Dravecky an inspiration to 10-year-old pitcher

Having overcome cancer, amputation, former All-star shares bond with youngster

Dravecky an inspiration to 10-year-old pitcher

SAN FRANCISCO -- Ask 10-year-old Peter Zucca about the first time he met Dave Dravecky, and the youthful exuberance in his voice is unmistakable.

"Feb. 2, 2013, at Calvary Church. He was really tall," Peter recalled matter-of-factly. "We both liked baseball and pitching. We both believed in God. We both had foundations."

That's just the abridged version of the commonalities the youngster the and former Giants pitcher share.

Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of Dravecky's famed "Comeback Game" at Candlestick Park. Having overcome a desmoid tumor in his left arm, Dravecky returned to the mound to lead the Giants to a 4-3 victory against the Reds. Dravecky's humerus bone snapped in his next start, ending his season and ultimately his career. After rebreaking the arm two months later, an X-ray discovered a malignant mass. His throwing arm had to be amputated.

A quarter-century later, the way Dravecky has handled his plight continues to inspire people across the country. Dravecky and his wife, Jan, have dedicated their lives to helping others stricken with disease through their ministry, Endurance. For countless families like the Zucca family, Dravecky's presence has been a godsend.

* * * *

On his first Christmas Eve, Peter was given a death sentence.

The 10-month-old was diagnosed with cancer and given two months to live. According to his mother, Dawn, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia refused to treat him, so he was sent home.

"He had a zero percent chance of survival," Dawn said.

Added Peter: "Mom and Dad planned my first birthday and my funeral at the same time."

The family sought additional opinions, so the Zuccas went to the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The cancer had damaged Peter's growth plate, making his right leg shorter than the left. The treatment Sloan-Kettering provided cost him half of his hearing and left part of his right leg disabled, but exactly five Christmas Eves later, he was cancer-free.

Three years later, Peter met Dravecky, who'd come to speak at Peter's aunt's church. A meeting was arranged between the pair of cancer survivors, and they ate breakfast together. The two instantly bonded.

"He was just an incredibly sharp young man," Dravecky said.

Dravecky gave the Zucca family his business card, in case Peter ever needed anything.

"We stuck it in our desk drawer, thinking, 'What could Peter ever need Dave for?'" Dawn said.

* * * *

In July 2012, 9-year-old Peter began using a fixator to lengthen his right leg.

"It was a metal cage about the size and shape of a large coffee canister," Peter said of what he called his "torturing device." "It had pins and wires in many places, with a wire that went into my bone. Most every night, my mom would turn screws that pulled my bone apart. It hurt so much."

Third grade was spent with a walker or in a wheelchair. Peter couldn't walk, much less play his favorite sport, baseball.

By November, the fixator was off. The following spring, Peter started to struggle bending his right knee. Doctors said he had a lymphatic fluid buildup behind his knee, which needed nightly rubbing. Tired one night, Dawn had Peter lay in her bed.

"I said I'd rub it until I fell asleep," she recalled.

Her night was just beginning.

"As soon as I started to rub it, I could feel it was a tumor," Dawn said, her voice tapering off. "I called my husband in Texas and said, 'We have a big problem.'"

Peter had a desmoid tumor in his right leg.

Nine days and numerous phone conversations with Dravecky later, the leg was amputated from mid-thigh down.

"We always felt there was something much greater than a coincidence at work with us meeting Dave and then three months later, Peter having the same tumor." Dawn said.

* * * *

Unsure of how he'd be received thanks to his new appearance, Peter was apprehensive about returning to school.

How were his classmates going to look at him? What were they going to think? What were they going to say? After all, it'd only been a week since the procedure. To help quell the concerns, Dawn had Dravecky call Peter.

"I told him, 'God loves you just the way you are. I've seen you with your prosthetic and you look great and you're moving around,'" Dravecky said. "'You'll be surprised by how these young kids are going to respond. Just go there with your head high and be OK with Peter, just the way you are, because your mom and dad are, and so are a lot of other people.'"

Dravecky will never forget the picture he received the next morning, Peter's first day back at school.

"Peter's standing there outside his house, backpack with him, ready to go to school in shorts, with his prosthetic in full view," Dravecky said. " I was like, 'Oh my gosh, that is so awesome! He's going to let them see it, all of it. He's not shying away from this, not one bit.'

"How about the guts to wear shorts to school? And expose that prosthetic? That was classic to me. It was like, 'OK, guys, in your face. Accept me for who I am.'"

Dawn credits Dravecky for instilling that courage in her son.

"It caused a big change in Peter's demeanor, because he was talking to somebody who truly knew," Dawn said. "Not too many people can understand that, but I know Dave did."

* * * *

Nine days after the operation, Peter was on the mound, pitching.

"And throwing strikes, too," Dawn said.

"I remember it was really hard and I fell over a lot," Peter recalled, laughing.

Peter was still on medications to help recover from the procedure, and he had to relearn balance, since losing a limb alters one's center of gravity. The family used FaceTime so that Dravecky could watch.

"I was so encouraged by this little boy and the fight in him to make the best out of a very difficult situation," Dravecky said.

It's what else Peter's done post-operation that's made Dravecky most proud.

This past May 23, Peter observed the one-year anniversary of his leg amputation. The Zucca family didn't want to celebrate the day, but knew it couldn't be ignored, so they decided to honor it. What did Peter do? He raised $14,000 that day -- his target amount was $7,000 -- to aid in cancer research.

One month later, Peter started the Peter The Powerhouse Foundation, a nonprofit organization to help children with cancer.

"It's hard to believe he's just 10," Dravecky said. "He's learned something that most of us adults never get in our life: here's a young boy who is now using his experience to help others. He's thinking less of himself, and more of others. It's amazing."

* * * *

Both Dravecky and Peter have overcome cancer, just to have a reoccurrence of the disease force an amputation. Both have also used their experiences to try and aid others coping with similar problems. There's one more similarity Peter strives to add, though: Major League pitcher.

"I want to become the first one-legged professional player," Peter says when asked what his goal is.

With a cumbersome seven-pound prosthetic he refers to as his "sports leg", 68-pound Peter plays in his local Pennsylvania Little League. Like his hero Dave Dravecky, Peter is a pitcher.

"No child should be discouraged in pursuing their dream, no matter how difficult that may look to us. There's something pretty special in this kid," Dravecky said. "You never know -- in this day and age, especially after spending time with that boy, nothing would surprise me with him."

Ryan Hood is an associate reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanhood19. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.