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A Family's Undying Love For The Leafs

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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Frank Girimonte sat down to watch television in his new living room.

It was September 28, 1972.

"I'm from an area in Italy that is very hot," he said. "I thought they were chasing a mouse with a stick."

Still, Girimonte was transfixed. It was like hitting a hole-in one the first time he swung a golf club. He was witnessing Game 7 of the Summit Series between the Soviet Union and Team Canada. Paul Henderson would score the winner for Canada and when Henderson returned to Toronto, he had a fan waiting for him Frank Girimonte.

"I always followed the Leafs," he said. "I watched Mats Sundin, I saw Wendel Clark's first fight. I saw Darryl Sittler's 10-point night."

Fourteen years later, Frank and his wife Samantha welcomed their first child, a boy they named Antonio. The young man was quickly inculcated in the family's love of the Leafs, a love Antonio Girimonte held until he died April 19 of cancer at the age of 24.

Frank is in a slender group. He does not agree that burying a child is the greatest abomination to befall a parent. Watching them suffer, counseling their child on when to surrender to death's embrace, those things , he said, are the worst.

"Antonio was always such a loving kid," he said. "He shared compulsively with those around him. Right after high school he decided to join the armed services to help victims of the war in Afghanistan and gain certification in search and rescue work."

His father was a black belt and Antonio later gained one of his own. He loved the rugged outdoor life and trained feverishly to prepare for Afghanistan. He packed 220 pounds on his five-foot-10 frame and on his second try passed an eight-hour endurance test.

The last step was a complete physical. That's when they found it. In its earliest stages testicular cancer is regularly cured. Its danger increases exponentially with the length of time it goes undetected.

In retrospect, the clues were there. Antonio had back pain. "He had a tumor the size of softball that was intertwined with his spine," said Frank.

He was in surgery for 18 hours. "The doctors gave him a 10 per cent chance of surviving the operation," Frank said.

Despite debilitating pain, Antonio reached out to parents and people in his Quebec City Hospital. One young man refused every attempt to give him an IV and chemotherapy protocol. Antonio spoke to him for 30 minutes. The kid relented.

Shortly after his surgery Antonio heard parents weeping outside their child's room. "He said ‘what are you doing here?' Frank said. ‘Your daughter needs you. Go to her.'"

After nine surgeries to remove tumors, doctors felt they had the disease beaten. Antonio made plans to marry his girlfriend Marie-Eve Lafontaine. She had stood beside him through every operation and each one of the 30 chemotherapy sessions.

This January, Antonio called his father. His cancer had returned with a brutal determination. They gave him a month.

But Antonio had more to do. He and Marie-Eve were married in a hastily convened but altogether joyous ceremony. He went to Florida to swim with dolphins.

Mostly, though, he wanted to meet the Maple Leafs. The club invited he and his father to a pre-game skate.

"Phil Kessel had testicular cancer and Antonio really wanted to talk to him," Frank said. "The chance to meet him and the other Leafs meant the world to him."

Kessel dashed back inside the Leafs dressing room, fetched his jersey, signed it and gave it to Antonio. The two spoke for half an hour. Dion Phaneuf interrupted an interview to sign an autograph for him. Don Cherry called Antonio on his wedding day.

"What the Leafs organization did was a miracle," said Frank. "I'm convinced MLSE has no idea how important that was. He took that memory to the grave with him."

Until the end, Antonio was delivering the same message he had for the parents outside the hospital room. ‘Get in there. Be engaged. Express your love, your support.'

Antonio died in hospital back in Quebec City. Someone held a cell phone to his ear so he could hear his mother say it was okay to go. He took one more breath.

"Antonio told me his only regret is that he couldn't help more people," his father said. "I learned so much from my son."

The family is directing any donations to Childhood Cancer Canada.

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