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There's hope

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

Erin McCann glanced up at the towering structure of the Philadelphia Art Museum. The only obstacle in her path to the entrance were 72 ascending stone steps.

The steps have taken on an iconic and symbolic importance since their usage in the movie Rocky. In the 1976 film, Sylvester Stallone plays the protagonist Rocky Balboa, an underdog boxer that is slated to fight the undisputed heavyweight champion Apollo Creed.

Prior to the fight, the movie depicts a training montage that follows Rocky jogging through the working-class streets of Philadelphia, training in the ring and punching meat slabs, all with trumpets blaring the now-classic theme song in the background. The scene culminates with Rocky climbing those same 72 stairs at the Art Museum. Upon reaching the top he looks back at the visage of the city while raising his arms.



That moment has become a metaphor of the underdog triumphing over adversity, and has inspired tourists every year flocking to the steps for their own transcendent ascension.

Erin was one of the inspired.

"That was the one thing I really wanted to do," she said. "Walk up the Rocky Museum stairs."

Climbing the stairs was a representation of Erin's own victory over adversity - in her case, a 40-year struggle with multiple sclerosis.

Erin, an athlete in her youth, was diagnosed with the disease at the age of 18. MS caused her the temporary loss of her right arm, both legs, eyesight and her athletic career. With physiotherapy and various drugs, Erin has been able to regain most of her faculties and live a relatively normal life, though she deals with pain daily.

"I find the older I get the more pain you have," she said. "Your nerves are constantly going into shock. Pain becomes daily life. You just fight it; I don't know what else to do. You've had it for so long that you just fight it."

That fighter mentality is what brought Erin to the base of the Philadelphia Art Museum in late June of 2014. Every journey begins with a single step. In spite of the pain and the limited use of her right leg, Erin took that first step. And the second. And the third.

Erin took her time. Just as she battled MS one day at a time, she took on each step one at a time. And just as Erin conquered the limitations of MS, she conquered the 72 stairs.

When she turned around, outstretched in her view was Eakins Oval at the base of the stairs, the Washington Monument, an erected statue of George Washington mounting a horse facing outward, and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway - a long thoroughfare cutting straight through high trees that leads into the heart of the city of Philadelphia.

Looking from atop the museum staircase, Erin also saw how far she had come: 72 steps and 40 years.

Meet and greet

"Penguins win!" blared across the dasher boards inside PPG Paints Arena. Hanging above on the big screen was the final score: PIT 1, CBJ 0 OT

The ice was empty and most of the 18,415 fans had vacated the building. Workers walked around the arena seats collecting garbage and mopping. But not everyone had left.

Gathered in a section near the Penguins' bench were 58 guests of the MS Society. They waited patiently until Penguins forward Jared McCann emerged from the runway. He made sure to greet all 58 guests, shaking hands, having conversations and taking pictures.

McCann, 23, is a five-year NHL veteran, and has used his status and celebrity to help raise awareness and funds to battle MS.

Sitting in the front row and watching was Erin and Jared's girlfriend, Valerie.

"I thank him for that," Erin, 59, said. "So many people have MS and live with it. It's another disease that is so hard to figure out. For him to do what he's doing, it's nice to see him want to do good for the people that do struggle with it. For him to even talk about it is great."

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain and between the brain and body. Its cause is still unknown and its severity varies individually with nearly one million people effected in the United States.

"Your brain is fine, but your body doesn't get what your brains wants it to do," Erin said. "It's not getting to the right area."

Erin required the use of a walking cane to get to the arena seats, and some assistance from Valerie so she could see her son meet the families fighting the disease.

"His word of mouth is great," Erin said. "For him to tell people, 'My mom has it,' shows his connection to them. There are so many charities. For him to sponsor, give tickets and auction gifts, I'm proud that he's doing that."

The person whom spurred the meet and greet was Kelly Tapper, who also has MS. A few months previously, she read an article about Erin's fight with MS. So, Tapper reached out to Jared - via an Instagram direct message - asking for help fund raising for the MS Society.

"The MS Society was having a big fundraiser and we were trying to get something from all the sports teams locally," Tapper said. "He responded to my message. I couldn't believe it."

Tapper met Jared at the Penguins' practice facility, UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, where Jared donated a few items for the cause. To further show his support, Jared purchased tickets for the 58 guests to attend the Penguins' Dec. 12 game against Columbus, and asked to meet everyone following the game.

"Not only did he get us tickets, but then he wanted to meet us," said Hannah Ott, director of corporate pharmaceutical relations for the national MS Society. "That says a lot, I think. Not only about his overall commitment to the community in Pittsburgh, but also to the MS community."

Tapper reconnected with Jared. Then she made her way down to the bottom of the seats to find Erin.

"It was awesome to meet his mom," Tapper said. "We talked about his mom when I first met him, so it was awesome to meet her. It's really cool because they're so down-to-Earth, normal people that care about the cause we do."

"We know he has a really close connection to MS with his mother," Ott said, "So it's a cause that's really near and dear to our hearts and we're doing a lot here locally. So to be here and have the support of the Penguins and Jared is just incredible."

Erin's battle

Erin had just graduated 13th grade and was working in a bank with her entire life ahead of her when something really strange happened.

She couldn't move her right arm.

It was a shocking development for someone who was only 18 years old and an active athlete during her youth. Try as she might, her right arm would not do what her brain was telling it to do.

"It was pretty scary," she admitted.

Erin underwent treatment and physiotherapy and thankfully was able to regain the use of her arm. Her life seemed back to normal. And then…

At the age of 21, Erin lost the use of both of her legs and partial eyesight. It was a devastating setback, but Erin refused to back down.

"I was pretty determined at that age," she said. "You hoped it wouldn't happen again, and then it did. You just keep going every day. Try not to think about it as much, and keep going."

Erin kept going. Though she was in pain every day, she lived a normal, fulfilling life.

Erin met a man named Matt McCann, who owned a third-generation gravel and sand business. The two would later marry, and Erin became the stepmother to his son Jordan. She was warned not to have a child of her own due to the pain and complications that could occur with MS. So, the family adopted another son from Guatemala, Justin.

"(Doctors) told me that I might want to consider not having my own children due to the fact that it could bring on another attack or get worse," Erin said. "(Jordan) wanted a brother, so we adopted a boy."

Not even a year after adopting Justin came some rather unexpected, but happy news.  

Erin was pregnant.

She gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Jamie. Luckily, the pregnancy didn't affect Erin's MS. But her life was complete. She had her family and was helping Matt run his construction business. They sold or gave away their crib and all their baby clothes. Three children were enough.

Erin said: "I thought, we've got two boys and a girl, we're done."

She thought wrong.

Miracle baby

Some people call him the miracle baby. His sister, Jamie, calls him the "golden child."

But Erin calls her son, Jared, a "blessing."

"He was put on this Earth to keep me going," Erin said. "No feeling sorry for yourself."

Born on May 31, 1996, Jared became the latest edition to the McCann clan. And his attachment to his mom began from the moment she first held him in her arms.

"Jared and I have a pretty special relationship," Erin said. "Him and I spent a lot of time together. He was always with me."

Even when Erin returned to work at the construction business, she would bring baby Jared with her every day. As Jared grew, he stayed by his mother's side, whether it was a trip to the bank or the grocery store.

"If I was looking for something (at the grocery store) and couldn't find it, Jared would say, 'Mom, I'll find it,'" Erin said. "And he'd run off and come back with it, or he would ask someone working there to help him to find it."

But Jared's energy and exuberance in his youth was also a challenge for Erin, who still had limited use of her right leg due to the MS.

"MS is stress induced and I wasn't the easiest kid to deal with," Jared said. "When I was younger it was something I didn't understand, MS, and what it did and how it affected her. As you get older you realize your mom is limited in certain things. You see other kids playing and running with their mom and don't know why your mom can't do the same."

As Jared grew, he began to understand his mother's daily struggle.

"She's an amazing woman. She's very tough," Jared said. "You think you have it bad, like a bad day, and then you see what your mom goes through on a daily basis. She's somebody that I looked up to growing up, just to see the way she carried herself."

On his 18th birthday, Jared went to a tattoo parlor and had his mom's initials inked onto a cancer ribbon and with a hockey stick running through it. It was his way to honor his mother, and a daily reminder of her fight.  

"She was diagnosed with MS at 18, so when I turned 18 I got the tattoo," Jared said. "It was something I really wanted to do. She's an amazing woman. She's really tough. She didn't let it stop her."

"There's hope"

In the summer of 2014, the city of Philadelphia hosted the NHL Draft. Hopeful prospects from across North America descended upon the city for the next step in their hockey careers.

Jared was one of those hopefuls. After two highly successful seasons with Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League, McCann was expected to be a high draft pick. The entire McCann family also joined Jared in eastern Pennsylvania for that weekend, and watched him get selected in the first round (24th overall) by the Vancouver Canucks.

"I was freaking out. I had my whole family there," Jared recalled of the draft. "I didn't have expectations on where I would go. I was lucky enough to go to Vancouver. It was amazing to go to a Canadian team. It was something I'll never forget."

And something his family will never forget.

While Jared was preparing for the draft and his future, a number of his family went on an excursion in Philadelphia seeing various sights.

Erin, her son Justin, daughter Jamie, and others made a trip to the Philadelphia Art Museum. They posed for a picture with the Rocky statue at the base of the museum.

Then the family came to the base of the steps. Erin, who lost the use of both of her legs for six months and still has limited use of her right leg, was ready to hike to the mountaintop. And she would climb the stairs the same way she battled her MS for 40-plus years, with her loved ones at her side.

"As a family, when you see someone going through something that isn't in your control, you try to support them as much as you can," Jared said. "It's there, and it's there to stay. As a family we are there for her."

MS hasn't stopped Erin from living a normal life, raising a family or running a business. She raised three boys and a girl, helped them through school and took them to all their hockey practices.

She's sacrificed a lot for others, but as she enters her 60s, the time has come to change her mindset.

"You work full time. You raise your family. You keep your kids out of trouble," Erin said. "You're just so busy. Now I have to be self-centered and think about what I want to do now, where I want to go and the things we want to have fun doing."

Erin and Matt joined Jared in Slovakia for last summer's World Championship, watching him and Team Canada win a silver medal. The couple has made trips this season to Las Vegas and Arizona, and plan on being in California. Both Erin and Matt hope to retire soon, and one of their goals is to attend all 31 NHL venues.

Erin has a lot of plans for her future and she wants to spend her retirement. And nothing is going to hold her back from achieving her dreams.

"We have plans we want to get doing," Erin said. "With having MS from one day or another you don't know what could happen. I could have another attack and then I could be back to not using my legs again. It's pretty important now to take advantage."

Erin's life has been about triumph over tragedy, and her story acts as a message to others suffering from MS.

"If you want to do something, set your mind to it and do it no matter what. Don't make any excuses, just do it," Erin said. "My story to tell other people is don't give up. There's hope."

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