When Dante Coccia Jr. was chosen to receive a Shining Star Award, presented by Philadelphia Phillie Ryan Madson, the Coccia family, from Broad Street and Oregon Avenue, knew it was fate.
“My dad always had the Phillies games on, which made [being paired with the Phillies] really, really even more special,” Marla Coccia, Dante’s mother, said of her father who passed four years ago. “My husband would have loved any of these teams – because he loves the Eagles. He’s a football fan. But to my mom and my sister, this is very special to us.”
The charity awards, presented by the Wanamaker Ticket Office, will be hosted by Comcast SportsNet tomorrow in Center City and benefit the March of Dimes. Dante, along with three other children who “represent the urgent mission and needs” of the March of Dimes will receive an award, each presented by a member of the four major Philadelphia sports teams.
In addition to Madson, the 76ers’ Evan Turner, Eagles’ Brent Celek and Flyers’ James van Riemsdyk will be in attendance.
“We were honored [to be chosen] and we are surprised,” Coccia, whose family has had a long relationship with the March of Dimes since Dante was born nearly 17 weeks premature and weighed only 1 pound, 7 ounces, said. “We never did anything to expect to get anything in return.”
After Dante received intensive care, some of which had come to fruition out of research done by the March of Dimes, the Coccia family began participating in the charity’s annual fundraising walk in 2003. Dante, who was born in ’01, has participated with his family in ’03, ’04 and ’05.
“Well, he was excited. He really was,” Coccia said of a September meeting between Dante and Madson, where the pitcher showed the family around Citizen’s Bank Park, One Citizens Bank Way, and then gave them tickets to the day’s game. “You know, he’s not a typical 9-year-old. He didn’t realize how special and how tremendous that experience was. He didn’t take it for granted — he loves being honored and praised. He’s all about getting rewarded. Just knowing he was special that day — it was a big special thing.”
Marla Coccia’s family is from 23rd Street and Snyder Avenue. Her husband, Dante, grew up in the house that his family — which includes Nicholas, 2, and Vienna, 19 months — lives in to this day.
“My husband, being a police officer, he plays on a semi-pro football team and they play other police and fire teams in other different states,” Coccia, 39, said. “They donate money at the end of the year. They usually pick a charity involved with police, like PAL [the Police Athletic League]. And they wanted to pick a third and they decided … on the March of Dimes.
“We didn’t do [the walk] that one year, and they donated for us in Dante’s name. Something like a $5,000 check a year. It kept us active.”
Being active with the March of Dimes began with Dante’s birth and the subsequent births of the two youngest in the Coccia family. While Nicholas and Vienna had healthy term pregnancies, they were aided by precautions set in place by the March of Dimes, a charity that works to help moms have healthy full-term pregnancies and researches problems that threaten babies’ health. The Coccia family was recognized in ’05 as an outstanding participant in the annual event, the March for Babies, in Pennsylvania.
“We were the top family, we raised $12,000,” Coccia said of the third and final walk the family completed. “We were the top family in Pennsylvania, that last year we had like 60 people. The team name was Team Dante Coccia Philadelphia.
“We do have a big family support system because of both sides of the family.”
Dante’s premature birth came with many complications, including retinopathy of prematurity that caused total blindness in his left eye and a blood clot on his brainstem that led to a diagnosis at age 2 of cerebral palsy. Since birth, Dante has had multiple types of therapy, and most recently began horseback riding, which Coccia said has caused a remarkable change for the better in her son.
“The difference we saw in his balance and overall natural gate, walking in general,” Coccia said. “When you’re riding a horse it works every muscle in the body. Trains the brain to feel going back and forth and shifting side to side.”
Today, at age 9, Dante is happy and healthy, and much more verbal than other children of similar circumstances. Coccia and her husband have kept Dante in mainstream schools and he now attends Abigail Vare School, 1621 E. Moyamensing Ave., where he is in an autistic support class.
“He is very verbal now. He still gets confused with wording things in his speech. He has come a long way,” Coccia said.
The family learned of tomorrow’s event last summer and had to make a tough decision of who to bring with them. As far as Dante’s performance, Coccia is not too concerned about having him in the bright lights, but worries just as any 9-year-old’s mother would.
“I don’t want him to give Ryan Madson a hard time,” she said.
In addition to the distinction and the chance to meet a Phillies star, the biggest blessing for the Coccia family is simply the opportunity to share another day with a son they weren’t sure was going to live beyond day one.
“We got the best of both worlds. We have children that are typical. We have a child that does things that amaze us and makes us think he is the best thing around,” Coccia said. “He sure deserves [this award]. He’s been through more things than most of us have gone through in our life, let alone a 9-year-old boy. He’s such a determined little boy.” SPR