We don't have a by-line for this piece but it’s by our new friend Scott Brown and it’s a great account of Dan Priatko, a guy who has shown immense character in the face of profound challenges, and his friendship with Coach K.
A father and son will make their annual visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium and watch a college basketball game Feb. 20 from seats that even rapper Jay-Z and other A-listers might have trouble scoring.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski always sits Bill and Dan Priatko right behind the Blue Devils’ bench, no matter whom the opponent. That Duke is renewing college basketball’s best rivalry with North Carolina while the Priatkos are in attendance is fitting.
It marks the 25th consecutive year that the Pittsburgh-area residents will attend a game at Duke. That streak is symbolic of their friendship with Krzyzewski but only skims the surface of a unique kinship -- and a much larger story.
It started after a brief encounter that Bill never dreamed would lead to where it has. Almost three decades later, Bill can produce a manila folder that is overflowing with letters and emails from Krzyzewski. And that represents only about a third of their correspondence with “Coach K” over the years.
Krzyzewski once wrote that if all his players had Dan’s “competitive spirit” Duke would win the national championship every season. Another time he sent the Priatkos a letter that read, “Dan, we’re truly teammates having graduated from the best school in the world.”
The two are West Pointers. That is all that needs to be said among anyone who has endured the regimented crucible of Army, the New York-based military academy.
Their training prepared each for paths neither could have imagined. Krzyzewski turned Duke from a good basketball school into the pre-eminent men’s program in the country. Dan, soon after completing Army Ranger School, suffered a catastrophic head injury in a car accident.
He wasn’t expected to survive it. Even after he did, doctors weren’t sure what quality of life he would have.
Almost 35 years later, things most take for granted, such as walking and talking, are a challenge for Dan. He uses a quad cane and sometimes a wheelchair but doesn’t let either define him. He volunteers two days a week at a retirement home in North Huntingdon, where he lives with Bill, works out regularly and still inspires people through his resolve.
With his 57th birthday approaching, Dan lives life on his terms.
And by the code that ties him to Krzyzewski, the all-time winningest coach in men’s college basketball, and other West Point graduates.
“One of the things that you learn at the academy is no excuses,” said Krzyzewski, a 1969 graduate of Army. “For Dan, there is no other choice except to be positive. Before (his accident) he had eliminated negative alternatives and excuses. Those things were embedded in him and they haven’t changed. They’ve been tested to a really high level and he has passed that test tremendously.”
Indeed, once a West Pointer, always a West Pointer.
Dan Priatko, always a model of discipline and determination, excelled as a student-athlete at Norwin High School, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. He played linebacker and running back for the Knights’ football team. He won team MVP honors as a senior and most outstanding male student. Dan also served as class president.
“He was probably one of the most determined kids that I’ve had,” former Norwin coach John Yaccino said. “Once he put his mind to doing something, even if his abilities might have limited him, he would end up getting it done. Very determined. Never gave up.”
Those qualities served him well at West Point where Dan majored in Russian area studies and was a placekicker for the football team. Dan, as a senior, won the award given to the letterman with the highest grade-point average.
After graduating in 1984, Dan completed Army Ranger School, persevering through a case of frostbite during mountain training to achieve status that is elite even by West Point standards. Before deploying to Germany, he and Debbie, one of his two sisters, went to West Point for one final goodbye.
A major ice storm pummeled Hazleton, Pa., as they were driving home. Dan lost control of the car after it hit a patch of black ice. The car careened into a concrete abutment. Debbie sustained minor abrasions from the accident, but Dan suffered such significant head trauma that doctors didn’t think he would live. Even after he survived – his peak physical condition from Ranger training saved his life – they weren’t sure what kind of life he would have.
He spent seven months in a coma and five more months in a semi coma, drifting in and out of consciousness.
Nothing better captured the way people from Western Pennsylvania to West Point rallied around the Priatkos than the doctor who cared for Dan after he was transferred to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington D.C.
Major General Lewis Mologne was a Western Pennsylvania native and commander at Walter Reed when Dan arrived. He promised Bill that he would take care of Dan like he was his son. Mologne later told Bill how much he admired the courage and will to live that his “West Point comrade” showed.
Ten years after his accident Dan visited West Point to speak to the cadets at the invitation of chaplain Richard Camp. Among those in attendance was Nate Sassaman, the starting quarterback at Army during Dan’s senior season. Sassaman was stationed at West Point and he helped Dan walk up and down the winding steps that led to the podium.
The cadets gave Dan a standing ovation from the end of his speech until he returned to his seat. That took almost 10 minutes and every time it seemed as if the applause might stop it started up again.
Cathy Camp, the chaplain’s daughter, can still see the cadets, in their crisp, gray uniforms, sitting on the edge of the pews so they didn’t miss a word of Dan’s speech. Richard Camp is battling Parkinson’s Disease and Cathy said that Dan has been a source of strength for the family through the letters and emails he sends.
“He is really a poetic writer and for somebody that has every reason to be glass half empty, for every reason to be angry at God, angry at the world, angry at the circumstances, he’s the opposite,” Cathy said. “He’s been given this otherworldly aptitude for hope that defies our earthly logic.”
Maybe former Black Knights All-American Art Gerometta intuited that in 1990 when he met Dan at a 100-year celebration of Army football.
“You are one of us,” Gerometta told Dan. “You ran out of the same tunnel at Michie Stadium.”
A couple of weeks later, the Priatkos received a package in the mail. It had the Silver Star and Purple Heart medals that Gerometta received for his service during the Korean War.
In his letter he told Dan, “You are the epitome of courage.”
Bill Priatko, 87, is one of the oldest living Steelers players, and he suited up in an era when he made more money selling Wrigley chewing gum in the offseason of his three-plus year NFL career. He was good friends with Chuck Noll and is one of former Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s best friends.
Despite playing just one season for the Steelers, Bill and his family retain a strong connection with the Rooney family. Art Rooney Jr., who presided over the drafts that built the Steelers 1970s dynasty, writes to Dan every week, without fail. That continues what his father (Steelers founder Art Rooney) started after Dan’s accident.
For all his connections, Bill didn’t have one to Krzyzewski when he approached him in July of 1989. Priatko was an assistant athletic director at Robert Morris and Krzyzewski was speaking there at the Five-Star Basketball Camp. Bill told him about Dan. After he finished Krzyzewski stunned Bill with, well, an order: take me to meet him.
Never mind that he had a plane to catch in a couple of hours. Nor did it matter when Bill explained that the Priatkos lived more than an hour away from Robert Morris. He told Krzyzewski that he would never make his flight. Krzyzewski said he would take a later one and explained why he was so insistent on meeting Dan: “He’s a West Pointer, isn’t he?”
Bill told him how much he appreciated the gesture but wouldn’t let him miss his flight.
Dan and Krzyzewski met for the first time two summers later at Five-Star basketball camp. Krzyzewski hugged Dan and told him, “We have that bond. We were on the Long Gray Line together.”
Long Gray Line is more than just a motto for those who make it through West Point. It links all its graduates because of their shared experiences. In the case of Dan and Krzyzewski it also serves as a powerful metaphor for standing together as the cadets they once were.
“We have that bond that can’t be described.” Dan said of Krzyzewski. “I had more of an appreciation after my accident for sincerity and genuine intentions and I saw that in him. I can tell when a person means what they say and do.”
The letter that Krzyzewski wrote after meeting Dan gives a glimpse into why their friendship is so genuine.
“Dan, thanks for being my good friend,” Krzyzewski wrote. “I surely hope that both of you will be able to come and see us play this season. You are an amazing family and getting to know you as well as I have has been one of the truly enjoyable parts of my life.”
Bill and Dan finally made it to Duke for a game in 1995 and haven’t missed seeing one a season at Cameron Indoor Stadium since then.
Krzyzewski and the Priatkos found out through their friendship that they are connected by more than just West Point.
Cameron Indoor Stadium is named for Eddie Cameron, who like Dan, is a Norwin graduate. Krzyzewski’s mother, meanwhile, was born in Keisterville, a small coal mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. He fondly remembers visiting that part of the country for family reunions even though his mother’s family moved to Chicago when she was young.
“Whatever was in the water there was good stuff,” Krzyzewski said of Keisterville. “My mom was terrific and came from good, hardworking people.”
That sounds like the description that Bill and Dan would use for Krzyzewski.
“The whole country should know what type of man ‘Coach K’ is,” Bill said.
Growing up, the two Priatko sons had one daily task: raise the American flag on the pole that still stands in the Priatkos’ front yard. It hardly qualified as a chore, though, considering that Dan and his younger brother, David, used to fight over the honor.
The two were imbued with a sense of duty and patriotism from Bill, who led an Air Force honor guard for President Dwight D. Eisenhower and was officer-in-charge of Air Force funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.
Some of what Bill calls the “greatest experiences” of his life – and the fact that he later served as an Air Force Academy recruiter in Western Pennsylvania -- put his sons on a military path.
Dan and David are five years apart in age and the shadow Dan cast may have been suffocating to some siblings since he seemed to make excelling at whatever he did look easy. But it inspired David, who ultimately continued the legacy that Dan couldn’t after his accident.
David graduated from West Point in 1989 and was a paratrooper in Desert Storm. He later served three tours of duty in Iraq and received a number of awards for his service in combat, including two Bronze Stars.
“Dan never stopped inspiring me because life, especially in the military and deployments, you go through tough times, and I always reminded myself what Dan had to go through when they said he wouldn’t live and if he did he’d be two percent functional,” said David, who teaches ROTC at a high school in Georgia. “Dan persevered. He was strong in his faith and he inspired so many people, especially me. Every day he gets up and just kind of fights on to the next objective.”
That approach is why Dan has so many treasured keepsakes – from Gerometta’s medals and an autographed picture of him and Krzyzewski to the football that LeBeau presented to him after his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in 2010. LeBeau had the ball signed by a handful of fellow Hall of Famers.
“People like Dan Priatko,” LeBeau said, “refuse to give up and accomplish a lot more than the medical people thought they could do.”
LeBeau played against the toughest of the tough and coached the toughest of the tough. He is one of many steeped in football who admire Dan’s toughness for reasons that have little to do with the sport.
Joe Mucci is also among those.
Mucci won 189 games (against just 45 losses) during a legendary high school coaching career in Western Pennsylvania. Mucci recalled the three times he attended performances of the West Point Glee Club that Dan arranged at Norwin for more than just their patriotic display and music.
“When Danny joined the Glee Club and West Point alumni to sing the alma mater there were people there that wanted to help him up to the stage,” Mucci said. “And he absolutely refused it. He wanted to walk and he made it up there. That was one of the most powerful things.”
So was Dan’s impact on one of the greatest seasons in Norwin football history, long after he played his final down for the Knights.
It came in 1999 when expectations were modest for a team that didn’t have many seniors and wasn’t stocked with future college players. Coach Tim McCabe had Dan talk to the team on several occasions and it embarked on a season for the ages.
The Knights were clinging to a slim lead late in their second playoff game when they lost a fumble deep in their own territory. Ringgold, best known as the alma mater of Joe Montana, moved inside Norwin’s 5-yard line with four downs to get what looked like a certain game-winning touchdown.
Dan had addressed the Knights before the game and told them about the principles that guided him as an Army Ranger. He talked of completing the mission, of never giving up no matter how bleak that mission looked.
Norwin stopped Ringgold all four times, securing the victory that sent the Knights to the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League semifinals for the first time in school history. Afterward, the players mobbed Dan in a jubilant locker room and referenced his speech and how it helped inspire them make the final stand.
Nearly 20 years later, McCabe still marvels at how the team he calls a “band of brothers” embodied Dan’s spirit.
“Not everybody makes their mark the same way,” McCabe said. “Danny made his just by being him.”
Three years ago, Dan received one of Norwin’s highest honors when superintendent Dr. William Kerr presented him with the Noble Knight Award.
It marked the third major award Dan received from Norwin within a year, including admission to the school’s athletic Hall of Fame and a Distinguished Alumni Award.
“He is so special,” Kerr said. “I just can’t say enough about his positive attitude and outlook on life. His story is remarkable and it’s one that needs to be shared.”
Kerr shared Dan’s story with another West Pointer, Evan Offstein, a retired military officer. Dan’s story particularly resonated with Offstein because his daughter had suffered life-threatening injuries after getting hit by a car while jogging. She, too, had chosen fight over flight after the accident and Offstein paid tribute to Dan when the latter received the Noble Knight Award.
He had Kerr present him with the book he wrote, “Stand Your Ground.”
“Dan is a living, breathing epitome of what it means to stand your ground, to refuse to give up, to fight for what’s right,” Offstein wrote in part of the inscription. “The story line of ‘Stand Your Ground’ is Dan and his remarkable tenacity and, of course, resolve.”
It had been 60-plus degrees in Irwin on March 5, 1985, and in a pre-Internet world there is no way Bill could have known about the ice storm that hit Hazleton. Yet that night at dinner, Bill told his wife Helen that he had an overwhelming sadness. Shortly after that they received a call from Debbie, who told them about the accident and the reality that Dan, at the age of 21, was fighting for his life.
What transpired since then is nothing less than inspirational if not miraculous. Bill wouldn’t be human if he didn’t experience sadness, though it has never consumed him.
“Every now and then I’ll see (Dan) walking slow and I say, ‘You know Lord, what he could have been and what he would have been.’ But I don’t let it bother me because I know I can’t change it,” he said. “And it doesn’t bother him. All he says is, ‘When I get to Heaven I’m going to have a new body.’ ”
Dan has no memory of the accident and the only thing that comes close to a concession of its terrible cost is his belief that his body will be whole again. A couple of his classmates are now generals and Dan may well have attained that status too had fate not intervened. But the next time someone hears Dan complain or ask why him will be the first time.
“Deep down I never wondered why because of my upbringing,” Dan said.
That upbringing included a strong faith and a supportive family, starting with Bill and Helen, who passed away in 2014. Both continue to sustain Dan. He reads the Bible every day and his favorite verse is Phillipians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
To most, Dan’s car accident changed everything. To him, it changed nothing, at least when it comes to core beliefs that coalesced at West Point.
That ties him to Krzyzewski – and is why the Priatkos attending a Duke game every season is as much a privilege to the coach who has won five national championships as it is to them.
“I would hope that if placed in a similar situation I could do the job (Bill) has done. It’s at the highest level,” said Krzyzewski, who has three daughters and eight grandchildren. “They’ve been a real team and I truly admire that. You talk about good people and Bill and Dan are at the top of the list.”