It has long defined Rick Puskar.
From the time he was a young athlete working with his father (the late Paul Puskar) to become a good baseball player, standout cross country runner and outstanding basketball player at Laurel Highlands High School and star basketball player at Waynesburg University, Puskar has believed in himself, his family and his faith.
As a husband and father, businessman, and for the last three-plus years as a patient of multiple myeloma cancer and the incurable amyloidosis, Puskar has exhibited a love for life and for others.
Just about every day — the good and bad ones — he reaches out to family and friends through text messaging or phone calls, receiving well wishes and hope from many who know him and those he has touched.
The saying: “You can’t keep a good man down” is a completely accurate way to describe Puskar. He leads his life and fights his illnesses and physical challenges, putting his struggles to the side and tending to the well-being of his family and friends first.
When one talks or texts with Puskar, one can count on shedding a tear, speaking of life and love, and most of all rejoicing.
It is hard to imagine being so upbeat while being challenged daily by cancer and amyloidosis (a rare disease that deposits proteins in his organs). He contends with endless appointments, blood tests, setbacks and disappointments.
Yet, there he stands — faithful, joyful, hopeful, courageous and amazing in every way.
“He is unbelievable,” said Darrin Walls, teammate of Puskar’s on the Waynesburg basketball team in the late 1980s. “Rick has taken (his illnesses) on. He takes it on every day. We text and we talk. It amazes me how he handles it all.
“His attitude and outlook are real, not made up. He’s faithful, always upbeat.”
He is also inspirational, Walls and many others said.
“My perspective changed since I found out about Rick’s health. I just love the guy and his family. He’s the model. He wakes up smiling. He is genuine. It’s not easy what he has gone through and goes through. I don’t know anyone like him. He’s the best I know,” said Walls.
Puskar had brain surgery in November that helped remove most of a benign pituitary tumor that was impacting the sight in his left eye. It was unrelated to the myeloma and amyloidosis — another challenge piled on.
Puskar said the tumor was “an anomaly, growing at 25 percent.” His doctor had never seen that kind of growth rate before, and he needed radiation treatments after the surgery, followed by five days of chemotherapy for several months.
“He told me the normal pituitary tumor grows at 2 percent to 3 percent,” Puskar said.
Before deciding on a radiation plan, he needed clearance from his nephrologist because of his kidney failure related to amyloidosis.
In a little more than four months, the tumor shrunk — which amazed his neurologist who was simply hoping to maintain it at its old size.
“It’s a day at a time,” Puskar said. “Some days are much better than others. I’m tired and my feet are numb from the chemo. It’s just hard to not be able to do what I used to do.”
A month ago, Puskar said the amyloidosis was being kept at bay and his kidney function was a little better (at stage 4 kidney disease) and the myeloma is in remission.
The 56-year-old takes a monthly infusion of Darzalex for the amyloidosis. His chemo treatment for the cancer was cut back because it’s in remission.
“I still have such a long road ahead of me,” he said, “but it’s nice to finally have a little bright news shine upon me.”
His Catholic faith, always a cornerstone of his life, sustains him.
“God is watching over me, and I’m faithful in my convictions to the Lord. The fatigue is rough, the chemo is rough, the nausea is not good, but God only gives us what we can handle,” he said. “I have my good days and bad days, but every day is a blessed one that the Lord grants me.”
Puskar enjoyed a fabulous business career. The finance major translated into an impactful position with Schneider Electric, which took him all over the world.
“It was on his trip to Singapore that he knew something was wrong,” his wife Lora Puskar said. “His legs swelled so badly. It was the first (significant) sign that something was wrong.”
The couple, who celebrated their 34th anniversary this week, finally got an answer in the first quarter of 2019 about Rick’s health — albeit one that left them shaken and stunned.
“When the doctor told him, ‘You have cancer,’ it was out of my realm of thought,” Lora Puskar said. “My heart sunk. I never imagined it. Not Rick. Our life changed in an instant.”
The feeling reverberated through his family and friends.
“It was a gut punch,” said Jennifer Garofalo, Rick’s younger sister by 13 years. “He’s such a good person. I asked, ‘Why him?’ He’s an incredible human being.”
Rick Puskar sought out clergy.
“He came to me,” said the Rev. Jerry Mikonis, pastor of St. Andrew the Apostle parish — which includes Charleroi, Donora and Monongahela. “We text each other and became prayer partners. Rick is such a man of deep faith.
“He and his wife come to church every Saturday and sit in the sacristy and listen. We bring them communion. He’s inspired me. His faith has held him together.”
Puskar’s son, Mike, said his father was ready to fight as soon as he was given the news. He hasn’t stopped since.
“He’s still there for me with anything I need to ask of him or anything else,” Mike Puskar said. “It gave me comfort and hope that he was ready for the battle.
“I know what he means to me and to so many other people. He has touched a lot of different lives by living the way he does.”
Garofalo summed it up: “I’ve been looking up to Rick since the day I was born.”
Always a Yellow Jacket
The morning of April 24, 2021 remains etched in Puskar’s memory.
Many of his friends, teammates and others who are part of the Waynesburg family surprised him with a visit to his Monongahela home. With severe challenges to his immune system, the global COVID-19 pandemic kept him at home and distanced from others.
“(The pandemic) changed how we lived,” Lora Puskar said. “Rick had to be careful being around anyone because he is so immune compromised. He must wear his mask all the time.”
That didn’t stop his Yellow Jackets friends from walking down his road and into a reunion that left just about everyone emotional.
“We all went to breakfast before going to Rick’s house,” explained Tim McConnell, Puskar’s roommate at Waynesburg and close friend. “We surprised him. Lora helped set it up.
“That day made us all feel good. Rick just wanted to talk with us. He took his mask off to speak and I remember Lora was like the mask police that day. She just didn’t want him to get exposed because he can’t afford to catch anything.”
Kevin Lee, another former teammate at Waynesburg, said the meeting was pivotal.
“It was a really nice day, an emotional day,” Lee said. “It proved the amount of respect and love he has from those guys and the love and respect he has for them.”
Harold Hamlin, another former Yellow Jackets teammate, said: “I broke down when I saw him standing there. He was crying. I was crying. It was an emotional moment and day. We talk and text a lot. There was nothing like seeing him.
“Rick’s a fighter. We all had to battle, literally and figuratively at Waynesburg just for playing time. He fights every day and I don’t know how he keeps his personality, his outlook and his willingness to face it. I hope God finds a way to get him better.”
A Real Joy
Anyone who knows or followed Puskar through his life, will talk about how intelligent and genuine he is.
“He’s always been this way,” his mother Joyce said. “Rick always cared about others more than himself. He was an excellent athlete and a good student. He always wanted to do better.”
The 6-foot-5 Puskar was a heavily recruited cross country runner, but his love for basketball won out. The left-hander blossomed during his senior season at Laurel Highlands, scoring 302 points while being named to the all-section team.
To get his skills and game noticed, he went to Penn State Fayette and played under coach Rick Hauger for the 1983-84 season. Puskar scored a then single-season team record 463 points, averaging 20.1 per game, and also led the team in rebounding with 187.
The plan worked. Legendary Waynesburg head coach Rudy Marisa recruited him, landing a gem who only enhanced the nationally recognized Yellow Jackets program.
By the time Puskar graduated, Marisa aptly concluded: “He is willing to give of himself to help others.”
Puskar was a two-time NAIA Academic All-American for the Yellow Jackets. He wasn’t just well-schooled in the classroom but also on the basketball court.
In his junior season, he ranked ninth in the country in field goal percentage, making 157 of 244 attempts — an eye-popping 64.3 percent from the field.
In his three-year career at Waynesburg, he scored 990 points and the Yellow Jackets had a record of 73-13. He was an honorable mention NAIA All-American player and was named to the All-District 18 team.
His teammates said he could have scored many more baskets but focused on wins, not points.
“He sacrificed his own statistics for the good of the team,” Walls said. “He was a great teammate. He could dribble, he could pass, and everyone knows he could shoot. Rick had it all but mostly what he had was a team-first attitude and an undying spirit. He also was a classic jokester. He is an unbelievable man. Nothing about him is made up. It’s all real.”
While he can no longer ride his bike miles at a time, Puskar and his wife take walks to the end of their street. They go out to eat occasionally, distancing themselves so not to risk any further health ramifications.
“In spite of it all, he wakes up every day singing,” Lora Puskar said. “He’s not a singer … but no matter what, he wakes up with a good, positive attitude each day. He inspires and amazes me every day.”
Puskar understands his road remains long and tenuous. His spirituality moves others and has changed his friends’ perspectives. He’s all in on his fight for survival and appreciates all the prayers that constantly come his way.
He will not relent. Not ever.
“The prayers are overwhelming, and they give me strength,” he said. “I am a firm believer in the power of prayer and it’s a most heartwarming experience to have the support of so many people that I refer to as the prayer legion.”
“As far as inspiring by my faith and attitude I believe that we all have choices in life. We can give up or know that God is helping us every day to overcome our problems. It’s up to me to give others hope that they too can prevail if they believe. It is a part of my DNA to want to help others and I’ll continue to do this in any way that I can to the very end. It’s what God expects of me.”
It’s the attitude he also expects from himself.