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A St. Petersburg father and son bond over flash cards, then football, after dad is diagnosed with a brain tumor.

ST. PETERSBURG — The snapshot shows a proud father and his beaming 4-year-old son, arms draped around each other as they share chocolate cupcakes to mark the boy's birthday.

If not for the old family photo, the joyful moment might easily have faded from memory.

For the dad, so many other things soon would.

In a flash, his world was turned upside down by a medical diagnosis he never expected to hear, a surgery that left him virtually unable to read and write, and a warning from his doctor that he had no more than two years to relearn everything he had lost.

In flash cards — the kind his son was using in preschool — he found hope and a new start.

"Dad, don't worry," said the boy, learning to read and write for the first time. "I can help you."

So he did. And a bond that began with ABC's at the dining room table led to X's and O's on the football field and helped them weather all the uncertainty between.

•••

Thirteen years have passed since clouds of disorientation crept into Jerry Terrana's life — Jerry, now 54, the perpetual optimist, as friends and family know him, always quick with a quip to lighten up a tough situation.

Back then, he and wife Marci lived in a cozy Seminole condo with their toddler, Peter. Jerry worked in communications for a Tampa technology firm and performed in a local band with his brothers; Marci handled the billing department at a hospital.

Several months after celebrating Peter's fourth birthday in March 1996, Jerry increasingly found himself losing focus.

"I just felt like I was slipping away," he says. "It was like I didn't have enough memory in my head. I'd say something to Marci, and the next day I'd forgotten I'd ever mentioned it."

As the couple went from one doctor to the next, depleting their insurance and getting no answers, Jerry always took comfort in one daily ritual.

He'd sit with Peter at bedtime and check his preschool homework. Just before lights out, they would read to each other, Peter slowly reciting the rhymes of Dr. Seuss, Jerry a story from the newspaper's sports section.

Then, during an MRI exam by a new doctor, Jerry noticed the nurse crying as she looked at the screen. "I thought, 'She's either having a really bad day or this isn't good,' " he says.

The doctor told Jerry he had a tumor the size of a grapefruit growing in his brain. Fortunately, the mass was benign. Yet the operation to remove it was risky, and several surgeons with whom Jerry and Marci consulted declined to perform it.

Finally, Dr. Lucy Love from the University of South Florida was up to the challenge. When she removed the tumor at Tampa General Hospital in December 1996, Jerry's dream was to see Peter and resume their bedtime reading. But when he returned home and gazed at the graded papers Peter had been eagerly waiting to show him, Jerry was shaken. "I was truly mortified," he says. "How do you tell a 4-year-old kid that Dad can no longer read or write?"

He hid his dismay from Peter that night, determined to make sense of the words. Slowly he realized he could understand printed words if he kept at it. Then, sitting at a table in the predawn silence, he broke down.

"I still don't know if I started crying out of excitement, frustration, or was just feeling sorry for myself," he says.

When Peter awoke, Jerry informed him that he had checked his homework. And he told him that they each were working on the same type of problems now. Even at 4, Peter knew something was wrong. All the doctors, all the bandages, spoke volumes. So he made his offer of help: They could learn to read together.

Today at 17, Peter is 6 feet 5 and 210 pounds, towering over his 6-foot father and 5-5 mom. Soft-spoken, he smiles when Jerry recounts the tale, saying he was too young to recall it.

But his dad will never forget.

"I remember that moment like it was yesterday."

•••

Jerry had both short-term and long-term memory loss, and impaired peripheral vision. But Peter was thrilled to have his father home after nearly a month without seeing him.

Every night after dinner they held class, working on preschool math, reading and writing together, and testing each other with flash cards.

"In his rehab sessions, they'd show Jerry pictures of a pen or a cat, all the things he had to learn," says Marci, 46. "It was a lot like the preschool flash cards Jerry and I had bought for Peter before the operation. So I thought, 'These could work for both of them.' And they did."

They would read children's books aloud, but now it was Jerry sounding out the words and going at a slow, tentative pace. "I still remember Peter saying, 'Read faster, Daddy, read faster!' "

Jerry laughed at the playful prodding and gradually, through rehabilitation and sessions with his son, began to locate the missing pieces of his brain.

Then, a year later, a tumor was discovered on Jerry's colon, forcing him to wear a colostomy bag for three months. That spurred Marci to make a career change, studying to become a nurse so she could give Jerry the care he needed. Meanwhile, her two guys stuck with their nightly studies.

They stayed with it for more than two years. That's when it hit Jerry: Peter was reading better than he was. Just as the doctors had predicted, the window on Jerry's ability to regain his skills had closed, but at least he had relearned to read and write well enough to get by.

"I know for a fact that if Peter hadn't been pushing me all that time," Jerry says, "I would not have gotten nearly as far as I did."

The sessions ended. But a new chapter, a new bond, was beginning to form through football.

•••

At 7, Peter went to a benefit attended by then-Bucs fullback Mike Alstott. The popular star chatted with Peter and his friends, signed the backs of their shirts and posed for pictures. From that moment, the boy was hooked, begging his parents to play.

They were hesitant but knew he needed an outlet. So Jerry and Marci signed him up for youth football. Peter poured his energy into it, as if channeling all the pent-up anxiety of a child who'd been through so much so young.

He started with the Seminole Chiefs and, when his parents moved to St. Petersburg to be closer to family, progressed with the Northeast Bandits and Pinellas Park T-Birds. One of the taller kids, he was a standout at tight end and defensive end.

Three years ago, Peter clicked with Northeast High junior varsity coach Jay Austin, who was soon to succeed his father, longtime varsity coach Jerry Austin.

Peter played on both sides of the JV line and was promoted to the varsity as a sophomore in 2007. But as he prepared for postseason weight training, a new crisis erupted. In what was supposed to be routine gall bladder surgery, Jerry's intestine was nicked. He became septic and lay comatose for three weeks, awakening in the intensive care unit on a ventilator.

Throughout that time, Peter rarely left his bedside. He did homework in the ICU and attended school just for exams and mandatory weight training.

"I wanted to be there when he woke up," Peter says.

Despite his vigil, he kept his grades up — A's and one B — and never gave his coaches a clue that something was wrong. "He's a friendly kid but also private, and he just never let on that anything was happening," Austin says. "Pete nailed his grades the whole time and compartmentalized everything going on."

But Peter's stoicism had its limits. In December 2007, his father was rushed back into surgery. Jerry wasn't healing properly, and doctors needed to close the surgical wound again. The accumulated stress was just too much to block out. Peter missed some workouts, and Austin worried he was distracted. Jerry, who made it home for the holidays, received a call from the concerned coach.

"He thought Peter was having a girlfriend problem or something, and I said, 'Coach, what has Peter told you about what's been going on with me?' "

Austin said he had heard that Jerry had dealt with health issues from the brain tumor, but he had no idea about the recent crises.

"I was just amazed," Austin says. "He never let on, just did his job. That's one of the reasons Pete is such a dream to coach. And Jerry's unbelievable. No matter what he's gone through, every time you talk to him, it's the damn best day ever."

Jerry hasn't been able to return to work since his first surgery, but he keeps things running at home — cooking, cleaning, doing repairs — and rarely misses Peter's games. He is his son's No. 1 booster, proud of his academic achievements (including a 3.8 grade point average) and football prowess. Others have noticed, too, judging from the stack of letters from universities, including Harvard, Brown, Michigan State and Florida Atlantic.

In addition, Varsity Sports Media, a national high school ranking publication, calls Peter a senior tight end to watch next season. His 50-yard catch in a spring game last month made the point. In the stands, Jerry was smiling.

"When I was in the hospital two years ago, my roommate was an elderly man who'd made a lot of money, but he never got any visitors," he says. "He told me he'd trade all his wealth to have a relationship with his kids like the one I have with Peter."

They are a team. Because Jerry has occasional seizures, Peter always checks the house and yard after school to make sure his dad is okay. When Jerry has trouble finding a word in conversation, Peter fills it in. And he's quick to help Jerry read mail or instruction manuals.

"If Peter sees me struggling reading something and he's got 20 of his buddies in the house playing PlayStation, he'll pull me aside and say, 'Dad, can I help you with that?' "

In a flash, he always does, like the snapshot of a lasting bond and love between a little boy and his father.

A St. Petersburg father and son bond over flash cards, then football, after dad is diagnosed with a brain tumor. 06/19/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 20, 2009 9:08pm]

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