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John Pirro will have dirt from Alumni Field added to his grave in Huntington, N.Y..
The Roanoke Times | File
Former Roanoke College lacrosse star and coach John Pirro died Tuesday after battling Huntington's Disease.
A bust of John Pirro encourages Roanoke College lacrosse players.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
As John Pirro entered the final days of his agonizing 16-year battle with Huntington’s disease, a call was put in to his fellow Roanoke College lacrosse legend, Bob Rotanz.
“John’s brother, Peter, called me,” said Rotanz, a Salem businessman. “He said, ‘Bob, I’ve got a very odd request.’ He asked if I could go by the old lacrosse field and send him up some soil.
“I went to both creases, the areas that John protected as a player. There wasn’t much grass. So, I dug up enough soil to fill a five-gallon paint bucket and took it to UPS.”
When Pirro is buried Saturday at the Huntington (N.Y.) Rural Cemetery, his casket will be covered with 45 pounds of dirt from Alumni Field before final landscaping takes place later in the weekend.
“That’s cool,” said Bill Pilat, who succeeded Pirro as Roanoke College coach. “Very fitting.”
Pirro, 58, died shortly after midnight Tuesday in Huntington, N.Y., where he had lived for the past four years under the care of his older sister, Jo Ann, and other family members.
Pirro’s sons, Nick and Joe, travelled to New York after they were notified 10 days ago that the end was near.
“He was able to communicate for a couple of days,” Nick Pirro said, “but the disease had taken such a toll. The last year, in total, had been rough. But, the last week and a half was when it really escalated.”
Huntington’s disease, which has no connection to the Pirros’ hometown, is a neuro-muscular disorder for which there is no known cure.
The Pirros’ mother, Julia, carried the Huntington’s gene but nobody knew it till after she died. There were no blood tests until the Huntington’s gene was isolated in 1993.
In a 2005 interview, John Pirro described his symptoms:
“Fidgety,” he said. “Uncontrollable. I’ve got equilibrium issues. They call them ‘choreas.’ I’ll be walking like I’m drunk when I’m not drunk.”
Pirro was one of five children. An older sister, Kathy, also died from Huntington’s but the other siblings have been symptom-free.
John Pirro’s family asks that donations in his name be made to the Pirro Patio, which will adjoin the new Cregger Center, which overlooks Kerr Stadium, the Maroons’ current soccer and lacrosse home.
In 2010, Pirro returned to Salem for the unveiling of his bust, which players pass on the walkway to Kerr Stadium from their locker room in the Bast Center.
“He was influential, an inspiration,” Roanoke College athletic director Scott Allison, a former Pirro lacrosse teammate, said in a 2010 interview. “I think you could say ‘beloved.’ He was arguably the best athlete we’ve seen come through that program.”
Another former teammate, Doug Horn, kept track of Pirro’s plight and many ex-Maroons had dropped by to see him. At the end, Pirro didn’t weigh much more than 100 pounds and was bed-ridden.
“Whenever I’d go home to see family in New York, I tried to stop by and see him,” Rotanz said. “I was up there this summer. It was so sad that he was dealt that hand. To see him deteriorate was just horrible.”
Pirro was one year older than Rotanz, who had played at a neighboring Long Island High School.
“John called me up when he was a freshman down here,” Rotanz said. “He said, ‘Hey, Bob, why don’t you come down here and we’ll play side by side.’ He was my mentor.”
Pirro was a three-time All-American (1975-77) as a player and took the Maroons to the 1983 NCAA Division III championship game as a coach.
“He was like the pioneer, where you bring in this top guy to an unknown program and it’s never the same,” Pilat said. “Paul Griffin [as coach] brought him in and he was awesome. To be a three-time All-American for this fledgling program is pretty impressive.”
Griffin, recently retired as an athletic administrator at Georgia Tech, said he has made arrangements to be at the funeral.
“Everybody assumes or thinks that John played on the national championship team,” said Griffin of his 1978 team. “That’s not true. But those guys on that team always treated him as if he were. Never was there a celebration of that team that didn’t include John.
“It shows just how much they appreciated the groundwork that he laid.”
Weather JournalMidday update: More ice likely later