by Dennis Dalman
With only one lung, Pat Forte said he can still ride a bicycle downhill as good as ever, but going uphill is the toughest part.
His audiences always get a good laugh with that line – a line that encompasses Forte’s attitude about how he’s learned to live life – with persistence, practice, hard work and good humor.
Recently, Forte gave an inspirational pep talk to a gathering of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Sartell High School. Forte, a Sartell resident, is a teacher who is currently on leave from Kennedy Community School in St. Joseph.
For years, a virulent form of cancer dogged Forte’s heels, but he fought back and won after a doctor told him he had six months at most to live. And that was eight years ago.
The rare cancer has the dread-sounding name of thymic carcinoid cancer, so rare there have been only 200 cases of it reported worldwide. Doctors removed Forte’s right lung, then he underwent radiation, chemotherapy and a whole series of tests and other procedures. As the tumors spread rapidly, the treatments became more intense.
Those painful endurance tests came on top of the 16 knee surgeries he needed.
Everyone he knew –even strangers – asked Forte how he did it? How in the world could he face such a bleak prognosis, endure pain and weakness, and then seem to bounce right back?
Through it all, Forte reminds others that he relied upon the innate lessons he’d absorbed through his many years as an athlete and coach. One such lesson is this: If you strike out, don’t get discouraged; rather, live to fight again another day.
Another lesson: You must fight adversity head-on.
Yet another: Work hard and don’t make excuses.
One of his first lessons he learned from his father. At the time, Forte was a sixth-grade hockey player. Toward the end of the game, Forte played only 11 seconds. He complained to his father, who abruptly asked him how much he’d practiced, and then his father said it wasn’t enough, that he should practice hard, then harder. He did. The next year, as captain of the team, he led it to the state tournament.
“My father said we’d never have that conversation again, and we didn’t,” Forte told his listeners. “I’d learned the lesson.”
Adversity, he said, is part of life.
“If it doesn’t grind you down, it’ll polish you up,” he said.
Forte said there are three things to remember, three ways to counter adversity.
- “Do what’s right, avoid what’s wrong and consult the Bible.” The good thing about doing what’s right is that it’s ultimately easier to do than doing what’s wrong, Forte noted.
- Do everything to the best of your abilities, and don’t compare yourself to others.
- Hang out with people who are heading in the good direction you want to go. The best bet for friends is to choose athletes and Christians.
Born in Evelyth, Forte has had a distinguished, award-winning career as a hockey player, teacher and coach. From 1984 to 1986, he played hockey for the American International College in Springfield, Mass. He was head coach for Brainerd (Minn) High School from 1991 to 1997 and led the Brainerd Warriors to two conference titles. From 1999 to 2004, he coached the Minnesota Elect 17s at the National Festival. He also managed the Upper Midwest Elite League’s North team for two years, earning a playoff championship berth. Forte coached St. Cloud Apollo in 2000 and brought its Eagles to a conference title. From 2001 to 2013, he was assistant coach at St. John’s University, Collegeville.
Forte said he is convinced everything happens for a reason, and that is a cornerstone of his Christian faith. He noted every time adversity came pounding into this life, like the time his cancer reappeared, there was someone there – friends, doctors, acquaintances, strangers – out of the blue, to help him through it. One woman named Jean Jaeger called him one day, and said she wanted to pray for him. They met at a church and prayed, and to this day, after nearly four years, they meet at that church to pray.
Some people who knew Forte were never very dedicated about going to church or praying. After they witnessed the effects of faith in his own life, some now pray regularly with their families.
Forte’s long illness has brought out the best in people. His fellow staff members at Kennedy Community School voluntarily gave up their own sick days to fill in for Forte during his absences. Friends, neighbors, even strangers helped with cooking, shoveling, mowing and other tasks. The vast and interconnected support system just seemed to happen, out of the blue.
“We are totally dependent on God for our next breath,” Forte said.
Sports, along with faith, is the absolute best preparation for life’s adversities that are bound to come to everyone, he told his listeners. Sports rapidly teaches players the value of good habits, the danger of bad habits. The importance of team-playing, in which all win as a team, is similar to how doctors and patients work together to beat back illness.
“You might not like your teammates or your coach,” he said. “It will grind you down or polish you up, depending on what you’re made of. It is OK to fail; learn from failure. And it’s OK to make mistakes; learn from them. It’s too easy to sit back and cut down and criticize.”
Forte’s father always told him there are basically two types of people: those who do the work; those who take the credit.
“It’s easier and better to be the first type of person,” he said.
A winner, he added, is one who says, “I was wrong.” A loser says, “It wasn’t’ my fault.”
Forte’s parting advice to the students was this: “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Shoot for the stars.”
After Forte’s talk, the 50 students in the auditorium walked down to the front where they joined in prayers for the seniors about to graduate.
After an inspirational talk by teacher, coach and cancer survivor Pat Forte, members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes gathered to say a prayer for the graduating seniors at Sartell High School.
Teacher, coach and courageous cancer survivor Pat Forte inspires a group of students during one of his many pep talks about life, adversity and the true meaning of “winner.”