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HEADstrong carries mission, memory

In October 2005, Cheryl and Pat Colleluori left their house in suburban Philadelphia at 4 a.m. for the two-hour drive north to Hempstead, N.Y. They wanted to get to Hofstra University early to talk to their son in person.

Then-Hofstra men's lacrosse coach John Danowski met Nick Colleluori, 19, outside of a classroom on campus and took him back to his office. As the office door opened and Nick saw his parents waiting for him, he knew something was wrong.

Doctors had called Cheryl the previous day to inform her that Nick had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Minutes after hearing the life-altering news, Nick walked straight into the Pride's locker room, stood on a chair and addressed his teammates. It was this type of strength, determination and perseverance that had endeared Nick to everyone he met.

"It's how he handled the news," said Danowski, now the coach at Duke. "He'd say, 'I'll be back [playing lacrosse] in the spring,' and when that didn't happen, 'I'll be back in the fall.'"

As soon as he was diagnosed, Nick's mindset switched. It became less about him and more about how he was in a position to help others.

During his unsuccessful 14-month battle with cancer, Nick started HEADstrong Foundation -- after the nickname "Head" that he was given as a child because of his large head -- to raise money to find a cure for blood cancers and to financially help families going through a similar struggle. By creating HEADstrong Foundation, Nick knew he was not only leaving a legacy but also helping others in need.

Led by Cheryl, president of the foundation, HEADstrong Foundation has raised nearly $1 million over the past three years.

Each year, the Hofstra men's lacrosse team has participated in the Nick Colleluori Lacrosse Classic at Nick's alma mater, Ridley High School, during the Pride's fall ball season. The three tournaments have raised $405,000 for HEADstrong Foundation.

This September, the Hofstra women's lacrosse team hosted the first Nick Colleluori Women's Lacrosse Classic, which raised $32,000.

"His heart was 50 percent of his body, even through when he was diagnosed," Ridley athletic director Pete Riviello said of Nick. "If you got a little sad, he'd bring you up."

While undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, a stem cell transplant and experimental treatments, Nick began to counsel other patients. Cheryl said Nick's phone number was given to patients newly diagnosed with similar blood disorders.

Gone but never forgotten

After Danowski left Hofstra for Duke in 2006, Seth Tierney was announced as the head coach of the Pride that August. While driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, Tierney's first phone call as a head coach was to Nick. A close bond was formed quickly. The two talked on the phone each week, and when Tierney drove past Philadelphia for recruiting trips or any other reason, he would always stop by to see his new player.

On Nov. 26, 2006, doctors informed the Colleluori family that further treatment would not help Nick. He was told he had little time left.

As the family left the hospital, Nick grabbed the car keys out of his father's hands and handed them to his mother. He knew his father was in no condition to drive and he needed to have a talk with his mom.

"He told me, 'I need you to take HEADstrong Foundation to where it can be. Promise me,'" Cheryl said.

Tierney brought the team to the Colleluori home on Nov. 27 for one last visit with their teammate. Nick, however, was in no mood for a somber goodbye.

"Nick was telling jokes and holding court," Tierney said.

While Tierney sat in the Colleluoris' living room enjoying his time with Nick and the team, Cheryl and Pat asked him to give the eulogy at Nick's funeral.

"It was a small payback for what I feel I owed Nick," Tierney said. "He and his family taught me so much as a young head coach.

"They taught me what I thought was rough times wasn't rough times. They opened up their lives to me and our team in the most adverse time and situation a parent and family can deal with."

Nick died the next day, Nov. 28, 2006, at the age of 21.

With a line wrapped around the parking lot, family, friends, teammates, coaches and neighbors packed into Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Morton, Pa., on Oct. 2 to honor and celebrate Nick's life.

Danowski was first in line at the church, and Tierney gave the eulogy, which received a standing ovation.

Although Nick had passed, his legacy was just beginning.

"Nick will become a mythic figure," Danowski said. "Nick wasn't a star player and didn't play for very long. It just proves that it's the quality of life that is important."

It is through HEADstrong Foundation that Nick's vision is realized.

While Nick was going through treatment, Cheryl and Pat realized the financial struggles associated with fighting cancer. Then, a call came to offer help.

After hearing about their financial struggles, a company called and offered to donate $3,000 to the Colleluori family in their time of need. Cheryl rushed home to fill out the paperwork. W-2 forms and Social Security numbers were among the information she sent to receive the money. But Cheryl never heard back from the company, and the family's sensitive personal information was gone.

Now, with her own experiences to guide her, Cheryl requires only confirmation of the illness to allocate funds to help struggling families. The rest of the money raised by the foundation -- for which one of Nick's three brothers, Michael, is vice president -- goes toward research to find a cure for blood cancers.

"If we can spare one person from having to go through this, we've done a good thing," Cheryl said.

Nearly five years after he graduated, Ridley continues to honor and remember Nick. On a recent rainy, hectic day full of canceling games and rearranging schedules, Ridley athletic director Pete Riviello thought of Nick.

"I stare over to Nicky's picture on the wall," Riviello said. "He's still a real calming influence on me."

Nick's No. 27 jersey permanently hangs in the high school locker room.

During the HEADstrong Foundation tournaments in Nick's honor, and in youth games throughout the area, players of all teams lace up with lime green shoelaces for their cleats. Lime green represents the exact disease Nick suffered from -- mature B cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. This is one of the lacrosse community's ways of remembering Nick.

For Tierney, during the annual trip to the tournament in Folsom, Pa., he teaches his new players about Nick and the way he lived his life. Before any games are played, the Hofstra players visit Nick's grave.

As the bus nears the cemetery, two tribute videos are shown on the bus televisions. At the cemetery, each player leaves a yellow rose on Nick's headstone which bears his beloved nickname -- Head. Tierney chose yellow roses because it symbolizes friendship and is one of Hofstra's colors.

Back on campus, Nick is never forgotten. His locker remained intact until Michael, a year behind Nick as a Hofstra lacrosse player, graduated this past spring. Rather than retire Nick's No. 27, it is worn as a tribute each year by a senior who exemplifies the characteristics that made Nick special. This season, fifth-year senior Adam Swarsen, the sole remaining player on the team to have played with Nick, will wear the jersey.

Overcoming the loss

It was this Hofstra lacrosse community that helped Michael cope with the loss of his brother. Michael left school in late October 2006, just weeks before Nick died. Although he was able to complete schoolwork from home during Nick's last weeks, Michael had no intention of making the return trip to Hempstead after Nick passed.

A few days following the funeral, Michael came home to find his parents waiting with a car packed with his belongings.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my whole life," Michael said of his eventual return to school. "I was ready to give it all up."

As the car pulled in at Michael's residence at Hofstra, he found about 100 people waiting for him. His teammates, coaches and friends were there to welcome him home and lend any support he needed while he adjusted to being back on campus.

Michael always had an interest in medicine, but it was his brother's illness that solidified his determination to work in the medical field. Michael and Cheryl both took leading roles in Nick's medical care at home. They administered his IV and his medicines until Nick's death.

With the help of his lacrosse family, Michael graduated with a degree in community health. With aspirations of becoming a physician, he got a job working in cancer research at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Cheryl knows the best way to pay tribute to her son's life is to fulfill her promise to take HEADstrong Foundation as far as it can go.

She hopes that in three years she'll be able to leave her job as a manager for business interiors company to work with the foundation full time. For now, she's excited with the progress the foundation has made.

"I can't explain how people are viewing my Nick," Cheryl said. "For people to use his life as an example as [how] to live their life, it's an ultimate compliment."

She knows there is still much work to be done. HEADstrong Foundation will continue to host lacrosse tournaments, cook homemade Thanksgiving dinners for families dealing with blood cancer, and fight to stop the disease. With the support of Ridley, Hofstra and the national lacrosse community, Cheryl is determined to win this battle.

"Blood cancer has picked the wrong family to mess with."

Patrick Carney is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. To learn more about HEADstrong Foundation, visit the official Web site.