Cross country is not for the weak in spirit.
It requires a mind that can appreciate the long game — finding a methodical pace, not too fast, but spirited enough to get the most out of every step. Impulsive moments arise, but an athlete must keep their wits and stick to the plan they’ve decided upon from the start.
Bob Laudani believes it was the cross-country runner’s mindset that made the final two years of the life of his second son, Tommy Laudani, feel so full, despite a battle with a cancer.
“His approach to such an adverse situation was positive,” the father said. “Not that he was going to beat the odds and be the only survivor, he just had the will to live on and didn’t really live every day like his last. He was very patient and very calm about everything. He found an inner strength and a lot of that comes from cross country.”
On Wednesday night, Tommy died after a two-year battle with desmoplastic small round cell tumor (DSRCT), an aggressive soft-tissue sarcoma. He was 18 years old.
The former Delone Catholic runner and homecoming king provided more kick than most could bare as he took on one of the rarest forms of cancer in the world. His athletic endeavors, running a series of 5k cross country races just weeks after invasive surgery, was how he gained notoriety. But the devoted son, brother, friend, foodie, comedian, aquatic enthusiast and Christmas junkie kept people coming back with an infectious personality.
Tommy was in his Emmitsburg, Maryland home in the presence of his mother, father and brother Bobby when he passed. Sensing that the moment was nearing, his parents decorated earlier than usual for the yuletide, placing a Christmas tree at the foot of his bed.
“One of the last things he saw was the lit-up tree,” his mother, Rosemary, said. “Christmas was a very special family time. He loved it.”
Every year, Rosemary bought her son a snow globe for Christmas. The tradition provided him so much joy that his friends gave them to him as gifts as well.
The day after Tommy died, his family awoke to a storm that doused the northeast in several inches of snow. Rosemary couldn’t help but smile.
“It’s just like Tommy to have already left this world and he’s creating havoc with a snowstorm,” she said.
Tommy would have enjoyed the joke. With the flash of a smile and the quick wit of a veteran humorist, he displayed the charm of a guy who could get away with anything, said Ashley Zinn, assistant cross country coach.
A week before he passed, Tommy sent Ashley a picture of his strawberry milkshake, sardonically reminding her of the delicacy she’d never be able to drink due to an allergy.
“I’ll miss his sarcastic self. He was my guaranteed laugh at practice,” she said, adding that he never lost his sense of humor. “If anything, he made sure everyone kept theirs. He stayed true to it. I can’t imagine being in a similar position and not feeling sorry for myself and just shutting down. He refused until the very end.”
Delone track and field coach R.C. Zinn laughed as he remembered photos of a much younger Tommy photobombing his brother Bobby’s best attempts at creating Instagram art.
Unlike many who look for laughs, Laudani was just as thoughtful as a listener.
“He listened with his eyes when you spoke to him,” R.C. said. “So many people are looking around and you don’t know if they’re focused on what you’re saying. He listened so wholeheartedly and authentically.”
Bob had tried to get Tommy into other sports as a youngster. As one of his baseball coaches in Little League, he couldn’t understand why his son took so long to get around the basepaths. Tommy explained that he was a distance runner, a preposterous notion for a 10-year-old boy in the mind of his father. It was one of many arguments that Bob has reconsidered over the last several months.
“He resisted a lot of things and we thought he was a combative person or being belligerent,” Bob said. “As he grew, we saw that he had figured out what he wanted at a young age. It wasn’t just a temper tantrum, there was reasoning but he was learning to communicate it.”
In ninth grade, Bob tried to get Tommy into football. Tall, strong and coordinated, he seemed a perfect tight end. Tommy loved two-a-day workouts in August — another confusing but fascinating detail for his father — but didn’t love the rest. After a decent freshman season in track and field, Tommy decided to spend his next fall in high school on the cross country team, as much for social reasons as any.
Bob said his son loved to see people get together, no matter their differences. He enjoyed hosting parties and seeing how people interacted.
“He was a good person and did whatever would fit the group,” Bob said. “It turned out to be a blessing. The group there offers so much support. We’ve learned through this situation that it takes support from people when you go through tough stuff. With cross country, we had a whole lot of people.”
When the cancer struck, it was a Fairfield cross country runner, Josh Long, who first started a GoFundMe account to finance his family’s needs. A year ago, Tommy united a cross country community when he appeared in meets at Bermudian Springs and Littlestown.
His father remembers watching anxiously as his son stopped to grip a pole in what he feared was exhaustion midway through the race at Bermudian. Other spectators knew of Tommy’s condition, but had no idea he’d had part of his diaphragm removed and replaced three months earlier.
“When you run cross country, you condition yourself to pain, into pain and through pain. It’s a personal thing,” Bob said. “He’s running with the pain from surgery as well. All that bouncing and pounding is tough. He finished the race, and seeing where he was at the halfway point, that’s incredible.”
Laudani’s next performance came at the Ben Bloser Bulldog Cross Country Invite at Big Spring. He finished his third and final race of the season in 30 minutes and 45 seconds.
Though he kept a positive outlook, Tommy knew then that his athletic days were over when he completed the race. He instead set his focus on his other interests. In the summer of 2017, he and his family had scoured the island-nation of Panama, with funding from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He quietly enjoyed the exotic wildlife while chowing down on exquisite and adventurous cuisines.
“One of the things I’ve learned is to slow down a bit,” Rosemary said. “To sit in a restaurant, try new things and enjoy it. My husband is meat and potatoes all the time. I love trying new things and seeing new places. I am going to dearly miss that Tommy’s the one I could try new things and go to new places with. His list was endless. He always wanted to see the world. He’d say, ‘Why pick the same thing day after day when you could try something different?’”
Aquatic life had always been a passion of Tommy’s. As a 14-year-old, he’d applied to work as a guide at the Baltimore Aquarium, but was turned away for being too young. His interest did not wane, however.
In August, Tommy and his father began working on a wooden stand for a 30-gallon fish tank that Tommy kept in his room. The job would have taken Bob a week, but the demanding precision of Tommy’s design matched with his fluctuating energy level stretched the project much longer.
“It took us 63 days to build this stand with no plans, ” Bob said. “We’d argue walking around Lowes about how big the materials should be to support the weight of the tank. It took a while, but I never worked ahead of him.”
Tommy’s project was temporarily interrupted in the early stages when he took an adventure to Florida with friends Elliot Alster and Max Kirby. His parents agreed to the trip, provided that Kirby’s parents were along as well.
“It’s his life, he was 18,” Bob said. “He was still in pretty good shape at the beginning of August. Getting around and taking care of himself wasn’t an issue. If that’s what he wants to do, we didn’t have a lot of resistance to it.”
Unfortunately, the trip fell during a red tide, when harmful algae blooms make the water dangerous for tourists. The boys made the best of it and had a great time anyway.
“They drove up, found a river and swam with manatees, until they got kicked out anyway,” Bob said.
Every day with Tommy was an adventure for Alster. His friend’s can-do attitude led them into situations that weren’t always comfortable, but always provided a story or a lesson.
“It would get him in trouble sometimes, but he didn’t care what anyone thought,” Alster said. “If he wanted to do something he was going to do it, no matter what. He’d do things I wouldn’t do and I’m a fairly healthy child.”
Tommy also impressed older brother Bobby, who watched with dogged concern as his little brother water skied at Canandaigua Lake over the summer. He pined for the more innocent times, before his brother’s diagnosis. He remembered fondly a night in which they’d traveled to the Gettysburg Outlets looking for jobs, looking at Christmas decorations and listening to music.
“He always stayed positive throughout his fight,” Bobby said.
Tommy worked landscaping throughout the final summer of his life. His mother said he felt he needed to pull his own weight in the family. Late in the summer, he began to feel a pain in his back that ended up being a result of the cancer. His liver began to show signs of failure soon after and the family began to prepare for the end.
Hoards of friends continued to arrive at the house for sleepovers. Alster, Tommy’s closest friend through his last days, helped the experimental chef prepare his favorite asian foods and other times would arrive to the house to see a half-finished creation from a complicated recipe pilfered from the internet.
All the way until the final two months, Tommy would fascinate his friends with his goals for himself. Alster said the last was to join the Air Force.
Bob was impressed by the community his son continued to draw.
“There’s just a glow. It’s so unique, so special, so rare that someone can light up a room like that and not even be trying,” he said. “He didn’t want to be the one noticed, or the leader. He wanted to be there and be part of things. He wanted to enjoy it.”
Laudani requested to stay home in the final weeks of his life, but stopped taking visitors to preserve his memory in their minds, Rosemary said.
Days after learning his prognosis two years ago, he’d researched the cancer and the best- and worst-case scenarios. He questioned the doctors and asked for second opinions when he felt they were necessary. That he had a plan for how it would end was not a surprise to his family.
“His determination, when faced with something like this... it wasn’t an illness. It wasn’t a bad illness. This was certain death,” Bob said. “There was no cure, just a range of dates and expectations that came in years. He was so badly infected, anything more than three months was a plus, given that situation.
“We’re not just teaching our kids, they’re teaching us, too. He could’ve easily curled up in a ball and felt sorry for himself, but he chose hope. He chose courage and perseverance. You may not like it, but you can do something about it.”
Tommy rejected use of most painkillers until the very end. He said he didn’t want to get hooked on opioids, but finally relented, allowing a light dosage in his final days. His decline sped up on Sunday and he died three days later. When he was permanently relieved of his pain, his family and friends found the silver lining.
“I know he had told me a few times that, although he didn’t want to leave everyone behind, he was ready, “Alster said. “He knew everyone would be sad when he left, but he didn’t want to be in pain.”
Rosemary was humbled by the help she and her family have received to make the final days of her son’s life infinitely more memorable.
“We’re so appreciative of all the ongoing support from the community and fundraisers,” she said. “Whether financial, through prayers and meals. Tommy didn’t want all the attention even though he needed it. He gave back when he could, too.”
Tommy Laudani’s obituary can be found on Page A2 of today’s Gettysburg Times