Pitt-Johnstown’s wrestlers know just how tough Pat Pecora is.
They see it during every practice, as the longtime coach pushes them mentally and physically as far as they think they can go – and then pushes them a bit farther.
So, when David Fogle and Travis McKillop, found out over the summer that the Hall of Fame coach had lung cancer, they came to a similar conclusion: The disease never had a chance.
“At first it was tough, but when it came down to it, Coach is a tough guy,” said Fogle, a 133-pound junior from Forest Hills.
“He’s mentally prepared for any challenge that comes his way. Just being hopeful and faithful, knowing that he’ll get through it, because he teaches us self-reliance and perseverance through anything. He’s a man of his word and he lives his life like that. I wasn’t really worried. We knew he’d be fine. He’s a tough man.”
For McKillop, who had just completed his freshman year as an All-American 174-pounder under Pecora, hearing the diagnosis was difficult.
“When I found out, my heart stopped,” McKillop said. “Coach is the reason I came here. He’s like a second father to me. I put my heart and soul and I trust him to death. Anything he tells me to do, I do and I do it as soon as he tells me to do it. I don’t second guess him at all.”
He also never second guessed Pecora’s will.
“I just had this gut feeling that he was going to get through that,” McKillop said. “He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever met.”
On Wednesday, as the Mountain Cats prepared for their first dual meet of the season on Friday at West Liberty, the 59-year-old Pecora was there, running the workouts as he has for the past 37 seasons.
Not ready to die
Pecora first noticed something was wrong near the end of last season, when he became the first Division II coach to reach the 500-win plateau.
He shrugged off the persistent cough as a cold. Even as he began coughing up blood, Pecora wasn’t ready to go to the doctor.
His wife, Tracy, saw it differently. A nurse, she kept urging him to get checked out.
Eventually, Pecora relented. Doctors found a spot on his lung. When he was told it was cancerous, he was stunned.
“It was weird at first,” Pecora recalled. “It was like ‘Get out of here! I work out five days a week, I never smoked, I’ve never been sick a day of my life!’ ”
Just a few months earlier, Pecora had seen the disease’s deadly power firsthand.
His brother, Ernest, died at age 64, shortly after being diagnosed with inoperable melanoma.
Pecora said his first thought upon learning that he had cancer was for his two sons and two daughters.
“ ‘It’s not fair to them,’ ” he remembered thinking. “That lasted about five minutes. Then I just focused.”
Pecora started reading up on the type of cancer that he had, and what he found wasn’t all that encouraging.
“The first thing I read, it said ‘80 percent of the people live five more years and 60 percent of the people live 10 more years,’ ” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Hey, I’m going to live a little longer than that!’ ”
Pecora approached the fight against cancer the same way he does on-the-mat battles.
“He went into that acting like it was a match,” Fogle said. “He had to score first, put up the most points, asking other doctors how he did compared to everybody else. That’s just how he is; he’s a great person and is always looking forward. He has a great mindset.”
Pecora laughs about it now – how he made the routine medical exams into competitions.
“If I had to take an oxygen test and see how far I could push something up, it was like ‘OK, what’s the best anybody’s done today? I’m going to beat them,’ ” he said. “I’m almost knocking myself out, making sure this thing’s the highest it could be.”
‘Pumped’ for surgery
The surgery was set for Aug. 6 at Pittsburgh’s UPMC Presbyterian Hospital. Before leaving for Pittsburgh, Pecora met with a priest for a blessing, then he headed off to the UPJ wrestling room for some inspiration.
“I went down in the wrestling room, and I just kind of gathered all of the strength from all of the warriors that had ever set foot in the wrestling room,” he recalled. “I said, ‘OK, I’m going to need all of this strength.’ ”
It must have worked. Pecora wasn’t just optimistic about the procedure – he was almost looking forward to it.
“I was kind of pumped up going into the surgery,” he said.
Doctors had hoped that they would only have to remove about 25 percent of Pecora’s lung, but the location of the cancerous mass – which he said was about an inch long – forced them to remove the upper lobe.
The surgery didn’t sideline him for very long.
“I got operated on Monday, was in the hospital on Tuesday, I came home on Wednesday and I came up to work on Thursday,” Pecora said. “I was hurting, but I was functional. I was never down and out.”
The cancer, which doctors told Pecora was slow-moving, did not spread, and he’s seen few side effects.
“My strength’s good,” he said. “I’m working out every day. I did everything almost from the get-go. But definitely, your lung capacity is not the same. I can feel it when I walk up to lunch, especially if I’m talking and walking.”
Team behind him
Pecora had plenty of support in his recovery.
“The kids on the team now, the alumni, everybody was behind him, jumping on board, giving him confidence, helping him out any way, shape or form,” Fogle said.
Pecora said his support group reached far from the Richland Township campus.
“Not only just the Pitt-Johnstown family (supported me),” he said. “I heard from everybody, the whole wrestling community, which is always a tight community. It’s just different. The wrestling community, the Johnstown community. I can’t thank everyone enough for the cards, the letters.”
Pecora was initially reluctant to talk about his ordeal, because “others have been through so much more.”
“Mine was nothing,” he said. “What’s a lung?”
In the end, Pecora says, it wasn’t his toughness that saved him, but the fact that the cancer was found quickly.
“It’s not anything I did special,” he said. “When people say you beat cancer - I don’t know if that’s true. You either got blessed or you didn’t. I don’t think it’s anything up to the individual. The only thing you can do is stay in a good frame of mind, obviously, and go into each battle ready to go. I don’t know if you really have any control over the destiny.”