Two profiles in courage, Maine style

Posted Dec. 03, 2010, at 9:12 p.m.

Stories of Mainers inspiring Mainers are in the news on a near-daily basis, but two recent profiles in courage will not soon be forgotten.

Nine-year-old Matthew Drisko of Addison, a mere 8 years old when he saved his lobsterman grandfather from drowning off the Washington County coast, was cited by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with its certificate of valor honoring heroes who risk their lives to save others.

Sixteen-year old Zach Cote of Limestone, an athlete who lost a leg to cancer a year ago and is now back competing in sports at Limestone Community School, will be honored Dec. 15 during the home opener of the varsity basketball team, of which he is a member. The game will serve as a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, and Cote’s story will get national coverage on ESPN.

The Drisko boy’s experience is the stuff of legend. On cold, raw May 29, 2009, the boy and his grandfather, 55-year old Lester Drisko, set out for a day of lobster fishing off Beals Island, Matthew baiting the traps after his grandfather had pulled and emptied them. As Drisko shoved a newly baited trap overboard, his leg became ensnarled in the trap line and he was dragged deep into the 44-degree ocean water.

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When he surfaced after getting free of the line, he was an estimated 100 yards from the boat. Matthew maneuvered the 34-foot vessel near his struggling grandfather, grabbed the hood of the fisherman’s sweatshirt, and attempted to haul him aboard. He failed because “I was way too heavy for him,” the elder Drisko told reporter Sharon Kiley Mack.

Matthew removed his own life jacket and fastened it around his grandfather’s neck. “There’s a boat way over there, Bampy,” the youngster told his grandfather. Then, although reluctant to leave Drisko, he piloted the boat through choppy seas to the fishing boat about a quarter-mile away to get help. At first, the boat crew couldn’t comprehend why a little boy would be operating such a big boat, Drisko said. And then Matthew hollered, “My grandfather is in the water.”

Lobsterman Lester Faulkingham followed the boy to Drisko, pulled the fisherman aboard his boat and towed Drisko’s boat to Jonesport. “We went home and Matthew filled the bathtub with hot water. He kept asking me if I was all right. I got in my recliner and he covered me up. He never took his eyes off me,” said Drisko, who subsequently named his boat Bamp’s Hero in honor of his grandson.

The shy youngster didn’t have much to say at his award ceremony. He had “worried a lot” during the incident, he acknowledged. “I guess some people think I’m a hero. People talked about it at school and said, ‘Nice job.’” Grandfather said grandson doesn’t consider himself a hero, believing he “just did what he had to do.”

Cote, a junior at Limestone Community School and a member of the varsity soccer, basketball and baseball teams, learned in November 2009 that what doctors had believed was a cyst on his left ankle was, in fact, cancer. The leg was amputated below the knee, and the son of Mike and Lori Cote moved on with his life, his positive attitude in the face of adversity a marvelous thing for schoolmates and townspeople to behold.

He began physical therapy, and in February was fitted for a prosthetic leg. He missed the basketball season, but attended every practice and during games sat on the bench, in uniform. This past spring he played baseball with the contagious enthusiasm the game demands. In autumn he was back at his position as a sweeper on the soccer team. And now he has returned to the basketball court, eager to compete.

“He is a total fighter,” teammate Josh Forsman said of Cote. “If anything, he is more aggressive on the field and the court now. When I see him out there working so hard despite all that he has gone through, it makes me want to bump up my game,” Forsman told BDN reporter Jen Lynds. Other teammates are awed by Cote’s upbeat approach to life.

Like Matthew Drisko, Cote shuns the hero label. Thankful for the support of family, school and community, he advises others facing cancer to think positively. “You could always be worse off. Don’t make molehills into mountains,” he counsels.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.com.

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