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Shorn to save

Valparaiso goalie and his team shed their locks in show of support for those fighting cancer

In an era where hair is “in,” Tom Serratore annually goes without.

The statement the Valparaiso goalkeeper makes by going under the clippers each spring isn’t born out of fashion but of passion: Serratore opts to shed his locks to honor children who’ve lost theirs to cancer.

It’s an interesting give for a soccer player who mans a position expected to save. It’s also interesting that the Southside Chicago native started shearing seven years ago because he thought it would be “cool.”

His high school in Tinley Park staged a head-shaving event through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation – the nation’s foremost volunteer organization dedicated to childhood cancer research – and the freshman saw it as a way to integrate with his peers. But Serratore also saw it as the proper thing to do.

Even as a 14-year-old, he was touched by cancer, having a friend whose father was afflicted. But what struck a chord was when a woman who came to the event talked about what St. Baldrick’s had meant to her young son. Two years later, the crusade became even more personal for Serratore when a high school buddy was diagnosed with leukemia. Serratore knew he had to keep shaving.

“Maybe I couldn’t be at his hospital bed every day, but I saw the St. Baldrick’s thing as a sign to show support,” he said.

This past April, Serratore shaved his head for a seventh straight year, making him a “Knight of the Bald Table,” a distinction reserved for those who have been shorn for seven consecutive years.

Serratore has woven St. Baldrick’s into the fabric of the Valpo soccer program. When he showed up as a freshman, he raised the idea to goalkeepers coach Jeff Oleck, who saw it both as good outreach and a unique team-building opportunity. Oleck said when he asked for a show of hands as to how many players had been affected by cancer in some way, about 95 percent of them went up.

The two Crusaders found a local barbershop and raised $5,000 that first year as a team. There were only about 25 people from the campus and community on hand, but now 300-plus attend the on-campus event.

“We were excited about it from the start, but as the team got more comfortable with what this was all about, we knew we could take it to a new level,” Serratore said.

Over the past two years, the Crusaders have raised almost $50,000. Valpo President Mark Heckler has participated two years running (St. Baldrick’s reports Heckler is the first college president to shear). Even Heckler’s wife, Veronica, got clipped this April.

For the players, it might not have been such a big deal if this was the 1990s when a lot of athletes sported chrome-domes anyway, but it’s heady stuff now for the guys who’ve become accustomed to long locks, especially in soccer.

“A lot of them when they’re told that the whole point is to shave your head, they’re like, really, my hair?” Serratore said. “We don’t force anyone to do this, so they all end up volunteering. But in many ways, giving up something as important as your hair illustrates to them the meaning of the gesture and the value of the initiative. It ends up not being hard for them to part with their hair.”

Oleck called Serratore “the model of a servant/leader.”

“Here at Valpo we talk a lot about being champions in the classroom, in the community and in competition, and Tom encompasses all of those,” Oleck said.

Serratore hopes to be a champion on the field this coming year. The redshirt junior has played behind a two-time Horizon League keeper of the year, but now is Serratore’s time to shine.

It would complete a long journey for a young man who was thrust into the net under odd circumstances as a kid. Serratore was proficient in baseball and soccer but eventually chose to spend more time playing on pitches than hitting them. He signed up for a local club team, the Chicago Magic, and rode the bench for a while as a field player until one game when the goalie didn’t show. The coach asked the kid next to Serratore to step in, but when he said, “No way,” the coach turned to Tom.

“Here I am, an 8-year-old who isn’t playing at all – of course I want in,” Serratore said. “So during the game, a shot comes to me and I catch the ball – I’m a baseball player, after all; that’s what you’re supposed to do – catch the ball. The other kids on the team were like, ‘You can catch the ball?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, what else do you do?’

“So from that day on, I was the goalie.”

Serratore has other goals, as well. He’s majoring in secondary education (kinesiology), but Valpo also allows students to create a minor, which for Tom is in nonprofit promotions/communications. He said he’s not sure whether he’ll pursue that over teaching, but he said when he works with St. Baldrick’s, he feels the passion.

“But both paths – teacher and nonprofit – are rare in a beneficial way because in both you give back every day,” he said. “I feel blessed to have the chance to help people every day, and I believe that’s what my calling is.

“I was lucky growing up – I had a house; I got things I liked; I got to play on a club team that is expensive; I went to great schools; and I didn’t go through cancer. My parents showed me that I’m a fortunate person, and that giving back was something important for all people to do.”

If Serratore can give back by being involved in research that saves lives, it could be perhaps his greatest save of all.