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TEAM PLAYER
Winner of the Rich Rollins Sports Person of the Year award

Kids deal with plenty of fears as they move through childhood and into adolescence. There are bullies, arithmetic, braces and video game stress to deal with – and if they’re lucky, these minor obstacles in life are the extent of their worries.

Some kids, however, get a little more than the usual trivialities thrown their way. Matthew Santagato walks around on crutches, as pins, rods and screws work to correct a growth differential in his legs. The condition, known as Limb Length Discrepancy (LLD), is a bone disease that requires Santagato to undergo painful procedures and therapies that test both his body and his willpower.

“In the beginning it’s hard because I’m not used to it,” said Santagato, who lives in Flushing with his mother Michelle, his father Frank and his sister Jessica. “I complain a little, but without it I know it would be a lot worse.”

But he is not a sick, sad sack. He’s got a smile a mile long and is consistently positive and forward thinking. Wise beyond his 12 years, Santagato showed up, in uniform, to every game his Bayside Little League team played this season. He sat on the bench and cheered on his team, V.I. Pizza, earning the respect of teammates, coaches and parents.

When it came time for Bayside Little League to honor one of its players with the Rich Rollins Sports Person of the Year award, the choice was easy – but not expected by the honoree. His parents got him to the award ceremony without him knowing anything about the honor, and when he heard his name, the eighth grader at I.S. 25 was shocked.

“His face just lit up,” said Michelle, his mother. “He’s been through a lot and we wanted to recognize him for going to all of the games even though he couldn’t play this year.”

Practicing good sportsmanship with his team is just one way that Santagato keeps a normal adolescent life moving forward. Despite his condition, he is very active and almost always outside playing basketball, football, riding his bike or just sitting on the porch.

“He’s not big into TV or movies or video games like a lot of other kids his age are,” said Michelle. “He’s never just sitting still – though sometimes I wish he would.”

However, Michelle would never make her son just sit still. She believes it’s important for parents to support and encourage their child’s physical activity. Michelle is especially conscious of this, given her son’s condition, and the fact that he had open heart surgery at the age of five.

During one of the operations on his leg, Santagato developed a staph infection that spread to his heart. Though he doesn’t remember it, he endured a four hour surgery called a Ross Procedure, while his family sat in the waiting room.

“It was very scary, but my husband and I tried to never let him see us upset,” she said. “I would only cry when he wasn’t around – until they brought him out of surgery. It was unbelievable relief. I cried more after the surgery than before.”

Santagato goes to a cardiologist and is monitored routinely. And even though the surgery was stressful for his family, all he remembers is racing cars with his uncle down the hospital’s hallway.

“Once we got him out of bed racing cards, we couldn’t get him back into bed,” said Michelle. “We’re so lucky to have such a big, supportive family. They got us through.”

And the family will continue to get each other through the next round of surgeries, when doctors remove the screws from his right leg and prepare more to be attached to his left leg. This procedure will help Santagato’s legs to even out and ensure that he hits the ground running when high school rolls around.

“My first priority is to get into Holy Cross,” he said. “It’s more than just school work. They have a good sports program and a lot of activities.”

Being active and staying active are the driving forces behind Santagato’s strength, and it is this positive attitude and outlook that his mother said “makes it easier.”

His experiences have opened an interest within him to pursue physical therapy as a career – he sees people in pain and wants to help them. But you never know what else might grab his interest along the way.

“Don’t let anything stop you,” he said. “Even if you can’t do it, you should still try and do your best.”

 

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