VIRGINIA — The struggles, the successes, the grit of the Iron Range pumps — sometimes weakly, sometimes strongly — through Eveleth native Pat Forte.
On March 22, in a small auditorium on the Mesabi Range College campus, in front of a gathering of athletes and coaches, Forte was gaunt, gray and clearly tired. He took the steps down to the lectern with a cane, one by one, before he sat down and spoke into a microphone.
“I am not a great speaker,” he told them, “but I think my story is worth telling.”
Forte is a man who, over the years, has had many reasons to give up. He’s gone through tribulations you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. A crippling knee condition that derailed a potential NHL career, cancer that was supposed to kill him years ago, surgeries, doctors, failures. But when he spoke into the microphone at Mesabi Range College he spoke clearly, confidently through the shallow breath of one lung.
He began his story in the car, on the way home with his father after a 7-4 win in youth hockey. Forte, a defenseman, had finally hit the ice for the first time in the game with 11 seconds left ... in the third period, and as a forward.
On that ride, Forte complained to his dad about the ice time he was getting.
“Son, I’m only going to have this conversation with you once,” he said, “but how much time did you spend on your game?”
Not much, unfortunately. And because of it, Forte’s dad wasn’t letting him off easy, especially if he expected playing time.
“If your friends are shooting 20 pucks, you should be shooting 50,” his dad told him.
Forte’s dad was a stern but grounded parent when he offered advice. He told Forte’s sister something similar when, during her senior year of basketball, a freshman stole playing time from her. She asked that their dad call the coach to get her playing time back.
He said he’d call.
“I’m going to tell him I support his decision entirely,” Forte’s dad said.
It was moments like that which built two ways of thinking in Forte:
• Whatever your task, the outcome is largely a result of your own actions.
• You have full responsibility for said actions/results.
From that young age Forte began to understand, and culminate, a sense of precocious volition and realistic cause and effect. It was a thought process that would shape a whole lifetime of grit and determination, though he didn’t know that as he began shooting pucks in the basement and conditioning his body twice as much as his friends were in the off-season.
By his junior year of high school hockey Forte led the IRC in scoring for Eveleth. He had dinners with a few different NHL teams, part of a heavy recruiting campaign that led him into his senior year. It was clear he was destined for greatness.
But the unexpected assailed him. After one particular game he complained that his knee was sore; the pain kept getting worse and worse. It never got better. A doctor diagnosed him with a rare condition, Osteochondritis dissecans, which causes the cartilage in the knee to whither away. He had surgery, and was told he’d never play hockey again.
NHL teams lost interest in him, along with many others in hockey, except for a Division III school in Massachusetts, American International College.
Despite the problems in his knee he persisted, and played a year with the Yellow Jackets. At some point during that season, however, his other knee began acting up. Osteochondritis dissecans had struck again, which meant more surgeries and more dissapointments. His career on the ice was officially over.
His love for the game hadn’t gone away, however, and Forte came back to Bemidji to finish his education. On graduating he got a job as a high school coach at Bemidji; at the time, he was the youngest head high school coach in the state. After all, those hockey smarts he learned from all that conditioning hadn’t all gone away; they improved the more he coached.
He moved to better things — to St. Cloud, where he coached the Minnesota Select 17s for a few years and helped some of the best players in the NHL develop their game — players like Matt Niskanen and Zach Parise.
He even coached St. Cloud Apollo to a conference title in 2000.
The next setback hit him there. One day he was simply playing recreational dodgeball when he couldn’t catch his breath. A coworker told him he needed to go to the doctor — he looked gray and sickly.
He was diagnosed with thymic carcinoid cancer, and was told he had six months to live.
There were moments in front of the auditorium when his voice shed any sort of weakness of breath or wavering pitch. They were moments when his Iron Range accent flourished, hardened into the same voice you’ve heard from the best coaches on the best teams, the toughest players to skate the Iron Range ice.
“Adversity is a means of life,” he told the crowd. “It’s going to either break you or polish you.”
Forte’s adversity gutted him before it polished him. The cancer took a lung and his adrenal glands. He had to learn to walk again after all the procedures, after the cocktails of drugs, after tumors appeared all over his body.
That was over 11 years ago. Now, he’s just happy telling his story to people, with the opportunity to talk to athletes in the area especially important to him.
“That’s why I wanted to make this so bad,” Forte said in an interview after he was done addressing the public, “just because it’s been such a long, tough struggle. But I wanted to get back to speak with these people.”
He told them, after his story, that the behaviors he learned in sports were the ones that polished him.
“All these little battles along the way in sports, it’s leading you up to a bigger thing,” he added.
His bigger thing — for him, cancer — has not come lightly. The hurdles have forced him to adapt, shaped him into a rounded person, wise even beyond his 50 years. He’s got strong faith, and a toolbox of saying and aphorisms that have helped him stay strong.
“Just remember, WIN,” he said, “which stands for what’s important now. And another thing: whether in life or in sports, you need to work on the weakest part of your game.”
Some days are harder than others for him. At one point in the talk he mentioned that the week hadn’t been a good one for him; only a few days prior he couldn’t walk at all. He hasn’t been able to get through all this adversity by himself — the one thing he stressed most was his support system, which has never failed him, filled with numerous people willing to help him — bringing him to doctor’s appointments, for example.
“Learn how to be a team player,” he said, “and do what’s right.”
That’s why Forte is all but willing to answer the “two to five (people) a week” asking him for advice. They are old players, old friends; and like Forte’s father did in his own way, Forte gives out his advice, and gladly.
His sayings, ones like “Don’t compare yourself to others,” or “Starting now we have 100 percent of our lives left” are powerful and important on their own. But they’re not made convincing on their own. This is where a sort of gravity about Forte is lost when you’re not in front of him — it was clear, on the Mesabi campus, that the only thing that kept his frail body from collapsing or at least shutting partially down was a part of the same thing that made his one-lunged voice boom through the poor acoustics of the room.
But for most of us, the same stubborness and determination that Forte shows seems out of reach. At least, it isn’t learned overnight. So when he asked everyone how they prepare for adversity, it was easy to feel less equipped as the man in front of the room, snow-stubbled and gray but fierce with his words.
Then again, maybe it’s more simple than that. Maybe determination and grit is simply which direction the pointed finger is aimed.
“No excuses,” he told them. “None.”