"I was devastated," he says. "For the first few days, I couldn't do anything. But after that "
After that? After that, Zucconi began his comeback, his remarkable journey through his illness.
So there he was on Saturday, September 28, at the Brown-Harvard football game, just as he'd been at the Brown-Towson game in Maryland the week before. Just as he's been to virtually every Brown football game for the past forty years. Just as he's arguably been to more Brown athletic events than anyone. There are very few people who have loved Brown as well as Zucconi has. Nobody has loved it more.
He first came to Brown to play football in the fall of 1951, and in many ways he's never left. He's worked in admissions, in fund-raising, in alumni relations, and he was for many years the lifeblood of the school's sports foundation. Long ago he became the school's institutional memory, the one who shook thousands of hands, saw thousands of games, and has the gift to remember all of them. The one who always has been there, the one constant in a swirl of changing faces.
Then came last May, the news that colon cancer had moved into his liver.
"I missed my first Commencement in forty years," he says.
But it wasn't for lack of trying. He went to his class reunion. He went to numerous functions throughout that weekend. He threw out the first ball at the annual rugby game, something he's been doing for forty-three years now, since he was one of the pioneers of rugby in Rhode Island. In short, he was Zucconi being Zucconi, telling stories, making the past come alive, schmoozing with the best of them, a man whose skill is to make people feel better about themselves and about Brown, too.
By Commencement morning, though, he was depleted, would soon be in the hospital with an infection. He would be back in the hospital again in late June, but even with the chemotherapy treatments and the endless pills, he's now back at work. "I try not to think about the cancer," he says. "I have work to do. I have friends to see. I have games to go to. A life to live."
A life he continues. In fact, for a while his illness seemed to be getting in the way of everything, for the simple reason that he was getting so many phone calls and letters from people asking how he was doing. So he began writing periodic updates, missives on his progress, all designed to prevent him from having to tell the same story 200 times. Yet what has emerged through these missives is the triumph of the human spirit, Zucconi's remarkable ability to remain upbeat, to keep going in these most trying of personal times.
He says he's fortunate he hasn't had to go through everything alone, that his wife, Nancy, has been a rock he can lean on. That, and the many friends who have propped up his spirits. "What can I do about it?" he asks rhetorically. "I can either sit in the corner and feel sorry for myself, or I can get on with things."
So he gets on with things. Last summer he was the emcee of two reunions. One was for the Providence Steamroller football team from back in the 1960s (Zucconi's a charter member). The other was his fiftieth reunion at Cardinal Hayes in the Bronx, the high school that once sent an immigrant kid with parents born in Italy to the Ivy League and a life he never could have envisioned.
"I made it the best reunion we ever had," he said. He pauses for a second. "Because I don't know if I'm ever going to see those people again."
He is going to be honored by Brown twice this fall - once on campus and once in New York City at a black-tie event at the Plaza sponsored by the Brown Club of New York. The honors are long overdue, for Zucconi has been an ambassador for Brown in ways that go way beyond the job descriptions.
The only problem? "They needed my speech in New York early," he says with a laugh. "Just in case I don't make it to that night." Vintage Zucconi. But he expects to be there. He says that he feels good, that he walks a half-hour a day, that he takes things a day at a time. The Brown football season goes on; Zucconi goes on with it. Even if it's become the toughest season of his life.
He is asked if his illness has taught him anything beyond the obvious; the sense that he's come to value everything, the minutiae of life that we all take for granted, until one day a doctor gives you news that changes everything.
He pauses again. "You've got to carry on," says Dave Zucconi. "No matter what gets in your way, you've got to carry on."
Reprinted with permission from the Providence Journal.