a couple hands, pushed his joystick straight forward as he headed across the stage, then veered right for an open door leading him back out of sight.

“Pat’s been through a lot of tough stuff in his life … but he makes the most of it and everybody knows that and everybody loves him around our school,” said Jack Lalley, star of both the St. Joe’s lacrosse and hockey teams. “I know everybody really enjoyed watching him do that.”

* * *

The next chapter, the next challenge, is college. Veltri will live at home and commute 20 minutes to school at Canisius every day. Living in a dorm would be too complicated given all the help and accommodations he requires.

Still, he’s eager to major in sport management and continue to do what he’s done for the past four years, though he may manage only one team his freshman year and expand from there.

The biggest hurdle will be transportation, since Veltri may not have class at the same time every day like he did in high school. The daily routine he and his parents adopted could be thrown out of whack.

But it shouldn’t be too big of a problem. Because, just as he has with every other obstacle in his life, Pat Veltri keeps moving.

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