Gradkowski finds time, ways to help ill friend

"I pointed out that if a guy like me can be that one guy in football, he can be the one guy to beat his cancer."


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How about trying something a little different this morning?

Why not a story about an NFL quarterback who is doing good things?

I have the perfect headline.

Bruce Gradkowski: The Anti-Ben

Perhaps you remember Gradkowski from his days at Seton-LaSalle High School or at Toledo, where, in 2003, he threw for 461 yards and three touchdowns to lead a 35-31 win against No. 9 Pitt. Certainly, you remember what he did for the Oakland Raiders in December when he came back home and threw three fourth-quarter touchdown passes to beat the Steelers, 27-24, and do major damage to their playoff hopes.

Today's story goes back to two days before that Raiders-Steelers game.

That Friday night, Gradkowski took his offensive linemen to his parents' house on Peermont Avenue in Dormont for a home-cooked meal. At some point in the evening, Gradkowski broke away from the fun and fabulous food to visit one of his parents' neighbors. Dominic D'Eramo, then 38 and a father of two young children, had been diagnosed with a rare form of stomach cancer in August. Doctors gave him a year or two to live.

"I couldn't stop thinking about him," Gradkowski said last week. "There had to be something I could do for him."

The inspiration came to Gradkowski on the plane from Oakland to Pittsburgh. He wrote a two-page letter for D'Eramo.

"I gave him a stat about how one out of every 600,000-or-so high-school football players become an NFL quarterback," Gradkowski recalled. "I pointed out that if a guy like me can be that one guy in football, he can be the one guy to beat his cancer. He just has to keep believing. God can do great things if you believe."

D'Eramo was touched.

Gradkowski also gave him an autographed No. 5 Raiders jersey that he had worn two weeks earlier against the Cincinnati Bengals. "I wanted him to have that jersey so every time he looks at it, he can think, 'Anything is possible,' " Gradkowski said.

It hurt D'Eramo, a lifelong Steelers fan from Hopewell, to pull on that Raiders jersey for the game two days later. "Sacrilegious," he called it, fairly giggling. But he couldn't help but be thrilled when Gradkowski played the game of his life and led that stunning comeback at Heinz Field.

"He texted me right afterward to say congratulations," Gradkowski said. "I texted back, 'Remember what I said about anything being possible? There's the proof.' "

Said D'Eramo, "Bruce knows I'm never going to stop believing. I'm never going to give up."

It is a brutal battle.

After nine weeks of chemotherapy failed to get the cancer, D'Eramo had surgery Nov. 3 at UPMC to remove his stomach, spleen and a piece of his pancreas. His abdominal cavity was then soaked with heated chemo.

Initially, the results were positive. A scan in late-January showed D'Eramo's cancer was in remission. He went back to work as a pharmaceutical rep for Takeda. He felt well enough March 27 to watch the West Virginia-Kentucky basketball game in the NCAA tournament with family and friends at the Fox and Hound Restaurant in the North Hills. He is a West Virginia graduate.

"It felt like I had my life back," D'Eramo said.

But then, suddenly, there was more abdominal pain. Doctors diagnosed two bowel obstructions and did a bowel resection April 9 at UPMC. Before they sent D'Eramo home Wednesday, they told him they found cancer cells in his colon. He faces more chemotherapy after he gets his strength back.

"It's not good," D'Eramo said.

He said he doesn't worry about himself. His concerns are for his wife, Valerie, and their children, Sierra, 3 1/2, and Nico, who turned 1 Tuesday. "Are my kids even going to remember me? That's what I struggle with every day," he said.

Then in an even softer, weaker voice ...

"I've got a lot to fight for."

Gradkowski has kept in touch with D'Eramo despite living in the Bay Area. He just had surgery of his own April 14 to repair a torn pectoral muscle in his left (non-throwing) arm from lifting weights. He expects to be ready for training camp in July and plans on competing with JaMarcus Russell, Kyle Boller and Charlie Frye for the Raiders' starting job.

Not long ago, Gradkowski committed to playing in a charity golf tournament July 14 at the Club at Shadow Lakes in Aliquippa. He asked the tournament host -- prominent Beaver County developer C.J. Betters -- if some proceeds from the event could be sent to D'Eramo to help with his medical expenses. Betters, who lost his daughter, Roxsan, 37, to colon cancer in 2006, immediately cut a $5,000 check for D'Eramo, whose wife had to close her nails and tanning salon in Pitcairn after their son was born and hasn't been able to re-open it because she's taking care of her husband and their children.

Another friend -- Joe Marruchella -- will run in the Pittsburgh Marathon next Sunday to raise money for D'Eramo. His website is runfordom.com .

"The support has been overwhelming," D'Eramo said.

Said Gradkowski of his role, "I'm fortunate to have some connections because of what I do. What good are they if you can't use them to help other people? It doesn't matter if it's reading to a bunch of fifth-graders or helping a guy like Dom. Helping people should be what it's all about."

Both D'Eramo and Gradkowski have circled Nov. 21 on their calendar.

That's the day the Raiders play the Steelers again at Heinz Field.

Actually, D'Eramo and Gradkowski are looking forward to the Friday night before that game.

What a time they are planning on having.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com .


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