Even though a gravely ill Fairport teenager was engaged in an intensely painful stare down with cancer, friends say his spirit, humor and resolve only grew stronger.
Blake Cognata’s battle with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare childhood bone cancer, ended early Saturday morning. The Fairport High School senior died with family at his bedside in the pediatric intensive care unit at Golisano Children’s Hospital. He would have turned 18 on Monday.
Cognata’s display of courage made his battle cry — “Find Your Strong” — a community’s mantra, inspired a groundswell of support on Twitter, and essentially transformed Fairport’s official school color from red to yellow.
“Just his ability to brighten people’s days made him so special,” said Fairport classmate and friend Chris Molnar, who knew Cognata since sixth grade. “Just being around him made your day better.”
Cognata was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma on Feb. 1. He was forced to stop playing lacrosse and football.
The medical treatment program had provided hope that the disease would go into remission, but in the fall, doctors found that the cancer had spread dramatically. His mother, Diane Calcagno, said on Monday that nearly every bone in his body had been affected.
Cognata entered the hospital Jan. 5, when the pain had become intense.
On Monday, friends and classmates began using Twitter to urge Cognata’s favorite NFL player, Minnesota Vikings superstar running back Adrian Peterson
, to phone Cognata.
Within 90 minutes of the first #APCallBlake
Twitter hashtag, Cognata was speaking via cellphone to Peterson from his hospital bed.
His mother said the phone call provided incredible joy for Cognata. On Wednesday, a care package of various items arrived via overnight mail from Peterson.
On Saturday night, Peterson expressed his sympathies via Twitter: “My thoughts & prayers go out to the Cognata Family! RIP Blake Cognata. Love you brother
Hundreds of Fairport High students climbed the symbolic Angel Hill overlooking the school Saturday evening to remember Cognata.
Many students arrived bearing yellow balloons and candles, and in vehicles with messages spray-painted on the windows such as: “Find Your Strong” and “We Love Blake.”
“He brought a lot of smiles to the school,” said Danielle Kaye, a 2012 graduate of Fairport High School. “He was a really funny guy and a model student. A friend to everyone.”
Cognata’s smile is also what Ehedhe Luhiso, a junior at Fairport High, will remember him for.
“He always had a smile on his face,” said Luhiso, of Fairport. “He was such a sweet guy and just knew how to spirit people up.”
Cognata’s spirit motivated Brandon Berne, a 2012 graduate, to return to campus on Saturday night.
“He didn’t want any sympathy just because he was sick,” Berne said. “He just kept on smiling and being there for others. ‘Find your strong’ is what he was about.”
Cognata also was remembered Saturday night at the inaugural National Noise Night gala for the Make Some Noise: Cure Kids Cancer Foundation Inc.-Western NY Chapter.
The crowd of about 300 at the Riverside Convention Center, who were gathered to raise funds for pediatric cancer research, paused for a moment of silence to remember Cognata and his family.
Earlier in the day, as news of his passing spread, students gathered to mourn at Angel Hill, where a yellow ribbon is spray-painted with Cognata’s initials and Saturday’s date.
“He touched everybody,” Andrew Hyman, a friend who grew up with Cognata on the same street, said at the morning gathering. “No matter who you are, he was nice to you.”
Hyman had hung out with Cognata at one of their favorite restaurants on Jan. 2, and could tell he was in pain.
“He still had a smile on his face,” Hyman said, “and that meant the world to me.”
That big smile, along with an unending determination, defined Blake Cognata.
“He gave his best effort every single day at whatever he did, that’s what he stood for, and the people he was around, he let them know they mattered,” said Mike Torrelli, Cognata’s lacrosse coach at Fairport.
“If more people took the time to do what Blake did, we’d have a much better country.”
It was clear this past week that Cognata had touched so many. During school on Tuesday, the Fairport gymnasium was filled with hundreds of students who were wearing yellow to show their support. Fairport’s hockey team used Tuesday night’s game against Pittsford to show support. A sea of yellow filled the bleachers, and players used yellow tape and skate laces to honor Cognata. The scene was repeated at Wednesday’s boys’ basketball game.
On Tuesday night, Cognata expressed his appreciation via Twitter: “So blessed to be a part of the Fairport community. I love all you guys so much! #findyourstrong”.
At the school on Saturday, principal Joseph Fantigrossi said administrators would be coming by throughout the day to be with the students and support them. He said a more formal celebration of Cognata’s life probably will be held at school on Monday.
“The thing I learned from Blake is how to face adversity with dignity and grace,” Fantigrossi said. “I don’t know many adults that would have faced it in the way he faced it, no less a 17-year-old.
“He was such an incredible young man,” he said.
Adrian Peterson found that out firsthand. During their chat on Monday night, Cognata told the NFL’s best running back how sorry he was that Peterson fell just 9 yards short of the league’s all-time rushing record.
Here was Peterson, phoning a teenager in intensive care, and Cognata began expressing empathy about a football record.
“That’s what he was like,” Torrelli said. “Other people mattered to him, and he made sure they knew it.”
The community continues to do the same in return for the Cognata family. Sunday’s fundraiser, set up earlier this week in the form of boot-camp style fitness training sessions to benefit the family, will go on as scheduled, according to Julie Earl, the owner of F.I.T. She and fellow East Rochester fitness trainers reached out to Fairport athletes asking what they could do for the family, and the ideas of the training sessions emerged. The classes filled up quickly.
A Facebook page devoted to the Fairport High School football team expressed condolences Saturday morning. The message, “Rest in peace Blake. You will be missed #62. Watch over your Fairport Family. Once A Raider ... Always A Raider,” was posted Saturday morning.
Similar sentiment was expressed on the Fairport Central School District website: The note, “Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to the Cognata family,” was written at the top of the page.
All week on Twitter, friends and family members offered support, using hashtags such as #staystrongblake and #findyourstrong.
Even those who did not know Cognata wanted to show their support.
“I actually did not know him personally but heard about him from a couple of my friends from Fairport,” said Kayli O’Keefe, 18, of Pittsford.
The Harley-Allendale Columbia senior urged people at her school to wear yellow shirts Friday.
“Being it someone so young, it just really hit us,” she said. “Harley is a school that has people from all over Rochester and we really wanted to show our support for Fairport and Blake ... I’d say at least two-thirds of the high school wore yellow that day.”