NORTH MUSKEGON – Battling a 10-foot, 350-pound dusky shark for an hour during a “Hunt of a Lifetime” fishing trip to the Outer Banks is an experience that Tate Pannucci will never forget.
It’s far from his toughest fight.
On Dec. 4, 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic that changed many people’s lives, Tate’s would never be the same. That day, he was diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
Now, the determined 15-year-old is in remission. The North Muskegon High School sophomore has about six months of treatment remaining. He’s trying to live his best life regardless of the obstacles before him.
“End of treatment date right now is end of March – knock on wood. Then, hopefully, I’ll be able to play football again,” said Tate, the son of Vince and Jennifer Pannucci. “I’ll be able to get back into doing some things and hopefully feeling better.”
Tate’s bones are very brittle from a condition called osteonecrosis, a condition that can be a long-term complication of childhood cancer therapy.
In the last year, he has fractured his elbow and the end of his femur. Around his fractures, the bones do not heal properly. He also has some drug-induced peripheral neuropathy caused by chemotherapy and high-dose steroids.
But those injuries and their slow recovery have not deterred him from resuming the life he knew before the diagnosis. He has found outlets for the competitive drive apparent in older siblings Brennan and Natalie as well.
Photos by CatchMark
“He inspires me a lot,” said Natalie Pannucci, a North Muskegon senior, who is a standout soccer and volleyball player as well as a top-notch student. “I’ve been thinking about it the past couple weeks, writing some college essays, and some of them are about him and how he pushes me to work harder because I watched everything get taken away from him.”
What Tate said he misses most is football. He plays offensive and defensive line for the Norsemen, following in his father’s footsteps. His goal is to return to the football field by his senior year, if not sooner.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder has a large frame with room to grow. Vince Pannucci said Tate will begin physical therapy and weight training in the coming week.
This fall, Tate stepped outside his comfort zone and tried something completely new: Tennis.
“This is my first time ever really playing. During COVID, me and a couple of my friends went out screwing around — me and Natalie and a couple of my friends,” he said. “It’s been pretty fun. Being a part of a team is just awesome again.”
Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark
It was a tough season for the traditionally strong North Muskegon tennis program, as the Norse managed to win only four dual meets.
But, according to North Muskegon tennis coach Cody Liverance, Tate’s presence and fighting spirit helped to reinforce a message of perseverance and perspective.
“We had a really tough season and there’s been times where some guys on this team maybe wanted to mail it in and say, ‘I’m done. I don’t want to play anymore,’ because we’ve been taking loss after loss after loss,” Liverance said.
“We had a talk about halfway through the season about not giving up and not quitting and how important that is in all aspects of life. For Tate, it’s a reality: If he quits going to treatment and he just says, ‘I’m done, my body hurts, or I’m sick,’ he can die. I think that’s a message for kids to see that, ‘Wow, I shouldn’t give up on it. Just because the going’s rough out here on the court, I don’t need to quit. I’m going to keep working to do better and I’m going to do the best that I can.’”
The highlight of the season had to have been when North Muskegon picked up its lone Coastal Conference dual victory Sept. 12 at Grant. Tate was at the center of it.
That morning, he underwent a spinal tap, forms of chemo including through his spine, and he started a round of steroids. The treatment left him feeling very ill. However, his doctor gave him permission to play tennis later that day if he felt up to it.
Tate did not want to let down his team or his doubles partner, so he decided to play. His and Luke’s No. 3 doubles match was the final one on the court and the Norse were clinging to a 4-3 lead in the dual. Liverance said that Tate played in noticeable pain, gritting his teeth and bending over at the waist after every point, but he and Luke managed to close out a 6-3, 6-3 victory in their flight and help their team to an emotional 5-3 win.
It was only the second match that Tate and Luke, also a sophomore and tennis newcomer, won all season.
“The bus ride was long, but I couldn’t sleep. I was, like, tired, but when we got there, I was like, ‘Oh, gosh, here we go,’” Tate recalled. “Luke is really amazing. He understands what I’m going through. He’s like, ‘OK, let’s go.’ I don’t think anyone expected me to play, but I was expecting myself to play. I was like, ‘I’m not going to let my team down,’ especially Luke, because I know he’ll be mad even though he says he won’t.
“At the start of it, I was like out of it still. Like, I knew what was going on, I remember it, but I was, like, really tired, hurting a little bit. As the match went on, I was hurting more and more. … I was just trying my best and playing as hard as I could and we eventually won, which was good. That was a turning point factor for us.”
Make no mistake: This ongoing 2 ½-year leukemia treatment is a grind for Tate. He receives daily chemo of 3 ½ to four pills with a large dose of 18 pills on Friday nights. The Friday dosage typically leaves him feeling ill over the weekend.
But Tate keeps pushing forward. He carries a 3.5 grade-point average and he attends as many sports events as he can. Tate tried to play golf last spring, but he got through only one match when he suffered the femur fracture in an unrelated incident. Vince Pannucci said that he and his wife are talking to Tate about playing basketball, but he may have to undergo a knee replacement after fracturing the femur near his knee.
Tate said he is inspired by his family as well as by Dusty Mysen, a family friend who has been battling pancreatic cancer.
“He’s been pushing (Tate). He said Tate inspires him, playing tennis, doing all these things,” Vince Pannucci said about Mysen. “It’s brought these guys together. He’s been huge (for Tate).”
One particularly uplifting experience for Tate in recent months was the fishing trip he took in July with his dad and brother. Vince Pannucci has run a charter out of North Muskegon and Tate shares that passion of fishing.
On the trip to the Outer Banks, Tate caught a couple mahi-mahi up to 40 inches, a couple small blackfin tuna, a 20-pound yellowfin tuna, a redfish, a large sand shark and, of course, the 10-foot dusky shark.
Forty to 70 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, a two- to three-hour run out and back in every day: It definitely made for the experience of a lifetime.
“He wanted to catch a marlin. Well, you and I would struggle (reeling one of those in),” Vince Pannucci said. “That’s what we thought we had on (when they had the dusky shark). Brennan motivated him to the point where they were swinging at each other.
“He did it all by himself – we didn’t touch the rod at all. I mean, we helped him hold onto it, so we didn’t have to pay for a $2,000 fishing pole …,” Vince added with a laugh.
Tate’s memory of that battle with the dusky shark was, “Long … very long.”
But it should surprise nobody who really knows Tate. He doesn’t have it in him to quit.
He inspires others in his leukemia battle, even though he wishes this isn’t how it had to be.
“I think it makes me feel better a little bit. I want to inspire people, but not in this way sometimes,” Tate said. “But, I mean, it’s nice. That kind of keeps me going, too.”
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