Gary Iudice is on the golf team at Peabody High School. » Linsey Tait, Staff Photographer

Cancer victim makes transition from soccer to golf

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Tuesday, October, 16 By Bill Kipouras
Staff writer

So what does a 16-year-old think when the diagnosis he hears is Osteosarcoma | bone cancer | at Massachusetts General Hospital?

Gary Iudice Jr. learned he had a tumor in his right leg. A total knee replacement was in order. There was three months of chemotherapy ahead following a 6<1/2> hour surgery, then more chemo after that.

A rod would replace most of his tibia, from the thigh all the way to his ankle. Another rod would be drilled into his artificial knee.

The more he heard, the more the Peabody teen was stressed out.

"I was scared," Gary Iudice, Jr. said, recalling that day, Oct. 5, 2005, when the doctors explained the traumatic road ahead.

How scared was he?

"You think of dying at certain points," he admitted. "I got emotional. I cried. I didn't know how serious it was when they first told me. I thought about losing my hair (from chemo treatments) and never again doing the sports I loved so much."

Iudice also said he prayed a lot and had a hard time sleeping from worry.

Iudice was good enough to play on three travel teams in his Peabody Youth Soccer tenure, the U-12s, U-14s and U-16s. He was seven or eight years old when he first started playing PYS.

He was usually one of the fastest players on the team, a striker who could score a decent amount of goals and had fine all-around ability.

Snowboarding was another of Iudice's passions. He never saw a mountain that didn't appeal to him. He also loved hockey as much as any of his endeavors and was a Peabody Youth Hockey standout.

But playing freshman soccer and hockey at Peabody High, well, that would be the extent of his athletic participation until his senior year.

Iudice turned to golf this fall as a long shot candidate among 41 hopefuls who were vying for three open spots. He wound up a varsity contributor, posting a 5-2 record as the No. 8 man in the lineup.

The stunning part was that Iudice didn't take up golf until last year.

He saved his best round for a rough, rainy, windy day at The Meadows, shooting a 39 in the team's title-clinching romp over Revere.

"The doctors said 'No sports after this, no contact', because if I ever broke the leg again, there was a hard chance that they possibly couldn't fix it and it would lead to amputation," Iudice said matter-of-factly.

"Gary had to redefine himself. He's an amazing kid," Colleen Vontzalides, his mother, said. "He has boundless energy. "He chose golf | and that's when I found out golf can be more expensive than hockey. He played five days a week all summer. He became obsessed with it."

All those prayers were answered, and Iudice was also rewarded for his summer-long golf grind.

The Peabody High golf team had seven returnees this fall and only three varsity spots available. Head coach Rick Sapienza had cautioned him about his chances.

"I told him he'd have to play super golf to make this team. But I don't think that fazed him much," Sapienza said. "But every time I looked over at him in tryouts, he seemed to be doing something good.

"The bottom line was that he got better and better each day," the coach said. "I nearly cut him, but said 'Well, I'll give him a few more days.' He proved himself to me and the rest of the team. He has a strong upper body and hits it well. He's a very competitive kid. He became one of team's most popular kids."

The oddity is that Iudice never told Sapienza he had battled back from cancer. "I heard some of the players talking about it; that's how I found out," Sapienza said. "I felt it was his choice to tell me or not."

Iudice said he prefers not to discuss his disease, but will open up if asked. "I don't want to be treated any differently," he said.

Mrs. Vontzalides said all Peabody High athletes are required to get a physical and an OK note to take part in athletics. "Gary saw his encologist, but sought a letter from his primary care doctor because the encologist mentioned his cancer. Gary didn't want the coach to know about that," she said.

Sapienza said there were no emotional factors in Iudice's selection.

"There was nothing related to sympathy," the coach said. "I took him on his potential. Gary had the ability to help us. There may have been a better player on the JVs, but those are all freshman and sophomores. I'd much prefer a senior in the No. 8 spot. I'm proud of him, as are all the kids." Nothing gave Iudice more hope and support than a fundraiser that drew 650 well-wishers at Danversport Yacht Club, an affair arranged by Gary's late aunt, Paula Dooley. Iudice was nervous at first about trying out for the golf team.

"I didn't want to get my hopes up," he admitted. "I just went and played and did OK in the tryouts. I knew it would be close. I think I shot 39, 42, 41 and another 41. The coach was cutting people and I felt I was that much closer every time I survived a cut."

Iudice, who wears a brace for his right leg, said he misses soccer a lot, as well as hockey. With his newfound free time, he works weekends as a cashier at the Golfer's Warehouse on Route 1.

He also hopes to get on a snowboard regularly again some day. In fact, he gave it a try over the winter and things went well.

"If I just make it down the mountain, I'll be happy," he said.

The University of Colorado, Endicott, Salem State, UMass Boston and UMass Amherst top his college wishlist. "I'm just very grateful. All this has made me a strong believer in God. I prayed every night in the church at Mass. General and have been praying ever since," Iudice said.

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