NC Combine 2023
New Canaan’s Chris Falsetta told a stadium full of community friends and supporters Sunday morning that his then 12-year-old daughter, Gracie, was diagnosed with leukemia almost exactly one year ago, on Oct. 13, 2022.
Since that time, many people have approached Falsetta and asked how the past year has been, he said.
“And I say, ‘It’s been incredible,’ and I usually get puzzled looks,” Falsetta said from midfield at Dunning Stadium under sunny, warm skies minutes before the 2023 N.C. Combine began. “ ‘What do you mean incredible?’ Well, it’s been incredibly tough, right? You know that. Living literally every parent’s worst nightmare. But it’s also been incredibly inspiring. I see the courage that Grace has facing a difficult path. And I see incredible people helping her through it, and I’m in awe.”
Falsetta’s community, the people of New Canaan, packed Dunning’s home stands for the Combine—an athletic competition between the local Police and Fire Departments that also brings in EMTs from New Canaan Emergency Medical Services and civilian members of the community. Held for the first time since the pandemic, this year’s event benefited the charity that the Falsetta family launched to assist kids undergoing cancer treatment and their families, The Gracie Fund for Pediatric Cancer. With donations, sponsorships and a silent auction that will run through Oct. 3, supporters had already raised $150,000 by the time starting line sponsor Plum Plums Cheese sounded the air horn to kick off the 2-hour event.
Organized by House of Telos owner Rebecca Kimball, the Combine saw New Canaan’s finest and bravest compete at a series of cardio and strength stations spaced throughout Dunning, vying for the title of winner as well as individual outstanding male and female athlete. Those volunteering to help with scorekeeping and other logistics include members of the NCHS Service League of Boys or SLOBs, NCHS varsity softball team and Sacred Heart University softball team.
“It’s a great turnout,” Police Chief John DiFederico said at the competition got underway. “We’re totally going to crush them today. Early results are in and we’re doing great. Fire doesn’t have a chance.”
As it turns out, though the Police Team won a best-of-three tug-of-war and both individual top athletes were from their squad—Emma Novick and Shane Gibson—the Fire Team won the day.
“Wow, I don’t know if I had that in DraftKings,” the inimitable Bill Brown, local king of one-liners, said over the PA as crowds moved from the silent auction table to concessions in the plaza at Dunning, and to the stands where they looked out on the athletes giving it their all for a good cause.
“Already tired,” Team Police member Officer Kelly Coughlin said moments after finishing her first leg of the Combine, a stint on an ergometer machine.
Asked what she did to prep for the event, Coughlin said she mixed workouts up among cardio, strength and endurance “because it’s a long event.”
Asked what made her put herself out there to compete, Coughlin said, “I think it’s a great show for the community. Obviously I want to support my fellow brother and sister officers and obviously it’s a great cause for the New Canaan community and for Gracie.”
Those in attendance included many local, state and national officials, as well as Dr. Stephanie Massaro, a pediatric hematologist, oncologist and palliative care provider at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital and associate professor of Pediatrics at Yale University School of Medicine who helped advise the Falsetta family on unmet needs in the pediatric cancer care community.
Falsetta himself cited Massaro’s help in addressing the crowd, noting that although, as she said in a video played on the big screen, pediatric cancer is rare, “it’s not rare enough.”
“In our community, three families in the last year have heard that their child has cancer,” Falsetta said. “Now that brings me to something else. Grace has a few special friends here today. Timmy, Alex, and Leah are here. And I would really appreciate it if we could give a round of applause for those great children. We are very, very proud of all of you. Our goal with the New Canaan Combine was first and foremost to create a community event, to do something positive, partner with our first responders, our civic leaders and our neighbors to show these children and families that we care. And I think we succeeded in that. Thank you to everybody here for that. We launched the Gracie Fund after I had a conversation with Dr. Massaro, and she explained to me how hard it was to fund the pain relieving pediatric cancer massage program. And this is for palliative care patients and hospice care patients, and I couldn’t wrap my head around that. You know, in this terrible fight against pediatric cancer, some of the needs out there, they just slip through the cracks. So, the Gracie Fund was created to help fill in those cracks. With the proceeds raised today, the Gracie Fund will launch that medical massage program. We’re going to launch a medication compliance program, and others. We’re going to help fill in those cracks. My promise to everybody here is that we are going to focus on unmet needs, get the money deployed without a ton of red tape, and we’re going to do this for sick children in our own backyard.”
What’s more, 98% of all monies raised will go directly to helping kids and their families, Falsetta said.
Though $150,000 had been raised before the Combine started, another $20,000 was needed to reach the goal, Falsetta said.
He continued, “I want to say a special thank you because there’s a family in town, the DePetris family, said that they would split with everybody here today. They’re going to match the first $10,000 donated here today. That will get us to our goal.”
For many in attendance, the creation of The Gracie Fund and the community’s response to the Combine in support of the great cause was a testament to the special place that New Canaan is.
“My experience in the community is that it always steps up and helps,” New Canaan High School Athletic Director Jay Egan said from the sidelines. “It’s a helping group. When things happen, people come together and support. So I’m pleased but I’m not surprised that the community showed up like this.”
O’Dea said he was up at 5:30 a.m. to travel back down from visiting his son at Rhode Island to be present for the Combine.
“Just look around,” he said. “It’s just a phenomenal community that is unmatched in Connecticut and frankly the U.S. It’s just great that everybody came together for children’s cancer. Such a great cause.”
Kimball in her remarks to the crowd said she was “completely blown away” by the turnout.
“I want to just quickly say thank you to the athletes, to all the volunteers who are helping us out,” she said. “This is definitely an orchestra.”
She specifically thanked Brown, Egan, Falsetta and the board members of The Gracie Fund for their help in organizing the large event this year.
Local and state officials in attendance included Police Commissioner Paul Foley, Town Council Chair Steve Karl, Councilmen Rita Bettino, Hilary Ormond and Mike Mauro (competing), state Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125th), state Sen. Ryan Fazio (R-36th), Board of Education Chair Katrina Parkhill, Board of Ed member Hugo Alves, Board of Finance member and first selectwoman candidate Amy Murphy Carroll, first selectman candidate Dionna Carlson and Connecticut Attorney General William Tong.
Mauro after opening the competition with a football-throwing and -catching competition that also involved running, called the Combine “fantastic.”
“We’ll see how I feel after the more strenuous events, but this was a nice start,” he added with a smile.
The Combine opened with a stirring introduction from New Canaan’s Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo, a national sports radio personality who often gives of his time to support local causes.
In thanking the larger community, Russo said, “It’s what makes it such a great town is we all rally around situations that can be troubling.”
“We all have each other’s back and again I’ve lived here for 30 years, I know that better than anybody,” he said.
Russo added, “And from a donation perspective, we have three children here in New Canaan who are going to have an illness right now. And there’s an awful lot of things you have to do with family and finances and all that. I used to do the radio-a-thon for the Hackensack Medical Center. And I understood, talking to all the families, how much money it takes when you have a kid who’s not well. So any donation you can make today to help the periphery of the health issues would be much appreciated.”
In addition to Plum Plums Cheese and House of Telos, local sponsoring businesses included JMG Insurance. Michael Riahi, who owns Plum Plums Cheese with his wife, Gayle Martin, said when asked about the event that it was “just incredible.”
“What a great supportive community and everybody getting together for a great cause,” he said.
Blumenthal addressed the crowd after the event had gotten underway, and noted from the 50-yard-line that “this field is filled with heroes.”
“It’s filled with the police and fire heroes who put their lives on the line every day,” Blumenthal said. “It’s filled with the docs and the nurses and the counselors and therapists who do so much for kids who have to go through this terrible experience of cancer, and of course other kids who have lived through it, they are heroes as well. All of you who are participating today, you are heroes because you are supporting this great cause that Chris and all his family are raising awareness about today, so that America will do more for oncology and research to conquer this dreaded disease. We’re going to win this fight against cancer.”
During halftime, Saxe Middle School athletes from New Canaan’s youth football and softball programs squared off in their own competition at the 50-yard-line.
Falsetta, asked during the halftime intermission how he felt about how the day was going, said, “Blessed, that’s how I feel.”
“I think this is incredible,” Falsetta said. “It makes me so thankful that I have a community like this around me. The turnout is incredible. The athletes are great. People are having fun. I just couldn’t be happier.”